African Languages

Kind lernt das arabische Alphabet Zeichnung von E.W.Lane

“He who knows the word, knows the world.”, is an African saying.

The most spoken languages in North Africa

Almost everyone in North Africa speaks Arabic. Many residents also speak French, because for almost a century, all north African countries were under French colonial rule. Apart from those, Fulfulde, Lingala and the Berber languages are often heard. One well-known Berber language is Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg.

Amharic is not easy to learn

Schulkinder in Entoto, Ätiopien

Children in Ethiopia don’t have it easy when learning to write. Their script is a syllabary. The Amharic script consists of 276 different alphabetic characters, which are composed of 28 consonants and 7 vowels. This is the reason why the Amharic script looks like it is made up of nothing but artistic ornaments. Why is Amharic so unusual? Ethiopia has an old culture and an old history of thousands of years old. This culture is expressed in a large number of words and symbols.

Egyptian and other African Scripts

Ägyptische Hieroglyphen

Many writing systems have developed in Africa. For a long time, East African tribes had used various writing systems and recorded their knowledge in scriptures, tablets and scrolls. Africa’s oldest script is the Egyptian one, which has existed for several thousand years. Compared to that, the writing system of the Amharic in Ethiopia is relatively new, it has only been used for many centuries. Furthermore, there is the Coptic alphabet in Egypt and Libya or the Arabic alphabet, learnt by Moslems in the Koran. 

Swahili and other Bantu Languages

About 500 different languages are spoken in central Africa, most of which are related to one another.  The name Bantu was given to this linguistic family. The word means “human” and implies that all these languages probably stem from one original language. Today’s Cameroon is believed to be the centre of this original language. Important Bantu languages are Kongo, Rwanda, the Makua and Swahili. Swahili is spoken in East Africa and partly in central Africa. 100 million Africans are proficient in this language. Many east Africans also speak English, because east Africa used to be British colonial territory hundreds of years ago. Surely you know some Swahili words, such as Safari, Simba – which means Lion ­– and Jambo, the salutation in east Africa. Swahili is just as easy to learn as English. If you’re travelling to Kenya or Tanzania, you will be able to communicate fairly well with 30 Swahili words. 

There are many words for water in west Africa

Kind trinkt am Brunnen

Can you think of another word for “fill”, which doesn’t mean exactly the same? In the language of the Hausa, a tribe in the Sahelian zone, there are two words for “fill”. One expresses filling a container with water from above. The other one describes dip the container into the water. This second way of filling up is called “bul-bul-la”. When saying the word out loud, one can almost hear the air bubbling out of the container. 50 million Africans speak Hausa, especially in Niger and Nigeria. Hausa therefore is one of the most spoken languages beside Swahili.