An introduction to linguistics in Africa


africaEvery year, on 25th May people around the world celebrate Africa Day. On this occasion, TermCoord wants to take the opportunity to celebrate the richness of Africa in languages, by providing some linguistic information about it.

Since 1963, Africa Day has been organized to commemorate the foundation of the African Union (AU), the former Organisation of Africa Unity, based in Addis Ababa, currently composed of 54 African countries. At the end of its constitutive act we can observe that the document is “drawn up in four (4) original texts in the Arabic, English, French and Portuguese languages, all four (4) being equally authentic” – just like all the versions of the 24 official languages in the European Union. However, Article 25 establishes that the working languages “shall be, if possible, African languages, Arabic, English, French and Portuguese”. But which African languages?

According to a website specialised in African facts, the most spoken languages on the continent are: English, Arabic, Swahili, French, Hausa, Oromo, Yoruba, Igbo, Amharic and Zulu. This means that we can find Atlantic-Congo (Igbo, Swahili, Yoruba, Zulu), Chadic (Hausa), Cushitic (Oromo), Germanic (English), Romance (French), and Semitic (Amharic, Arabic) languages, that use Latin, Ge’ez, and Arabic characters.

According to Ethnologue, there are no less than 2 000 living languages spoken by more than 1 billion people in Africa. Unfortunately, around 135 languages are considered to be in serious danger and nearly 250 are in trouble. For example, only in Nigeria, we can find more that 520 languages, 44 of which are dying, and in Mauritania there are 7 languages, one of them considered to be in danger. However, in Angola there are 36 languages, and none of them is dying, but 3 are in trouble. In order to avoid this to continue and to encourage the survival of languages and cultures, there are many centres that empower African languages, promote multilingualism and prevent the extinction of languages. One of them is the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), created by the AU in 2001, that emphasises the promotion of languages at the education level, as a method to develop their use in all sorts of domains, including technology and law.

Another linguistic centre interested in the promotion of African languages, in particular, Arabic Language, is the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO). This institution also works in the Middle East, and being Arabic an official language of many countries, it is necessary to have a body that coordinates the usage of correct terminology, as well as promoting the development of this language in different activities organised throughout the Arab world. In order to do so, ALECSO is based in Tunis and also has agencies based in Cairo, Rabat and Khartoum. In Morocco we can find the Bureau of Coordination of Arabization, which has developed ARABTERM, an online multilingual technical dictionary containing entries in Arabic, English, French and German, about engineering, environment, energy, communications, and transport, among others, on behalf of ALECSO.


But in the south of the continent we can find more institutions working on linguistics. The University of South Africa started a project in 2012: SeLa Scientific e-Lexicography for Africa), which aims to create electronic dictionaries for the region, involving teachers, students and experts in lexicography, computational linguistics and intercultural communication. At the University of Pretoria, the African Association for Lexicography, AFRILEX, is very active as they have been organising conferences and workshops on lexicography for 20 years, and they cooperate with associations such as the African Language Association of Southern Africa (ALASA), which publishes the Journal of African Languages twice per year. Finally, at the University of Cape Town, an affiliated unit is developing the Project for Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) that works on language policy in education by promoting bilingualism.

The creation of dictionaries in Africa is a hard task, as language used in oral literature usually differs from the spoken language (Zgusta, 1971: 225). However, these kinds of particularities make researches more interesting and rewarding, as they force linguists to approach languages in a different way. Actually, as the African Linguistics Professor at the University of Berkeley, California, Larry M. Hyman says, the study of African languages has largely contributed to phonology theory, because of the particularities about tones, vowel harmony, and nasalization, among others. Therefore, having a background in linguistics is an essential factor in order to effectively contribute to the promotion and saving such a quantity of languages, but also to the coordination of communication and management of terminology. For example, South Africa has eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu, which constitutes a challenge for communication. This is why the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB) was established in 1995: to promote the respect for those eleven languages and many others in South Africa, following its slogan ‘One nation many languages’.

This sentence seems to be perfect to summarize the linguistic African reality: one continent, many languages, which in fact can be applied to all the others continents in the world. A day like this is just a reminder of the diversity that makes up our common world. It is crucial to promote multilingualism and multiculturalism every day since the respect of any language is a fundamental right, as UNESCO establishes it in the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights. As Nelson Mandela once said ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’


Written by Ana Bennasar

Terminology trainee at TermCoord