Africa: at the Boundaries of Babel

The African territory is characterized by the widest variety of spoken languages in the world. Due to the overlapping and the coexistence of so many idioms any classification may appear somehow absurd; nonetheless, linguists, forcing limits of nature, have elaborated a broad categorization and have divided African Languages in three main branches: the first is the Niger-Congo, which includes the Bantu group with Swahili and Luganda; the second is the Afro-Asiatic, mostly represented by Arabic in North Africa; the third is the Nilo-Saharan, which is present in the North-East of Africa with Karimojong, Turkana and Toposa; finally, we can find also a minor but unique language, Koisan, marked by the peculiar “click” sound.

It can be generally asserted that languages pertaining to each of these groups are always understandable each other. Only Luganda differs because it developed from the autochthonous parlance.

Due to the linguistic complexity of Africa, it is not unusual to find persons able to speak or communicate in more than one language, a phenomenon that moreover promotes and facilitates code-mixing, the developing of mixed varieties or even ‘lingua francas” to assure mutual understanding between non mother tongue people: this is what happened to Luganda or Swahili. This last one, born to help commercial relationships, mostly developed on the Tanzania coast of which is official language, but is also well understood in the whole of East Africa and Uganda.

With the Independence, many African Countries had to face the problem of choosing an official language that could be as representative as possible. To avoid discrimination towards local diversity, many newborn Countries decided to adopt the language of the colonial power they had been dominated by: European derived languages were definitely understood by the majority of people, already developed, while many native derived languages had never been written nor did they own a distinct structure.

Even after the choice of a national language had been done, some local idioms survived and changed to become “new official languages”; this is, once again, the case of Swahili, spoken besides English in Kenya and Tanzania, that made possible to vehicle the culture of a part of the population, avoiding those rivalries that often separate different ethnic groups.
There are two ways to recognize a National Language: “de jure” (officially) or “de facto” (used by population as national). In the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance, French is the “de jure” language, while 4 “lingua francas” or “national languages” are spoken by people: Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.

The choice of a language as “official” determines the strengthening of that language together with the cultural patrimony it vehicles and promotes. As a consequence, speakers of that language will probably acquire a predominant social position. This can be easily understood if we think that official African Languages are always European derived and learnt through scholastic education.

With the exception of few cases, the normal situation foresees the gradual dying of a large number of African native languages: according to “UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger “, 250 African languages are on the edge of the disappearance, while more than 300 are extinguishing. The absence of transmission of some African Languages implies the death of entire cultural heritages, their history and societies. For this reason UNESCO is supporting the development of a trilingual system among African people: mother tongue, local carrier language and international language. An ideal project, unfortunately hard to be carried out and realized.

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Category: Foreign Language