Early African languages
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African Languages


Girls singing in Fulani, a West African language

Because Africa is such a big place, people who lived in different parts of Africa spoke different languages. There are hundreds of different African languages. In North Africa and Egypt, people spoke languages related to Arabic and Hebrew, called Egyptian and Berber. Under Roman rule, some people also spoke Latin or Greek. Then when North Africa was conquered by the Arabs, many people there began to speak Arabic (although others continued to speak Berber).

In West Africa, people spoke languages related to Bantu (BAN-too), like Yoruba. This language gradually spread across Africa, east and south, so that now people in many parts of Africa speak languages related to Bantu. Probably before this, most people in the southern half of Africa spoke languages like the !Kung language. Nobody knows whether Bantu-speaking people moved all over the place, or just new people began to speak the Bantu language.

In East Africa, people spoke a Bantu language called Swahili (swah-HEE-lee), which had so many Arabic words in it that it was almost a mixed language, a creole.

And in South Africa, people spoke languages which used a lot of clicking sounds and are often called click languages, which sound different and are not closely related to any other known languages. One of these languages is !Kung. These may be like the earliest human languages. They are different because the people who lived in South Africa were isolated, and didn't speak to outsiders very often.

Around 500 AD, when Bantu-speaking people moved into South Africa, they began to mix a lot of local !Kung words into their own language, and that created new languages called Xhosa and Zulu.

More about African Literature
Learn by doing - African Literature

Bibliography and further reading:

Or check out this African languages article from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

African languages and literature
Ancient Africa
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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