The Linguistic History of Africa, Part II: Black, White, and Shades of Grey

Sam Quillen
9 min readMar 4, 2021

For almost all of recorded history, seas of sand and salt water cut most of Africa off from the wider world. North of the great desert, however, the situation is completely otherwise.

North Africa has always been intimately integrated with the Near East and the Mediterranean. The native languages of the region hail from the ancient Afroasiatic family. Early prominent members included Ancient Egyptian and Punic, the language of Carthage. They are notable in their own rights, but the Egyptians and Phoenicians (the forefathers of Carthage) also cast a massive shadow over all of linguistics for having developed the alphabet.

For nearly a millennium, the centre of gravity shifted northward, as North Africa became one of the core regions of the Roman Empire. Most Egyptians kept their ancestral tongue, but for many centuries the fertile Mediterranean coast of Africa was part of the Latin world (far more so, indeed, than Gaul or Britain).

That world was shattered in the 7th Century, with the epoch-shifting arrival of Arabic and Islam. Arabic is remarkable both for its success in becoming the language of daily life for virtually everyone across the vast region, and for remaining a more or less united language for well over a millennium. It does have a lot of things going for it. As an Afroasiatic language, it is relatively easy for Egyptians and Berbers to pick up, and as the language of Islam and Ifriqiyah’s new rulers it was certainly worth the trouble. Islam also played a vital role in the second part of the equation: the Quran has been a powerful centripetal force on Arabic dialects. A herdsman in Morocco and a peasant in Iraq might spend their entire lives within a few miles of their home villages, but if they hear the same language at the mosque every day, they will not stray far in their speech, either.

Al-Azhar Mosque/University in Cairo is the preeminent intellectual centre of Sunni Islam.

Other Afroasiatic languages held their ground. Ethiopian politics is defined by the rivalry between the Amharic and Oromo communities. One might chalk this up to the fact that most of Ethiopia remained stubbornly Christian. But Somalis, who very much went in for Islam, also kept their own language.

Unlike the old rulers of North Africa, the Arabs did know their way around a desert. The Trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves ramped up dramatically, bringing Sub-Saharan chiefdoms into contact with traders from the north. Islam and the Arabic script caught on in the Sahel, but the Arabic language had a relatively limited impact.

The eastern coast of the continent, however, was a different story. The rich trading cities of the Swahili Coast (Swahili, cognate with Sahel, comes from the Arabic for “coast”) were the cradle of a new language that would redefine the region. Swahili is at its core a Bantu language, but is massively influenced by Arabic. Like other languages of mixed heritage (including English), its hybrid history ironed out many idiosyncrasies and left it quite easy to learn. Stretching from the present-day countries of Kenya all the way down to Mozambique, it is by far the widest-spoken of all non-European languages in Sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from Arabic, it also incorporates influences from English, Portuguese, Hindi, and Persian, speaking to a cosmopolitan heritage.

Africa’s most surprising nation lies just off the eastern coast. Madagascar is 250 miles from mainland Africa, but Malagasy’s closest relatives are in Borneo, several thousand miles away. The Malagasy people are Austronesian, part of a family of incredibly prolific sailors who populate islands from Taiwan to the Indies, from Madagascar to New Zealand and all across the Pacific. Over centuries they have become somewhat Africanised culturally, but their langauge and blood tie them back to an ancestral home across the sea.

These Malagasy children have closer relatives in Indonesia than in nearby Mozambique.

Of course, Africa’s east coast was not the only one that would be visited by foreigners. When they arrived on the West African coast offering guns and all sorts of pretty things in exchange for gold and slaves, Europeans instantly became big players. In 1491, Nzinga-a-Nkuwu of Kongo declared himself King João I and became a Catholic to ingratiate himself to the high-tech arms dealers.

But even João kept his language (and, more to the chagrin of the Portuguese, his harem). All down the coast, malarial jungles formed an insuperable wall against any white man who might wish to venture inland from the beach. Dutch settlers did put down roots in the salubrious far south, but European languages withered and died in tropical Africa. Arabic made a splash in East Africa because the Arabs did their slaving for themselves, but the Europeans relied on native partners. An English mariners’ rhyme warned, “Take care and beware of the Bight of Benin, there’s one that comes out for forty go in.”

All that changed thanks to a Peruvian tree. In 1820, French chemists isolated quinine from a bark Jesuits had long used for missions into the Amazon. Within a generation, European merchants and explorers were filling in the heart of darkness on the map, and their well-heeled countrymen back home were carving that map up amongst themselves.

Just a glassful of tonic makes a continent go down.

The colonial powers saw it as their mission to bring the light of civilisation to Africa. To gain access to their higher world, one needed to speak a European language. For the best and brightest who aspired to study in Europe, as well as an average opportunist who realised one could earn more in one steamship voyage than in an entire lifetime of farming yams, English, French, German, or Portuguese became the language of opportunity.

Europe’s age of empire in Africa lasted less than a century, but it reshaped the continent’s linguistic landscape. Naturally, anti-colonial rebels dreamt of eradicating imperial influence in their nations. But that was impossible, first and foremost because their nations were not really nations. Today’s African borders were drawn up by white men who did not much know or care about the people who lived within them. Having no pre-colonial political heritage on which to fall back, Sub-Saharan Africans kept them, but that meant that the only thing that citizens of, say, Kenya had in common was the colonial language. A few national independence movements, for example of the Igbo in Nigeria, were crushed by the new states. Dominant ethnic groups have often tried to impose their own cultures as a post-colonial alternative, but everyone else prefers neutral English (or French, etc.) to being bullied by their neighbours.

Today’s border Kenyan-Tanzanian border is crooked because at one point the Prince of Wales moved it to give his cousin the kaiser some pretty mountains. If African borders were drawn according to ethnicity, as above, the map would be considerably more complicated.

As ever, the exception was South Africa. Descendants of the Dutch settlers have lived in the Cape and beyond since 1652, longer indeed than most black South African groups. By the 20th Century, their dialect had diverged enough from Dutch to be legitimately considered a separate language. Afrikaans has some loanwords from local languages, but is most remarkable for being impressively simple, a legacy of generations of garbling by settlers from all across Europe. It is the easiest foreign language for an English speaker to learn.

One of Afrikaners’ (whites of Dutch, as opposed to British, descent) first priorities upon ditching the Commonwealth in 1961 was to make their language coequal with English in South Africa. Their second was to marginalise their darker fellow-citizens: Afrikaans became deeply associated with Apartheid.

A trilingual sign (in English, Afrikaans, and I believe Zulu) for a divided country

The end of Apartheid brought a new shake-up in language policy. The new government recognised nine additional official languages, all Bantu ones local to different parts of the country. Despite negative associations, Afrikaans remains prominent, mainly among Afrikaners and Coloureds (mixed-race people, who actually make up a majority of speakers). However, across the country, as indeed across most of the continent, English is preeminent.

English, French, and Portuguese are far more widely-spoken today than they ever were in the colonial era. (German survives only in a few locales in Namibia, a.k.a. Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Although some former subjects clamoured to be “liberated” by the Germans for a decade or so following World War I, they ultimately learned English or French). Most major cities are not the domain of any particular tribe, so it would be hard to make it in, for example, Lagos or Luanda without English or Portuguese, respectively. Some Africans identify so strongly with their European tongue that they are actually willing to die for it, as in the ongoing strife between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians.

Of course, the situation is different north of the Sahara. French, and in Egypt English, are widely-spoken today- indeed, thanks to media, tourism, and migration, more than they were fifty years ago. But Arabic is and always was the predominant language. Countries do have their own dialects. Egypt’s is very prominent, and apparently Morocco’s is notoriously odd (a Jordanian friend of mine describes it as “Shakespearean Arabic”).

I was lost on a mountain biking trip in Morocco when I happened upon this Berber town. It is miles from nowhere high in the Atlas Mountains, but I had a shockingly easy time finding people who spoke French.

Arabic is also important among non-Arabs. In particular, Sudan’s tragic recent history flows from the depredations of “Arabs” against Sub-Saharan neighbours. (Sudan means “land of the blacks” in Arabic, analogous to Latinate Niger/Nigeria). Many of them look to be mainly racially black themselves, but language counts. Egyptian Coptic Christians assert Egypt’s non-Arabness and even preserve their ancient tongue, but they are under siege. Conversely, in Morocco, French interest in the traditionally marginalised culture of the Berbers sparked an ongoing flowering of Berbérisme. (Berber is an interesting language that it is often possible to speak without the convenience of vowels).

Africa’s linguistic history has been defined by the arrivals from afar, but it is not an entirely one-way street. Although linguists have failed to prove that the speech of mainstream black populations in the New World (whether in English, Portuguese, or Spanish) is influenced by their African heritage, a few dialects do have clear ties to the past. The most famous is Haitian Creole, the newest official language in the world, which is distinguished from French by its highly-simplified grammar and rich lexicon of African loanwords. Some inhabitants of the Bahamas and the Sea Islands off the US state of Georgia have similarly made English their own.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas grew up speaking Gullah, a creole spoken in the coastal Southern US.

In 2017, the BBC launched a service in West African Pidgin English. This is by far the highest-profile attempt to standardise (and thereby legitimise and propogate) the distinctly African version of a European national language. Africans have a rich linguistic heritage, but their future is with no more than four (and possibly just one) non-native tongues. It is possible that in a century or two all of Sub-Saharan Africa will be linguistically like Haiti- though, thanks to economic development and superior communication technology, with languages far closer to the European originals. Diminution of diversity always represents some loss, but also obvious opportunity for a historically-underprivileged, yet fast-growing region of the world. If Nigerians, Senegalese, and Angolans can add some African flavour to their global language communities, it would certainly be a gain for everyone.

Part I



Sam Quillen

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