Africa is a continent of many: many countries, cultures, people and politics, and embedded across these are a great many languages. Africa boasts one third of the world’s languages, with over 2,000 spoken and twenty-five signed. In fact, twenty of the top twenty-five countries for linguistic diversity are located in Africa, with Nigeria placing third at 515 spoken languages and ten official languages across 196 million people (Ethnologue Index). When asking the question why Africa has so many languages, three main explanations can be explored: the ‘Out of Africa’ theory, the use of interpreters throughout kingdoms, and the growth of pidgin and creole vernaculars (local dialects) out of African and European languages.

‘Out of Africa’

The widely supported theory that modern humans originated in Africa and then spread around the world is key in explaining some of the linguistic diversity found across the continent. Geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert scientist in the study of biological changes of humans throughout time, reasons that “there’s been a lot of time” for languages to accumulate alongside multiple cultures, climates and populations. This is because Africa has been settled in for longer than any other part of the world, and the estimated 3,000 tribes in present-day Africa, where spoken languages can change every few kilometres, reinforces time as playing a key role in linguistic diversity across cultures.

Royal Interpreters

Limited political and cultural integration between rulers of traditional kingdoms and their subjects contributes to the multilingual landscape in Africa today. The use of interpreters by African kings and leaders is presented as crucial in maintaining linguistic diversity across territories ruled by one family – a stark contrast to the objectives of European nations, who focused on cultural assimilation (takeover) as their empires expanded through methods including the regulation of language. Recognising the value of language in asserting one’s identity allowed a wide range of languages and dialects to flourish within kingdoms throughout Africa. The existence of ‘smaller’ and ‘isolated’ language families with far fewer speakers, as well as unclassified languages, demonstrates how diverse languages have managed to survive.

Pidgin and Creole

Inextricable from European colonialism, the development of pidgin and creole languages within African countries further explains the rich languages and vernaculars found across the continent that are still widely spoken today. European expansion into Africa led to the need for a common language to aid communication between European colonists and Africans, and so pidgin languages began to emerge. West African Pidgin English is one such example, which became the lingua franca, or common language, along the West African coast during the Atlantic slave trade. This trading language later became adopted as a primary language, developing into a more complex creole language which is still in widespread use in different variations.

The number of English-based creole languages currently being used in West African countries as primary and secondary languages, has increased greatly over the last century, with over 100 million speakers today. The Aku language in The Gambia, Sierra Leone Krio and Ghanaian Pidgin English are further examples all derived from the early West African Pidgin English. The use of these ‘unofficial’ languages during decolonial and anticolonial movements across Africa shows the power of language in creating collective identity. The diverse pidgin and creole languages that stemmed from solutions to communication during European colonial expansion remain part of everyday life for millions, and therefore play a significant role in the linguistic diversity found across Africa.