South Africa represents the continent

Africa - main topics

Steffen Angenendt

To person

Dr., is Senior Associate of the Global Issues Research Group of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin. His research fields are migration and integration policy as well as demography. Current focus: European migration policy; Foreign and security policy aspects of demographic developments.

Contact: [email protected]

Matthias Brenzinger

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Dr. Matthias Brenzinger is a research assistant at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Cologne. His main research interests are the sociology of language, cognitive linguistics, documentation of endangered languages ​​and bimodal communication in Africa.

Contact: [email protected]

Gero Erdmann

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Dr., is a political scientist, Senior Research Fellow at the Giga Institute for African Studies, Head of Giga Priority 1 and Head of the GIGA office in Berlin. His research focuses on forms of political rule, democratization, parties and party systems in Africa.

Contact: [email protected]

Bettina Dennerlein

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Dr. Bettina Dennerlein is Professor of Gender Studies and Islamic Studies at the Oriental Seminary at the University of Zurich. Her main research interests are the social and cultural history of the modern Arab world (18-21th centuries) with gender studies.

Contact: [email protected] (Secretariat)

Franz Kogelmann

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Dr., is Principal Investigator at the Bayreuth Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS). He is a research assistant at the Chair of Religious Studies I at the University of Bayreuth and heads a project on Islamic law in Africa funded by the Volkswagen Foundation ( His work focuses on Islam in Africa, contemporary Islamic movements and Islamic foundations.

Contact: [email protected]

Flora Veit-Wild

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Dr., has been professor for African literatures and cultures at the Humboldt University in Berlin since 1994. Research focus: literatures of southern Africa; comparative studies of Anglophone and Francophone literature from Africa; Surrealism; Discourses on body, gender, sexuality, insanity and violence; Literature by women; City literature and new orality; Issues of cultural translation; History of science.

Contact: [email protected]

Annette Weber

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Dr., has been a research assistant in the Middle East and Africa research group at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin since 2006. Before that, she was the coordinator of the Ecumenical Network for Central Africa and an expert on Sudan and Uganda for the human rights organization Amnesty International in London. Her main research interests are Somalia, Sudan, statehood, conflict contexts and regional stability in the Horn of Africa.

Contact: [email protected]

Africa is rich in languages, cultures and religions. The traditional social fabric is still important, but is changing with the move to the cities, where people are trying to secure their livelihood. The continent is also characterized by religious diversity, with Islam being one of the most widely represented beliefs, with an impact on culture, society and politics.

Mosque in Agadez from the 16th century, Niger / West Africa (& copy Fiehn)

Linguistic diversity on the continent

About a third of the more than 6000 languages ​​in the world are spoken by Africans. The wealth of languages ​​on the African continent is also due to the still widespread subsistence economy, in which the individual can only survive in and with the community. The common language is very important for creating and maintaining a group identity. Many rural communities remain excluded from national decision-making processes and have limited access to educational facilities. In these circumstances, the common ethnic language plays an extremely important role, not only in cultural, but also in everyday social and economic life.

Between 1700 and 2200 languages ​​are spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. More precise information is not possible for two reasons: on the one hand, many of the African languages ​​have not been adequately researched; on the other hand, there is the fundamental problem of deciding whether certain linguistic varieties should be considered different languages ​​or as dialects of one language. This demarcation proves to be particularly difficult where there is a smooth transition between languages ​​and - as is the case for the majority of African languages ​​- there are no standardized written forms. In fact, it is not these linguistic criteria, but rather political-historical reasons that give linguistic varieties the status of languages.

Language families and their distribution

African lingua franca
The American linguist Joseph Greenberg originally distinguished four higher-level language families on the African continent: Niger-Kordofan, Afro-Asian, Nilo-Saharan and Khoisan. The distribution of the Niger-Kordofan language family extends from the extreme west of the continent to the southernmost tip, and languages ​​of this family are also spoken in the East African countries. By far the largest subgroup are the up to 700 Bantu languages ​​that occur mainly south of the equator and the most famous of which is Swahili (Ki-Swahili, German Swahili).

The majority of the approximately 360 languages ​​of the Afro-Asian language family are predominantly concentrated in the northeast of the continent. However, communities of speakers of this language family have also populated large parts of the East African region in waves of emigration for thousands of years. The Afro-Asian language family includes the Egyptian and Amazigh languages ​​(formerly: Berber languages), which have only survived in writing, but also the Semitic languages ​​such as Arabic, but also the Ethiopian-Semitic languages ​​of Ethiopia and Eritrea such as Amharic and Tigrinya. Oromo in Ethiopia and Somali are the most important languages ​​of the Cushitic subfamily of Afro-Asian. The largest subfamily is made up of the 120 or so Chadian languages ​​spoken in Chad, Niger, Cameroon and, above all, Nigeria. This also includes Hausa, which is widespread in large parts of West Africa.

The geographical distribution of the Nilo-Saharan language family extends from Chad to the East African region. Their largest subgroups according to the number of speakers are the Nilotic languages ​​Luo in Kenya and Tanzania and Dinka in South Sudan.

The genetic relationship of all Khoisan languages ​​claimed by Greenberg, that is to say the languages ​​whose original sound inventory shows a snap, is now considered to be unprovable. Rather, it is now assumed that there are at least three unrelated Khoisan families. Most of the Khoisan languages ​​are spoken by the San, the hunters and gatherers of southern Africa, formerly known as the "Bushmen". By far the largest Khoisan-speaking language community, however, are the Khoekhoe (Nama) in Namibia, which keep cattle.

Language policy

In many African countries, linguistic diversity was and is still viewed by politics as a threat to the development of national unity. You see in language pluralism a potential for conflict that can be mobilized by separatist movements at any time in order to undermine the unity of the state. The longstanding armed conflicts in the few linguistically homogeneous African states of Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia show, however, that a common language in no way guarantees state unity.

Since the official recognition and use of African languages ​​was viewed as prone to conflict, the majority of African states adopted the European languages ​​introduced by the colonial powers as their official national languages ​​when they gained independence. Few nations dared to go their own way by declaring an indigenous language to be the official language, such as Ethiopia with Amharic, Tanzania with Swahili and Botswana with Tswana. While this language policy decision in Tanzania and Botswana actually supported a stabilization of the state, the dominance of the Amhars and their language in Ethiopia triggered a 30-year civil war, which only ended with the independence of Eritrea in 1993 and the recognition of the other national languages ​​in Ethiopia Came to an end.

In addition to the politically justified reservations about linguistic diversity, there are also economic concerns. A linguistically heterogeneous state is always underdeveloped, is a frequently cited assertion based on the observation that the majority of European industrial nations - apart from Switzerland and Belgium - are essentially monolingual. A Eurocentric conception of development that strives for integration into the world market based on the Western capitalist model actually requires the African states to adapt, not only in economic terms, but also in terms of language. The use of African languages, even if they are spoken nationwide, does not bring any advantages for access to the world market. Rather, modern forms of communication require that a European language be used throughout the population.

Use of language in everyday life

Both in the African cities and in the countryside, the great diversity of languages ​​is an important factor in everyday life. Almost all Africans speak several languages ​​and use them in different situations. The mother tongue is used to communicate with relatives and the village community. In the market where people of different ethnicities meet, they use what is known as the lingua franca. When visiting the authorities or attending secondary school, the languages ​​of the former colonial powers are often required, namely English, French or Portuguese. The mother tongues of the rural ethnic groups usually have the least prestige. African lingua franca or the introduced European languages, on the other hand, enjoy a high reputation and are also used in public by the political and academic elite.

African lingua franca play a particularly important role on the continent, and Swahili is certainly the most important of them. In Tanzania, this language dominates in almost all areas of society, for example in primary schools, in the media, in administration, at public meetings or in churches. A fundamental decision on the way to "African socialism", which Tanzania took after independence in 1961 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere, was to give Swahili not only national but also official status. Today, far beyond the borders of Tanzania, many millions of people use Swahili as a lingua franca. Around 70 percent of Kenyans speak Swahili as a second language, and it is also often chosen in Uganda when speakers of different mother tongues meet.

Hausa is the most widely spoken language in western sub-Saharan Africa and is spoken by over 40 million people, with a third of them making it a second language. The expansion of the Hausa goes back to its use as the language of Islamization, which reached this area in the 14th century, but also to the lively commercial activity of the Hausa. Other languages ​​of supraregional importance are, for example, Bambara, which is spoken by around ten million people in Mali and all the surrounding countries, or Lingala and Sango, both languages ​​that are used as lingua franca by several million people in Central Africa.

Arabic is the most widely spoken of all African languages ​​and the official language in seven North African countries. In the course of Islamization about 1400 years ago, it spread via Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean and became the new mother tongue of the previously Amazigh-speaking populations. Only in Morocco and Algeria have Amazigh language communities retained their languages ​​in large numbers to this day. As a lingua franca, Arabic was only able to establish itself in a few parts of Africa, but over 60 percent of Arabic speakers live on the African continent.

According to a request from UNESCO in 1953, every child should start school in his or her mother tongue. In Africa, however, hardly more than 200 languages ​​have been used as the language of instruction so far, i.e. less than ten percent. Most African countries are unable to include all of them in schools because of the large number of languages. Countries like Kenya and Uganda, with more than 30 languages, are in the middle range in terms of linguistic wealth. Only a few are (approximately) monolingual, namely Lesotho, Swaziland, Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia, apart from the Arabic-speaking countries in northern Africa. In contrast, Tanzania with around 140, Cameroon with far more than 200 and Nigeria with up to 500 languages ​​have an enormous linguistic diversity. Teacher training and the creation of teaching and learning material for the national languages ​​are time-consuming and costly undertakings for the latter countries.

The linguistic diversity on the African continent represents a cultural wealth that is increasingly threatening to disappear. Because more and more language communities, especially smaller ones, are giving up their own language in order to adopt the language of larger, more influential ethnic groups. This means that not only culture-specific knowledge that has been accumulated over millennia is lost, but also the possibility of preserving the forms of human thought that are unique to each language.

It is often said that the linguistic diversity of Africa limits the possibilities of communication and thus also inhibits the development of the continent. However, multilingualism has a long tradition in Africa and represents a way of making national and international communication possible without having to give up one's own language. The problem is not the linguistic diversity on the African continent, but the fact that the majority of the population of the African states is still unable to speak and understand the European language in which it is governed and administered.