Early African languages
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African Languages

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Girls singing in Fulani, a West African language

September 2016 - 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.

Learn by doing - African Literature
More about African Literature

Bibliography and further reading about African languages and literature:

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

Xhosa
!Kung
Yoruba
Swahili
Ancient Africa
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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