What is the most iconic language on the African continent? The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Some people will say it’s English, while others may say Arabic.
In reality, there are over 2000 languages spoken throughout Africa, and each one of them has something special about them that makes it unique. This article will explore 9 Indigenous languages that have interesting stories behind their origins and their speakers!
9 Magnetic African Languages Worth Exploring
Table of Contents
Kiswahili is a Bantu language spoken in many East African countries. It’s the most prominent and widely spoken African language, with over 100 million speakers using it as a first or second language worldwide.
Swahili has been influenced by Arabic, Persian, Portuguese and English languages over time. It was initially written in Arabic script but changed to Latin letters after independence from British rule in 1962.
As a result of all this influence on its development, Swahili is considered one of the newest languages spoken today – and maybe the most interesting! It’s also a lingua franca across East Africa, with speakers dating back over 500 years!
There are four main dialects to Swahili:
- Eastern Coastal Swahili- in Kenya and Tanzania.
- Central Swahili- mainly in Uganda.
- Pemba Island Swahili- on the island of Zanzibar near Tanzania
- Western Swahili- around Lake Victoria.
It’s also closely related to other languages like Kikuyu, Luganda or Kinyarwanda – all part of the same ‘Bantoid’ group. Swahili also influences other languages in the region, like Afrikaans and Somali.
Zulu is the most spoken language in South Africa and is one of the official languages. It has over 12 million speakers, with a high percentage being monolingual.
The Zulu people are proud of their cultural heritage and identity, which centres on family values, respect for elders, harmony between different groups, and self-reliance.
It has been studied for centuries, and several dialects have evolved from it; these include Swazi, Ndebele, Tsonga, and Xhosa. The language is written with Latin letters but pronounced using clicks and other sounds often associated with African tribes.
In the Yoruba language, there are over 20 dialects, and over 50 million people speak this language. The largest concentration of speakers is in West Africa, mainly Nigeria. There are many variations to the Yoruba language, but mostly they’re spoken by older people as it is a dying dialect due to globalisation.
It originated from an Akan word which means “to keep talking” or “the talkative ones.” The people who speak this language call themselves “Yorubas” or “people of Yoru”, which is equivalent to Yoruba-speaking people.
Yoruba is not only spoken by them but also by other Africans such as the Edo people who speak it alongside their native tongue Oshogbo Otura, which means “long speech.”
Yoruba uses an indigenous writing system called Oje or “the way” developed from pictographs into syllabic script during the 11th century AD; however, since it wasn’t widely used outside West Africa, scholars opted to use Latin letters for this language’s orthography instead.
Shona has over 12 million speakers in Zimbabwe and another 2 million in Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries of Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa and Botswana.
The name “Shona” comes from the word for “people” or “human beings.” There are few written records of the language before colonisation by Europeans, but it seems to have been heavily influenced by a neighbouring group called the Kalanga.
Most people who speak Shona use it as their primary language; however, some also speak English because of colonialism in Africa and an increase in trade with other countries like South Africa.
It was first written down by a European, Robert Moffat, who was a missionary in southern Africa during the 1800s. The language later developed a written form called Shona Roman Orthography, and this is the current writing system in use.
Shona has been widely used in Zimbabwe and Mozambique as a symbol of national unity. It plays a significant role in music, poetry, dance, religious observances and other aspects of culture.
Its roots are traced back to the 13th century, when trade routes were established between present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe. Today there are over 35 dialects spoken across Southern Africa, but Shona remains the most prominent.
Amharic is a Semitic language that originates from the Ethiopian region. It’s one of the most prominent languages on the African continent and has over 18 million speakers worldwide, making it the 11th most spoken in Africa. The Amharic alphabet was developed, like many other alphabets in history, to write down different sounds that were previously used for verbal communication only.
Amharic is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea for centuries, making it a key to learning about Ethiopian culture. Amharic is closely related to Ge’ez, the ancient language of Christian scripture.
Many people confuse Amharic with Arabic because it also has Semitic roots and shares some similarities in writing like consonantal structure or similar vowel patterns. Still, Amharic belongs to a different group within the Afro-Asiatic region. The main difference between them is more than just how they’re written; there are words for objects specific to Ethiopian culture which don’t appear in Arabic.
Amharic’s origins can be traced back at least four thousand years ago (before 2000 B.C.). From this perspective, Amharic is one of the oldest living languages on the African continent.
In Ethiopia, Amharic has been spoken in several dialects depending on where you go. Some individual words carry across all varieties, which makes it a key to learning about Ethiopian culture. The Amhara people are its most prominent speakers and other ethnic groups like Tigrayans and Gurages, who account for approximately 80% of the population.
Igbo is the third most spoken language in Africa and one of the major languages on the African continent. It’s a tonal language, which means that there are different tones for every word meaning it can be difficult to correctly speak if you’re not used to it. Igbo has many dialects due to its spread across Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Central Africa.
It belongs to the same Niger-Congo family as Twi, Yoruba and Hausa, making it an ideal choice for those who want to learn African languages or enjoy a better understanding of this continent.
The nature of sound changes depending on what syllable comes before or after it. For example, consonant clusters are frequent at word boundaries where they are not possible elsewhere since there will always be vowel sounds between them.
Word meaning can change drastically based on context so that words with totally different meanings may rhyme completely while having no connection otherwise from a grammatical point.
The Igbo people have migrated from a land called ‘Ile-Ife’ located in modern-day Yorubaland in Africa. The first written account of Igbo dates back to 1750 BC, when early inhabitants passed down legends through oral tradition about their origins.
Igbos are said to have migrated from Ile-Ife, located in modern-day Yorubaland, which was part of the ancient Kingdom called Benin Empire. They were slaves for many years until their emancipation after World War II.
There are about 20 distinct dialects within Igbo with various pronunciations, but the written form is standardised across all dialect groups as far back as 1842 when missionaries introduced it. It has been estimated that there may be more than 40-50 million speakers worldwide, making it one of the most populous African tongues!
Hausa is an African language that has been spoken for centuries. The people of Hausa are found in northeastern Nigeria, Niger, and northern Cameroon. Though it is a minority language in each country, it remains one of the most prominent languages on the continent due to its use as a lingua franca by speakers of other languages (e.g., Yoruba) who live close by or interact with speakers of Hausa.
The language originated from the Hausa people, who are believed to have migrated south from what is now northern Ghana. Muslims and non-Muslims spoke the language in Hausaland, which makes up most of present-day Nigeria.
As a trade route for gold and ivory expanded over time, Hausa became an essential part of West African culture. It spread into many other countries like Senegal or Cameroon.
Hausa has many similarities to Arabic and Swahili as it is written in Arabic lettering and contains many Islam-related words like “Allah”. Hausa also has its alphabet: Ajami.
With over 60 million speakers in Nigeria and Niger, It’s also one of the fastest-growing languages in West Africa, where an estimated 45 million people speak it.
It’s hard to imagine that such a widespread language still has not been recognised as an official national or regional language anywhere in the world – but this may be about to change!
The Hausa are currently lobbying for their language to be accepted as a national or regional tongue in countries like Nigeria (where they account for up to 40% of the population), Chad, Mali and Cameroon.
The Oromo people are often referred to as a “lost tribe”, but this couldn’t be any farther from the truth. They’re one of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups and makeup about 25% of its population.
Oromo is a language spoken by over 35 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. It’s one of the most prominent languages on the African continent, with speakers spanning from as far south as Tanzania to as far north as Egypt.
The Oromo people are an ancient culture that has existed for over two thousand years. They are based primarily in East Africa and spread to other countries, including Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen.
One of the main characteristics of their language is its tonal quality, which distinguishes it from English or Amharic (Ethiopian) and some Arabic dialects. In addition to this unique characteristic, there are several different variations on how to pronounce words depending on what context they’re used in – whether they’re being written or spoken aloud.
The Oromo culture is rich with customs passed down for hundreds of years, including their traditional dances, which are performed at celebrations such as weddings or birthdays. Their family life is also essential to them, so they typically live in large extended families called “Gadaa”.
The Xhosa language is a Bantu language spoken primarily by the Xhosa people in South Africa, where it is one of the 11 official languages. With about 8 million speakers.
It’s said to be one of the most prominent languages on the African continent, as it has its unique writing system called the Xhosa alphabet and six letter-vowel combinations.
The Xhosa language uses a Latin script with some additional symbols to represent various sounds not found in English or other European languages. The Xhosa language also has many loan words from other African languages, making it one of Africa’s most culturally diverse languages.
Xhosa was first written by European missionaries around 1820 to communicate with locals who couldn’t read Latin script well enough to follow bible teachings.
By now, you may have a better appreciation of the diversity in Africa and be able to see how African languages connect so intimately with their culture. You may also want to learn more about these diverse cultures yourself!
Whether it’s by chatting up locals on your next trip or exploring one of the many resources online dedicated to African studies, there are endless ways for you to get involved and explore this extraordinary continent from afar.
If not, we hope that our brief introduction has at least given you some food for thought as well as an opportunity to share what interests you most about Africa with others who might not know much about it themselves yet. We would love if this post inspired even just a few people out there reading along today!