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Power of Babel Ch 5. Language in a Multicultural Context: The African Experience. Widespread languages in Africa. Arabic (helped by Islam) Hausa & Kiswahili (most widespread indigenous languages, hindered by Islam) English, French & Portuguese have largest influence

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Power of babel ch 5

Power of Babel Ch 5

Language in a Multicultural Context: The African Experience

Widespread languages in africa
Widespread languages in Africa

  • Arabic (helped by Islam)

  • Hausa & Kiswahili (most widespread indigenous languages, hindered by Islam)

  • English, French & Portuguese have largest influence

  • More languages per capita than any other continent; Africa has 1/10 of world population, but 1/4 of its languages

Africa s triple linguistic heritage
Africa’s triple linguistic heritage:

  • Indigenous African languages

  • Islamic tradition

  • Western contribution

Typology of languages in africa
Typology of languages in Africa:

  • Afro-ethnic: indigenous languages, between 800 and 2000 of them

  • Afro-Islamic: Arabic (over 60% of Arabic speakers are African); E Africa: Swahili, Somali, Nubi; W Africa: Hausa, Fulfulde, Mandinka

  • Afro-Western: Kriyol, Pidgin, Krio (Sierra Leone), Fanagalo, Afrikaans

  • Western: English, French, Portuguese -- sometimes these can be nativized


  • Colonial efforts to provide Roman script have helped preserve Afro-ethnic languages

  • Amharic has an ancient written tradition

  • Some indigenous scripts were invented -- Bamoun (logographic > syllabographic > alphabetic) in Cameroon & Vai (logographic > syllabographic) in Sierra Leone

Writing cont d
Writing, cont’d.

  • Afro-Islamic: Arabic has ancient written tradition - these languages were written using Arabic script, but now most Afro-Islamic languages use Roman script

  • Afro-Western: Afrikaans uses Roman script, but most other Afro-Western languages lack a standard orthography


  • Amharic, a descendant of Ge’ez, has ancient tradition dating from BCE

  • Afro-ethnic languages tend to have oral tradition instead

  • Afro-Islamic languages have major religious poetry tradition that is both oral and written

  • Afro-Western languages have very little in the way of literary tradition

Geographical distribution
Geographical distribution

  • Western languages have widest geographical spread in Africa

  • Arabic has more speakers than any other language in Africa

  • English is expanding the most

  • Over 20 African countries use French as their main language

Geographical distribution cont d
Geographical distribution, cont’d.

  • Afro-Western languages tend to be national and trans-national

  • Afro-Ethnic languages are usually subnational

  • Afro-Islamic languages are virtually all national or transnational

Transnational languages
Transnational languages

  • Kiswahili -- transnational lingua franca of E and Central Africa and national language of Tanzania and Kenya; for most of its speakers, it is a 2nd or 3rd language

  • 5 top lingua francas in terms of number of speakers: Arabic, Kiswahili, Hausa, Fulfulde, Mandinka

Demographic distribution
Demographic distribution

  • English & French are limited to urban educated population

  • Afro-ethnic languages tend to be rural & associated with lower classes

  • Afro-Islamic languages tend to be urban, with rural varieties, and based on urban masses (not elite), and they facilitate migration from rural to urban areas

  • Afro-Western languages also associated with the urban masses, except Afrikaans, which is elitist

English as an african language
English as an African language

  • English is spoken by more Africans than French

  • Liberia is home of the first Afro-Saxonism, since 1820s the home of African-American returnees

  • British colonized Nigeria, largest African country, with 25% of black population of all of Africa

Categorization of countries in relation to english
Categorization of countries in relation to English

A: English is the language of society & state: Liberia (Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana)

B: English is the language of state, but not of society: Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and some 15 other African countries

Categorization of countries in relation to english cont d
Categorization of countries in relation to English, cont’d.

C: English is the language of neither state nor society, but people need English: Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Angola, Egypt, Cameroon, Congo (Japan, Mexico)

D: Societies that rely mainly on a world language other than English for their specialized activities: Francophone African countries

Three uses of languages
Three uses of languages: cont’d.

Vernacular: intra-ethnic communication and solidarity: Afro-ethnic languages

Vehicular: inter-ethnic communication and integration: Afro-Islamic & Afro-Western languages

Official: administration and national communication: Western languages

More about western languages
More about Western languages cont’d.

  • Western languages are beginning to trickle down from upper classes

  • Tanzania is replacing English with Kiswahili, and the two languages compete in Kenya

  • Arabic is being challenged by French

  • Afro-ethnic languages have demonstrated resilience and held their ground.

  • Africans tend to be multilingual

Foreign relations vs religions
Foreign Relations vs. Religions cont’d.

  • Language has been a greater determinant of foreign policy than religion because:

    • Policy is made by elite, with Western languages

    • Western languages are more useful for learning foreign affairs than religions

    • Education of elite in West does not depend on religion

    • African nations are grouped by Western language heritage, not by religion