The Linguistic History of Africa, Part I: The Dawn of Man

Sam Quillen
5 min readFeb 28, 2021

The first words ever were probably spoken somewhere in the broad rift valley of East Africa sometime around 300,000 years ago. The birth of language is probably the defining development in our evolution into modern Homo sapiens sapiens. Sadly, we will never know much of anything about the first language. It is possible (though by no means certain, nor even likely) that all human languages share a common ancestor, but the series of half-lives over which a language becomes completely unrecognisable is on the order of a few thousand years, so any connection that old is lost to time.

Indeed, in the cradle of humanity, it is very hard to trace even much more recent linguistic history. For anything before the past century linguists depend mostly on written sources. Literacy had illuminated a broad swath of Eurasia three thousand years ago, but had scarcely touched most of Sub-Saharan Africa in 1900.

But intrepid linguists have never let something like that deter them. Over years of wandering around the jungle trying to talk to people and recording exactly what they said, European linguists began to piece a picture together.

Sometime in the 1st Millennium B.C., hardy Bantu farmers from the plains of west-central Africa began to spread out in search of greener pastures. Like the Aryans who spawned the peoples and languages of most of western Eurasia, they were evidently tenacious conquerors. Today, their Niger-Congo languages rule the heart of the continent, from the coast of Senegambia and the Cape of Good Hope to the heart of the Congo rainforest.

Across that vast area, 700 million (and counting) native speakers make the Niger-Congo language family the third-biggest in the world, trailing well behind Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan. In terms of number of members, however, Niger-Congo takes the gold. But here we run into another dilemma that bedevils linguistics outside the Eurasian beltway.

In Europe and much of Asia, standard registers homogenised organic spectra of dialects into single national languages. But the political, economic, and cultural processes that made French French and Arabic Arabic never got off the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa. Niger-Congo languages still vary across a dialect continuum. Even today, almost none are standardised nor even written, so it is hard to delineate where the boundaries between them lie.

The lack of writing and other forces of large-scale civilisation also left Niger-Congo languages to diverge more dramatically than, for example, Indo-European ones. Thus it is harder to find cognates than in other language families, but there is a common ring to all of them. Probably the most unique feature of Niger-Congo phonology is their predilection for nasals- some members even use m and n as vowels.

One of the better-known Niger-Congo languages is Wolof, the language of Senegal and many migrants in the West (as well as the probable origin of the word “banana”). It is closely-related to Fula, whose speakers impressed early European explorers with their ability to survive in the Sahara. Wolof and Fula lack tones, which makes them pretty unique in the family.

Fula herdsmen in their harsh homeland

Moving southeast, Nigeria, which may include the ancestral homeland of the family, is today the third-most linguistically-diverse country in the world. Of the roughly 6,500 languages in the world (2,000 of which are African), 527 are native to what is today Nigeria. Igbo and Yoruba, the big hitters in the basin of the family’s eponymous home river, boast tens of millions of native speakers. Igbo is an interesting specimen in that it has only eight adjectives: “big,” “small,” “dark,” “light,” “new,” “old,” “good,” and “bad.” There is also only one preposition.

Interestingly, the most-spoken language in Nigeria (other than English) is Hausa, which is not Niger-Congo at all. It is Afroasiatic, the same family as Arabic, but the relationship is extremely distant- it may well be that the forefathers of the Hausa migrated south from the Near East back before the Sahara was so… deserted, then got stranded there.

West Africa is a linguistically-diverse region, but where the plains run into the jungle things get a bit simpler. The Bantu branch of the family rules the entire heart of Africa, from sea to shining sea. All in all it is an impressively homogeneous region, but Africa is an old place. There are still many language isolates, with no apparent relation to any other. This part of the continent is also the endemic home of two of the six unique races of humanity (for reference, the others are white, Asian (including Amerindian), black (excluding these two), and Aboriginal Australian).

Central African Pygmies once had their own languages, but through (ongoing) millennia of being conquered, culturally subjugated, and enslaved by Bantus they lost their old tongues. To this day, however, there are identifiable substrata in their Niger-Congo languages.

Most of the black inhabitants of Southern Africa are relative newcomers.

The Bushmen (a.k.a. San) of Southern Africa have fared better, largely because they are excellent hunters and no one has ever wanted to live in the Kalahari Desert with them. They probably also lived in nicer places in the past, but were driven from them by the Bantus. Today they number fewer than 100,000, but one unique feature of their languages is familiar to us. They pepper their speech with tongue clicks, which caught on in newly-arrived Bantu languages and became probably the most-recognisable stereotype of African languages.

Aside from Niger-Congo, the only other major language family native to Sub-Saharan Africa is the Nilo-Saharan family. An eclectic grouping of little-studied languages, it was pejoratively dubbed “Greenberg’s wastebasket” after the American linguist who hypothesised it. Unlike the similarly-controversial Altaic family of Central Asia, it has stood up to scrutiny thus far. But like most other African languages, its members are understudied. As we will explore in Part II, things come into much sharper focus with languages from over the sea.

Part II



Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets