Niger-Congo Family
of Languages

Bemba Shona Tswana


The Niger-Congo Family features the many languages of Africa south of the Sahara. The family originated in West Africa. Migrations took the languages to eastern and southern Africa. There are over 900 languages in this family in nine branches.

Africa's borders reflect colonial history rather than linguistic boundaries. For this reason, many of these languages are spoken across national frontiers.

The languages of this family include the west African languages of Fulani (Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso), Malinke (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast), Mende (Sierra Leone), Twi (Ghana), Ewe (Ghana, Togo), Mossi (Burkina Faso), Yoruba (Nigeria), Ibo (Nigeria), Kpelle (Liberia), Wolof (Senegal, Gambia) and Fang (Cameroon, Gabon, Guinea).

In east and southern Africa the languages include Swahili (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Berundi, Zaire - the most spoken language in this family), Kikuyu (Kenya), Ganda (Uganda), Ruanda (Rwanda), Rundi (Berundi), Luba (Zaire), Lingala (Zaire, Congo), Kongo (Zaire, Congo, Angola), Bemba (Zaire, Zambia), Nyanja (Malawi, Zambia), Shona (Zimbabwe), Ndebele (the Matebele in Zimbabwe and South Africa), Tswana (Botswana, South Africa) and its close relative Sotho (South Africa, Lesotho), Swazi (Swaziland, South Africa), Xhosa (South Africa) and its close relative Zulu (South Africa).

The southern languages have tones which are used partially for meaning but mostly for grammar. Banda (Congo) has three tones. Its speakers use three-tone drums to send formulaic messages. Efik has four tones and uses m and n as vowels.

Most of the Niger-Congo languages have prefixes and suffixes to qualify nouns and verbs as well as words that agree with them. Nouns and verbs never exist on their own. Fulani has 18 suffixed noun qualifiers; Ndebele (Botswana) has 16 prefixed noun qualifiers and a large number of words for kinships: U-BABA (my father), U-YIHLO (your father), U-YISE (his father).

Shona has over 200 words for walking: MBWEMBWER (walk with buttocks shaking), CHAKWAIR (walk squelchily through mud), DONZV (walk with a stick), PANH (walk a long way), RAUK (walk with long steps). Fulani nouns have initial consonants that vary with gramatical meaning: JESO (face), GESE (faces), NGESA (big face).

The languages of the Bantu Branch, count in fives. The word for six, for example, is a compound of five and one.

Xhosa has 15 click consonants borrowed from the Khoisan Languages of southern Africa.

Mande Branch
Mende : Malinke : Bambara : Dyula : Soninke
Susu : Kpelle : Vai : Loma
West Atlantic Branch
Fulani : Wolof : Serer : Dyola : Temne : Kissi : Gola : Balante
Voltaic Branch
Mossi : Gurma : Dagomba : Kabre : Senufo : Bariba
Kwa Branch
Yoruba : Ibo : Ewe : Twi : Fanti : Ga : Adangme : Fon : Edo
Urhobo : Idoma : Nupe : Agni : Baule : Kru : Grebo : Bassa
Bantu Branch
Swahili : Luba : Kongo : Lingala : Mongo : Ruanda : Rundi
Kikuyu : Kamba : Sukuma : Nyamwezi : Hehe : Chagga
Makonde : Yao : Ganda : Nkole : Chiga : Gisu : Toro : Nyoro
Nyanja : Tumbuka : Bemba : Tonga : Lozi : Lwena : Lunda
Shona : Fang : Bulu : Yaundé : Duala : Bubi : Mbundu
Chokwe : Ambo : Herero : Makua : Thonga : Sotho : Tswana
Pedi : Swazi : Zulu : Matebele : Xhosa : Venda
Efik Branch
Efik : Ibibio : Tiv
Adamawan Branch
Eastern Branch
Zande : Sango : Gbaya : Banda
Ijo Branch

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