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The four language families of African languages

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

The right to family life is not just among humans … even languages have linguistic NRCs by which they maintain relationships of ‘family’, ‘parent language’, ‘daughter language’, ‘sibling language’, ‘cousin language’ and sometimes ‘grandchild language’ and ‘great-grandchild language’.

Did you know that each African language has certain linguistic features that makes it belong to only one particular language family? By just looking at some linguistic features of a language, a linguist can tell you its linguistic lineage and language family. In today’s article, I will focus on the four African language families and their linguistic characteristics.

Also known as ‘language phylum’, a language family is simply a group of interrelated languages derived/coming from a common ancestor or parent (Crystal, 1991). To put it illustratively, it is just like we say ‘the Phiris’; ‘the Zumas’; and ‘the Kapaus’ to refer to a group of interrelated individuals who make up a particular family and bearing a particular name as their shared identity.

In like manner, each language has a DNA code that makes it both similar to and different from the other language such that linguists are able to assign such a language a language family. For instance, English has particular linguistic features that makes it a Germanic language belonging to the West-Germanic language group of the Indo-European language family. Interesting, isn’t it? Yep…whatever language you speak – be it English, Xhosa or Lunda; Sandawe, Ushi or Igbo – has distinctive linguistic features that makes it belong to only one particular language family in the world.

African languages are grouped into four language families, notably, Niger-Kordofanian family; Afro-asiatic family; Nilo-Saharan family; and Khoisan family. Each of these families have peculiar linguistic features such that if you mentioned the family to which a particular African language belonged, linguists would right away know the general linguistic properties of that language. Here we go…

1. The Niger-Kordofanian language family

Also called the Niger-Congo language family and made up of about 1,650 African languages, the Niger-Kordofanian family is not only the largest African language family but also the largest language family in the world. Bantu languages are a part of this family! The Niger-Kordofanian family contains some of Africa’s heavyweight languages like Swahili (about 100 million speakers); and Igbo (roughly 20 million speakers). The family covers the entire sub-Saharan Africa, prevalent in countries such as Nigeria, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ghana, DRC, South Africa, Uganda, eSwatini, Lesotho, Burundi and Angola (Greenberg,1963).

Languages belonging to this family are famous for using paired affixes to especially express plurality and singularity of persons, trees, animals, etc (i.e. grammatical number). For example, the prefix (a type of affix put before a word) ‘mu-’ is used to refer to one person while ‘ba-’ or ‘a-’ is used to connote many people or to show respect (e.g. in Lozi, ‘mu-tu’ = person; ‘ba-tu’ = persons/respect for one person). The list of such paired affixes is called a ‘nominal class system’ or ‘noun class system’ while languages having such a system of affixes are termed ‘class languages’. Bantu languages are class languages (Crystal,1991).

The affixes (most of which are prefixes i.e. fixed before a word) even dictate which other affixes can be used with them in a sentence depending on whether the thing in the sentence is a person, a tree, an animal and so forth. For example, when referring to a person, you cannot use prefixes meant for an animal (e.g. in Bemba – also called the M42 language – you cannot say ‘imwanakashi imusuma’ but can only say ‘umwanakashi umusuma’ to mean ‘a beautiful woman’). In linguistics, when a word changes its appearance (form/structure) depending on the other words it is found within a sentence so as to make the sentence grammatical (e.g. ‘She IS here’ and not ‘She ARE here’), we refer to that as ‘concord’ or ‘agreement’.

Furthermore, according to Greenberg (1963), another notable characteristic of languages which belong to the Niger-Kordofanian family is the use of Subject–Verb–Object, otherwise known as the SVO word order in a simple sentence (e.g. ‘S-Mutale V-loves O-mangoes’). Lastly, tone is quite dominant among languages of this family. One word can mean a lot of things depending on the tone of your voice. For instance, in Lozi language (linguistically called the ‘K21 language’), the word ‘pata’ can mean ‘face’, ‘(to) hide’ or ‘(to) simmer’ depending on how you play with your tone.

2. Afro-asiatic language family

Mostly made up of languages found in the northern parts of Africa; Horn of Africa; and the Sahel, the Afro-asiatic language family is the second largest in Africa. As the name implies, this is the only phylum (i.e. family) of African languages that includes even languages spoken outside Africa. For this, the Afro-asiatic family is also called ‘Afroasian’ or ‘Afrasan’ language family (Ahmed, 2011).

Approximately, 200 – 300 languages make up this family, spoken in countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Ethiopia, northern Nigeria, Sudan, southern Niger and Somalia. Examples of Afro-asiatic languages include Egyptian (now extinct), Berber (not Bemba), Arabic, Cush, Hausa, Amharic, Chadic, Semitic, Coptic and Gur languages (see Heine and Nurse, 2000; and Frajzyngier and Shay, 2012).

Some of the notable linguistic features of languages found in this language family include: use of six vowel system (unlike Bantu languages which use five or seven vowels); use of consonants as carriers of word meaning (e.g. ‘ktb’ in Arabic means ‘anything to do with writing’); and use of Verb–Subject–Object sentence word order (e.g. speakers would say ‘V-ate S-Mark O-mangoes’ and not ‘S-Mark V-ate O-mangoes’). In other words, the Afro-asiatic word order in a simple sentence is that of VSO and not SVO like we observed with the Niger-Kordofanian language family.

In addition, Afro-asiatic languages can show whether the speaker is male or female in a sentence (more like ‘he’ and ‘she’ in English – i.e. gender). Lastly, unlike Bantu languages whose words predominantly end in a vowel, languages found in the Afro-asiatic language family are like English in that they have an equidominance of vowel-ending and consonant-ending words – more like ‘see’ (with vowel-ending) and ‘enough’ (with consonant-ending) in English language (Holt,1999).

3. Nilo-Saharan language family

This is the third largest language family of African languages and is also referred to as the Chari-Nile family, named after the Chari and Nile rivers. It includes languages such as Luo and Masai in Kenya; Kanuri in Nigeria; Dinka and Bari in Sudan; Acholi and Lango in Uganda; and Mangbetu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

A noticeable characteristic of languages in this group is the dominance of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order in a simple sentence. For instance, speakers of Dinka (spoken in Sudan), would say ‘S-Mark O-mangoes V-ate’ and not ‘S-Mark V-ate O-mangoes’. Secondly, languages in this family do not have paired affixes (i.e. noun class system) like is the case with Bantu languages and the Niger-Kordofanian family in general.

Lastly, unlike Bantu languages which form singular and plural forms through prefixes (e.g. ‘mu-ntu’ to mean ‘person’ in singular; ‘ba-ntu’ to mean ‘persons’ in plural), Nilo-Saharan languages form singular and plural through suffixes, and sometimes by removing the last part of the word (Chanda, 2004). For example, in Shillux language – a Nilo-Saharan language – the singular word for ‘knife’ is ‘fallo’ but to create its plural, you drop the suffix ‘-lo’ so that you only remain with ‘fal’ which means ‘knives’ (Chanda, 2004).

4. The Khoisan language family

This is the smallest and widely seen as the oldest of the four language families. Spoken mostly in southern Africa, the Khoisan family has just about 40 languages. Though small, it is one of the world’s most unique language family because of the prevalence of click sounds. As Chanda (2004:4) notes, “the best-known feature of the Khoi-San languages is the presence of clicks in all these languages.

It is important to note that some neighbouring Bantu languages have borrowed clicks (e.g. Xhosa, Tswana and Ndebele).” Linguistic proximity to Khoisan languages is the reason why some non-Khoisan family languages like Xhosa, Tswana and Ndebele have click sounds, for, whenever languages are geographically closer to each other, linguistic cross-pollination is common.

Whoa…I will end here today. Join me next week Friday for a discussion on some common preschool language disorders, seen through the eyes of psycholinguistics. Don’t forget to give me feedback on any of the topics I have covered so far in this column. To Mr Adwait Joshi and Mr Kamulile Phiri, thank you for your emails. To many others who communicated through social media, a big thank you to you too. As promised, readers’ feedback will soon be published in The Mast newspaper.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA. Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com, WhatsApp: +260 956 315 380.

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