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African Lingua Francas

What many of you out there in cyber space don't know is that I have two really nice statistics trackers attached to my linguistics blog in order to see which of my posts you all are reading. I can see what pages you enter from, where you click to, how long you spent connected to my blog, and even what search engine you used to find my blog. I can see how long you stayed connected to my blog, and most importantly I can see what keywords you searched for that brought you to my blog. If you know anything about how search engines work, you can probably imagine that I got a lot of strange entry keywords from all over the world that really have nothing to do with linguistics. Often times, though I see keywords that inspire me to write about or elaborate on something that I may have mentioned in a past post. Such was the case today as I was looking through my statistics counter and saw someone had searched for "most used african languages". A little bit archaic yes, but I knew what person X was getting at with their search. I realized that I probably hadn't spent too much time talking about African lingua francas, and instead I skip to the more difficult stuff, so today, I'm going to talk for a bit about them.

You might not know what I mean when I talk about a lingua franca, so I guess that that is a good place to start. A lingua franca is what is known as a language of wider communication...one that is used among groups of people who may speak different languages, even across a vast geographical span, that they can use to communicate with one another. Globally, you might have guessed that English is the lingua franca. In other places around the world, different lingua francas might be more popular, without a nation, a region, or a continent.

In the case of Africa, we can think of lingua francas on several levels. You probably know that Africa was colonized in the 1800s and 1900s by several of the European powers until the independence movement began in the late 1950s. For this reason, many of the former Africa colonies continues to use one of the languages of the European powers as a lingua franca or as an official language. Most widely spoken in Africa, depending on the colony, are English, French, and Portguese. I won't go into exactly what countries were colonized by which power...since you can look that up on your own if you're really interested.

The interesting thing about Africa though is that besides the languages of the former colonial powers and the hundreds and hundreds of local indigenous languages, several regional lingua francas have developed in the various regions of the continent. Because much of northern Africa is considered part of the Arab world, you can probably guess that the largest lingua franca in that region is Arabic. Of course each country has its own unique variety of Arabic, but they are mostly mutually intelligible. The most widely known lingua franca besides Arabic is definitely Swahili. Most people who know even just a speck about languages in Africa think of Swahili first. What many people don't know about Swahili, is that the variety that is most widely spoken was a particular dialect chosen from the island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. This is the purest academic form of the language. Swahili is the lingua franca of much of eastern and central Africa, and it even has official status in Tanzania.

In western Africa, the picture gets a little bit more difficult to discern. Depending on the particular area that you're in, many different lingua francas might come into play. It is for this reason that many people who live in west Africa have grown up knowing six or more languages. Some of the better known lingua francas in this part of the continent are Wolof (Senegal), Bamana (Mali and others), Fuldulde (all over West Africa), Dyula (Ivory Coast), Yoruba (Nigeria), and Hausa (Niger). Each of these languages is widely spoken by at least one million people. In central Africa, Sango is widely spoken, although centered in the Central African Republic. In some places in southern Africa, Zulu is widely spoken, as is !Xhosa. In South Africa, the situation is a little bit different. Although English and Afrikaans (a Dutch-based language) are widely spoken, the country has adopted over ten lingua francas.

Published Jan 28 2007, 01:58 AM by christophergreen
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