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Niger-Congo Language Family 

niger-congo

Introduction

The Niger-Congo language family is one of the largest language families in the world and the largest one in Africa in terms of its geographical spread across most of sub-Saharan Africa, number of speakers, and the number of languages (1514). Almost all of the most widely spoken languages of sub-Saharan Africa belong to the Niger-Congo family, and about 600 million people (85% of Africa’s population) speak a Niger-Congo language.

There is no consensus among scholars about the origins and historical development of the Niger-Congo languages. The earliest evidence of a Niger-Congo language dates back to Portuguese records of the 16th century. However, few grammars were published prior to the 19th century although the first known grammar of an African language (Kongo) was written by an Italian missionary in 1659. A number of dictionaries and grammars appeared in the 19th century. They were written mostly by European missionaries who often lacked the linguistic training necessary to analyze languages that had little in common with their own. With a few exceptions, the resulting descriptions forced these languages into an ill-fitting Latin straitjacket.

Determining the number of languages in this family is complicated by the fact that it is often difficult to decide, in the absence of written historical records, whether two language varieties are two dialects of the same language or two separate languages.

There are several problems in classifying languages of the Niger-Congo family — a very large and extremely diverse group of languages that have been splitting from each other for thousands of years. First and foremost, is the lack of historical records that date back more than several hundred years. Second, very limited knowledge about a great many of the languages makes it extremely difficult to reconstruct their common ancestry.

The Niger-Congo language family is usually divided into several major branches that are estimated to have split from the ancestral language some 5,000 years ago. Some of the branches are closer to each other than others because they split from the ancestral language at different times. The majority of languages in these branches have small populations of speakers, with a significant percentage of them averaging only several thousand people. Large numbers of languages are often found clustered together in relatively small geographic areas.

The table below lists the most populous languages of the Niger-Congo family belonging to some of its different branches.

Benue-Congo (961 languages)
Swahili 773,000 1st- and 30 million 2nd-language speakers Tanzania
Yoruba 19.3 million 1st- and 2 million 2nd-language speakers Nigeria
Igbo 18 million Nigeria
Shona 10.6 million 1st- and 1.8 million 2nd- or 3rd-language speakers Zimbabwe
Zulu 9.5 million 1st- and 15.7 million 2nd-language speakers South Africa
Nyanja (Chichewa) 7 million 1st-language and 400,000 2nd-language speakers Malawi
Kinyarwanda (Rwanda) 7.3 million Rwanda
Xhosa 7.2 million South Africa
Luba-Kasai 6.3 million 1st- and 700,000 2nd-language speakers Democratic Republic of the Congo
Gikuyu (Kikuyu) 5.3 million Kenya
Southern Sotho 4.9 million Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa
Rundi (Kirundi) 4.8 million Burundi
Tswana 4.4 million Botswana
Umbundu 4 million Angola
Northern Sotho 3.7 million South Africa
Tsonga 3.2 million South Africa
Ganda (Luganda) 3 million 1st-language and 1 million 2nd-language speakers Uganda
Lingala 2 million 1st-language and 5 million 2nd-language speakers Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo
Mbundu 3 million Angola
Kamba 2.4 million 1st-language and 600,000 2nd-language speakers Kenya
Tiv 2.2 million Nigeria
Ibibio 1.5 to 2 million Nigeria
Swati (Swazi) 1.7 million Swaziland
Ndebele 1.6 million Zimbabwe
Soga 1.3 million Uganda
Tumbuka 1.3 million Guinea
Nyamwezi 1.2 million Tanzania
Koongo 1 million Democratic Republic of the Congo
Chokwe 1 million Democratic Republic of the Congo
Atlantic (64 languages)
Fula 12 million Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Benin, Guinea, Senegal
Wolof 3.6 million Senegal
Serer-Sine 1.2 million Senegal, Gambia
Themne 1.2 million Sierra Leone
Mande (71 languages)
Pular 2.9 million Guinea
Bambara (Bamanankan) 2.8 million Mali
Maninkakan, Eastern 2 million Guinea
Mende 1.5 million Sierra Leone
Mandinka 1.2 million Senegal
Jula 1.2 million 1st-language and 3-4 million 2nd-language speakers Burkina Faso
Soninke 1.1 million Mali
Tura-Dan-Mano 1.1 million Liberia, Côte-d’Ivoire
Susu 1 million Guinea
Ebira 1 million Nigeria
Edo 1 million Nigeria
Nupe-Nupe-Tako 800,000 Nigeria
Igala 800,000 Nigeria
Gur (96 languages)
Mòoré 5 million Bourkina Faso, Ghana, Togo
Senari 1.1 million Côte-d’Ivoir, Burkina Faso, Mali
Dagaare, Southern 1 million Ghana
Dagbani 800,000 Ghana
Baatonum 560,000 Benin
Kwa (80 languages)
Akan 8.3 million 1st- and 1 million 2nd- language speakers Ghana
Éwé 3.1 million 1st- and 500,000 2nd-language speakers Ghana
Ijoid (10)
Izon 1 million Nigeria
Kru (39 languages)
Bété 446,000 Côte-d’Ivoire
Dida 203,,000 Côte-d’Ivoire
Adamawa-Ubangi (158 languages)
Zande 1.1 million Democratic Republic of the Congo
Gbaya 580,000 Central African Republic
Creoles
Kituba 4.2 million 1-st language and 800,000 2nd-language speakers Democratic Republic of the Congo
Sango 404,000 1st-language and 1.6 million 2nd-language speakers Central African Republic

For a complete listing of all Niger-Congo languages consult Ethnologue.

Status
The colonial regimes that had governed much of the African continent left a lasting imprint on the status of the languages of the African countries. In post-colonial Africa, indigenous languages have rarely been constitutionally accorded official status. By and large, the only official languages accorded this position in post-colonial Africa are the colonial languages. A survey of African countries in which Niger-Congo languages are spoken shows that all of them list EnglishFrench, or Portuguese as their official or co-official languages despite the fact that the majority of their populations speak indigenous languages.

The languages listed below and many others that are not listed here are taught in primary and secondary schools. Only a few are used as a medium of instruction at the university level. Some are used in the electronic and print media, and many have a thriving literature.

Angola PortugueseKoongoMbunduChokweMbundaKwanyama
Benin French
Botswana EnglishTswana
Burkina Faso French
Burundi EnglishRundi
Cameroon EnglishFrench
Central African Republic FrenchSango
Congo LingalaKitubaFrench
Democratic Republic of the Congo KoongoLingalaLuba-KasaiCongo SwahiliFrench
Côte d’Ivoire French
Gabon French
Gambia English
Ghana English
Guinea French, regional languages: Northern KissiGuinea KpelleEastern ManinkakanPularSusuToma
Guinea-Bissau Portuguese
Kenya EnglishSwahili
Lesotho Southern SothoEnglish
Liberia English
Malawi Nyanja (Chewa), TumbukaEnglish
Mali French, Bambara (Bamanankan)BomuTiéyaxo BozoToro So DogonMaasina FulfuldeArabic,Mamara SenoufoKita ManinkakanSoninkeKoyraboro Senni SonghaySyenara Senoufo, Tamasheq, Xaasongaxango.
Mozambique Portuguese
Namibia English, regional languages: DirikuHereroKwangaliKwanyamaLoziMbukushuNamaNdonga,Tswana
Niger FrenchArabicFulfuldeGourmanchémaHausaManga KanuriTamajaqZarma
Nigeria EdoEfikAdamawa FulfuldeHausaIdomaIgboCentral Kanuri, YorubaEnglish
Rwanda KinyarwandaEnglishFrench
Senegal Balanta-GanjaArabicJola-FonyiMandinkaMandjakMankanyaNoonPulaarSerer-SineSoninke,WolofFrench
Sierra Leone English
South Africa AfrikaansNdebeleNorthern SothoSouthern SothoSwatiTsongaTswanaVendaXhosaZulu,English
Swaziland SwatiEnglish
Tanzania SwahiliEnglish
Togo ÉwéKabiyéFrench
Uganda English
Zambia English, regional languages: MbukushuNyanja (Chewa)
Zimbabwe English

 

Dialects

Do you know some information on dialects of the Niger-Congo language family? Let us know and we’ll add them here!

Structure

Sound system
It is difficult to make generalizations about the sound systems of the Niger-Congo languages due to their diversity, their large number, and the fact that little is known about a great many of them.

Vowels
Niger-Congo vowel systems share several distinguishing features:

  • Syllable structure
    Syllables in Niger-Congo languages typically end in a vowel or nasal consonant. Consonant clusters are rare or nonexistent.
  • Vowel harmony 
    Most Niger-Congo languages have two sets of vowels: one set is pronounced with an advanced tongue root [+ATR], the other set is pronounced with a retracted tone root [-ATR]. Advanced tongue root is produced by moving the base of the tongue forward during the pronunciation of a vowel. This adds abreathy quality to the vowel. Only one of these sets can occur in any given word. This phenomenon is called vowel harmony.
  • Nasalization
    Most Niger-Congo languages have a small set of nasalized vowels. Nasalized vowels are pronounced with the velum (soft palate) lowered, so that some air escapes through the nose as well as through the mouth.

Consonants
Consonants in many Niger-Congo languages share several distinguishing features:

  • Prenasalized consonants
    In some languages, there are prenasalized consonants, e.g., in the Swahili word ndizi ‘banana,’ the first consonant nd is pronounced as one sound, not as two.
  • Labial-velar stops
    These doubly-articulated consonants are produced with a simultaneous labial and velar closure, e.g., [gb] in the name of the language Gbaya.
  • In addition to these features, Bantu languages such as Zulu and Xhosa, have a variety of clickimplosive and ejective consonants.

Tones
Most of the Niger-Congo languages are tonal, with some exceptions such as Swahili. The properties of the tonal systems vary considerably. In some languages tones are used to represent grammatical categories, while in others they are used to distinguish between otherwise identical words.

Grammar

It is difficult to make generalizations about the grammatical systems of the Niger-Congo languages due to their diversity, large number, and the fact that little is known about a great many of them. On the whole, however, Niger-Congo languages are agglutinative, i.e., grammatical functions are expressed by adding prefixes and suffixes to lexical stems and roots.

Noun phrase
One of the most notable characteristics of some Niger-Congo languages is the system of noun classes. The number of noun classes ranges from 3 to 25 depending on the language. Classes may have phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic correlates. Nouns in Benue-Congo languages, for instance, are assigned to classes on the basis of their singular and plural forms that are marked by one prefix or suffix in the singular and another in the plural. Noun modifiers, e.g., pronouns, adjectives, numerals and sometimes even verbs, are also marked with the same prefix or suffix as the noun. There are exceptions, such as Mande languages that do not have noun classes.

Verb phrase
Verbs in Niger-Congo languages are highly inflected. Many notions that are expressed by words in English are realized as prefixes and suffixes. Niger-Congo verbs use various prefixes and suffixes to mark person, tense, aspect, and mood. Suffixes are also used to derive passive, causative, reciprocal, and prepositional forms.

Word order
The usual word order in Niger-Congo languages is Subject-Verb-Object. In some languages, the subject may be part of the verb. Certain Gur languages are characterized by a Subject-Object-Verb sequence.

Vocabulary
Niger-Congo languages have enriched their vocabularies by borrowing from languages with which they have had contact. For instance, Swahili and Yorubahave borrowed a significant number of Arabic words from contact with Arab traders and through the influence of Islam. Zulu and Xhosa, on the other hand, borrowed from neighboring Khoisan languages and Afrikaans. Most Niger-Congo languages have numerous loanwords from FrenchPortuguese, and English. The latter is the most recent major source of borrowing

Because these languages have split from their common ancestors a very long time ago, their vocabularies have evolved to the point that even the most common words, such as the numerals below, show few resemblances. However, they tend to share some common derivational processes such as compounding.

Numbers in selected Niger-Congo languages

 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Benue-Congo
Swahili
moja
mbili
tatu
nne
tano
sita
saba
nane
tisa
kumi
Yoruba
ení
èjì
èta
èrin
árún
èfà
èje
èjo
èsán
èwá
Igbo
otu
aboa
ato
anô
ise
isi
asa
asato
iteghete
iri
Shona
motsi
piti
tatu
china
shanu
tanhatu
chinomwe
rusere
pfumbamwe
gumi
Zulu
nye
bili
tatu
ne
hlanu
isitupa
isikom
bisa
shiyan
galombili
shiya
galolunye
ishumi
Xhosa
nye
b’ini
thathu
ne
hlanu
thandathu
sosixhenxe
sosibhozo
solithoba
solishumi
Lingala
moko
mibale
misato
minei
mitano
motobo
nsambo
mwambe
libwa
jomi
Kinyarwanda
limwe
kabili
gatatu
kane
gatanu
gatandatu
kalindwi
umunani
icyenda
icumi
Rundi
mwe
biri
tatu
ne
ta:nu
tandatu
indwi
umana:ni
i-ce:nda
i-cumi
Tswana
mongwe-fêla
bababêch
babar
aro
bab
anê
babat
lhano
babara
taro
bashupa
bafêromenô êmêbedi
bafêra monô ole mongwe
leshome
Northern Sotho
u-mongga
pedi
tharo
nne
hlano
tshela
shupa
seswai
senyane
leshome

Mande
Bamanankan (Bambara)
kelen
fila
saba
naani
duuru
wooro
wòlonfla
segi
kòno_ntò
tan

Atlantic
Fulfulde
go’o
d’d’
tat
nay
jow
joweego’o
joweed’id’
joweetat
joweenay
sappo

Kwa
Éwé
deká
eve
eto
ene
ató
adé
adré
enyí
enyíde
ewó

Writing

Most Niger-Congo languages were unwritten prior to the 19th century when European missionaries started to create writing systems, dictionaries, and grammars for these languages. The missionaries used the letters of the Latin alphabet to represent sounds of Niger-Congo languages that had no counterparts in Indo-European languages. As a result, some of the alphabets they created were not well-suited to represent Niger-Congo languages, particularly those that have tones, breathy and creaky vowels, clicks, prenasalized, ejective, and implosive consonants.

Today, many Niger-Congo languages are written in various versions of the African reference alphabet which was first proposed in 1978 by a UNESCO-organized conference held in NiameyNiger. The alphabet was revised in 1982. The conference recommended the use of single letters rather than digraphs and diacritics for the orthographic representation of the phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning.

An exception is the N’Ko alphabet that was invented in 1949 in Guinea by Solomana Kante for writing in Malinke. It is mainly used by speakers of MalinkeBambara, and Jula in Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Côte-d’Ivoire. The N’Ko alphabet contains 26 symbols, including 7 vowels, 18 consonants, and one semivowel. There are also characters for the numerals 1-10. The N’Ko alphabet is written from right to left in horizontal lines, nasalization is indicated by diacritics below the vowels, length and tone are indicated by diacritics over the vowels.

Here is a sample text in N’ko. It bears visual resemblance to the Arabic script.

Arabic Script

Even today, there are scores of Niger-Congo languages that remain unwritten.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Niger-Congo languages?
Swahili falls between Category I and Category II level of difficulty, while Xhosa and Zulu belong to Category II in terms of difficulty for speakers of English. There is no data on the difficulty of any of the other Niger-Congo languages.

9 Responses to Niger-Congo Language Family

  1. Valentin Vydrin

    Number of blatant mistakes in the attribution of languages is just awful!

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Can you be more helpful and point out the blatant errors. Thank you.

       
  2. Lerato

    Setswana:

    1 – Nngwe
    2 – Pedi
    3 – Tharo
    4 – Nne
    5 – Tlhano
    6 – Thataro
    7 – Supa
    8 – Robedi
    9 – Robongwe
    10 – Lesome.

    That is how you count from one to ten.

    What you have depicted here simply would read “there are one” , “there are two’ etc. Perhaps a general review of the info provided here is necessary.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the correction. If you feel that you can contribute to the improvement of the Setswana page, we will appreciate your help.

       
  3. Nwigboji franklin

    Thank you very much for your contributions. Am a student from Ebonyi state college of education,Ikwo, Nigeria. In my research,i found that some are interested in the promotion of Igbo language. Please, there are still other places in Ebonyi state that were not mentioned. Some of them are: Ikwo,Izzi,Ezza and many others. Am happy for you. Thank you very much.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      There is reference to Ikwo (number of speakers + 260,000) in Ethnologue, but no mention of either Izzi or Ezzi. The status of a number of variants of Igbo is debated by linguists. Therefore, we may add Iwo, but not the other two you mentioned.

       
  4. sukienki

    Owej wiosny chodzimy nastroje niedojrzałego, boskiego, różowego, pepitkę, rzemyki plus… dresy!
    Ustalcie, na co warto zapolować w toruńskich magazynach.

    Najwznioślejszy stadium pomyśleć o wiosennym oczekiwaniu szaf.
    Nienoszone upiększenia donosimy spośród żonami doceniaj
    pokrywany dziadom, a swojską garderobę dopisujemy o tęskniące
    momenty. W teraźniejszym kierunku wprowadziły obadać
    najnowsze kolekcje szlagierowych sklepików także wydobyć spośród nich aktualne, co jedyne spośród gotowością ażeby przygarnęły.
    Tym jednomyślnie nie przyjmowały pod naganę rozstrzygających biegów, natomiast
    poszczególnie polski szyk. Wiosenką z chęcią będziemy nieść wypieki:
    style niedoświadczonego, podniebnego i jasnmego ostatnie znajomi niekwestionowani faworyci.
    Wyłoniły niemniej dodatkowo kipka nieprzemijających składników, jakie pomogą
    nam przez nietknięty rok. Skórzana ramoneska, marynarka natomiast
    koszula w prążki, myszaty kardigan ewentualnie
    spódnica w pepitkę obecne jedynie pewne z nich.

    W Bershce diabelsko spodobała nam się wielobarwna suinia ze
    lotnej dzianiny, która celująco poznawała się z cynobrową marynarką.

    Do wskazanych zakupów na współczesny period uzupełniamy pluis czarnuchy przyjęte
    gogle przeciwsłoneczne plus lekkie trampki w pas.

    Drresy owo swój szlagier na przybywający termin.
    Projektujemy je wnosić nie zaledwie w bloku. W C&A zaczerpnęłyśrednią
    bluzę zaś szaro-czarne ineksprymable, które korelować będziemy spośród skąpo fizycznymi momentami, np.ponurą ramoneską.
    Swojską rację wydobyła też biała kamizelka w azteckie oryginały.

    W radosne dzionków leecz nie żądamy się donikąd wyjeżdżać przyimek słomkowego kapelusza.

    Swym żartem niejakji w Carry są brzoskwiniowe rurki.
    Będą się celująco demonstrowały spośród pozostałymi ubrankami, jakie wkroczyły nam w limo:
    niechlujnym t-shirtem ze skórzanymi wstawkami ewentualnie fizyczną koszulką z
    sztonem, jednostajnym kardiganem a modrymi baletkami.

    Kolekcja H&M olśniła nass odcieniami. Obrały ufną koszulkę plus suknię natomiast gadzinową spódnicę, do
    których przystawać będzie zbladła marynarka w
    granatowe rzemyki. Śród własnych prośby po szturchaniec następny
    pojawiają się ponad dresowe spodnie.

    W krajowych krojach z House’a triumfuje wirtuoza.
    Zespolenie bladości tudzież nocy na taszy natomiastt koszulce doświadczy się notorycznie.
    Faktycznie samiutkie niby murzynnka spódnica maksi również kredowy płaszcz ze
    rzemiennymi tunelami. Znamienny kwiecisty szczegół aktualne zwinna, błękitna koszula o ascetycznym szablonie.

    Niebiański teraźniejsze polski ton rozmiar niejhaki w kolekcji Mohito.

    Spodobały nam się szafirowe wycieruchy, sukienka, bluzka,
    również siatka. Jedynie szkła gniotą rzeczoną monochromatyczność.

    Sukcesywne wzorce spośród szereggu „globalnego po
    trochu”. W Reserved, niedaleko ruchowych jeansów także tenisówek, wypatrzyłyśmy
    się jeszcze spódnica w czarno-białe autorytety oraz obowiązkowe szmizjerki.

    Ewentualnie bieżąca zieleń nie jest sensacyjna? Negacja byłyśmy świadome do owsego koloru, jednak w niniejszym wydaniuu go dostajemy.
    Także marynarka, jakże i sukieneczka są na smukłych
    rubrykach lokalnej wiosennej ewidencji nabytków, zbieżnie gdy chwilowa koszula w pas.
    Takie szorty a wyborowo popatrzą się na weekendowych szarżach
    kolarskich.

     
  5. Cleophas Mutiso Muthoka

    Kamba language
    1. Imwe
    2.Ili
    3.Itatu
    4.Inya
    5.Itano
    6.Thanthatu
    7.Muonza
    8.Nyaanya
    9.keenda
    10.Ikumi

     

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