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Language Families in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. A language family is a group of languages that traces its descent to a common progenitor. That progenitor ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

A language family is a group of languages that traces its descent to a common progenitor. That progenitor is commonly referred to as the “proto-language,” which linguists can’t quite determine with precision or certainty, but which is nonetheless conceptualized as the “original” language from which several related languages devolved. 

Linguists have identified four language families in Africa: Afro-Asiatic, Niger Congo, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan or “click” languages. Of these four language families, as I pointed out in a previous article, three—that is, Afro-Asiatic, Niger Congo, and Nilo-Saharan languages—are represented in Nigeria.  That makes Nigeria the linguistic microcosm of Africa. 

(Khoisan languages, also called “click” languages because they sound like short light metallic sounds, are exclusive to southern Africa).

Before I discuss the language families in Nigeria in some detail, I want to remark that I have always found the distribution of language families in Nigeria fascinating because it dislocates our habitual perception of inter-ethnic relations. For instance, it is customary to refer to people in northwest Nigeria as “Hausa-Fulani” people. Yet, Hausa and Fulani belong to two separate language families. While Hausa is an Afro-Asiatic language, Fulani is a Niger Congo language. That means, as you will see shortly, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, etc. have a common linguistic ancestor, although the Fulani share more cultural and political similarities with the Hausa.
A map of language families in Africa; I left out Austronesian in my article
 Again, although the Fulani and the Berom of Plateau State see themselves as belonging to the furthest poles of northern Nigeria’s political and cultural divide, especially in light of the recent internecine ethnic conflict in Plateau State, they not only belong to the larger Niger Congo language family (to which many languages in central and southern Nigeria belong); they actually belong to the same Atlantic Congo subfamily of the Niger Congo family.

Another surprising fact about Nigeria’s language family classification is that Hausa, the most prominent member of the Afro-Asiatic family in Nigeria, shares the same ancestor with the Angas of Plateau State. In fact, just like Hausa, Angas belongs to the Chadic subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Yet two ethnic groups couldn’t be more culturally different than the Hausa and the Angas. Other well-known linguistic cousins of Hausa are the Tangale of Gombe State, the Bole of Yobe State, the Bachama of Adamawa State, and the Bokkos of Plateau State (which I learned is former Governor Dariye’s native language).

Let me know proceed to write brief notes on the three language families in Nigeria.

Niger Congo language family
This is by far the largest language family in Nigeria—and in Africa. In fact, some linguists claim that the Niger Congo language family has the highest number of distinct languages in the world. Proto-Niger Congo language is indigenous to Africa, and almost all languages in Nigeria’s southern and central regions belong to the Niger Congo group. The best-known Niger Congo language in the far north is Fulani.

The Niger Congo family has many subphyla such as Mande (represented in Nigeria by the cluster of Borgu languages around New Bussa and Kaiama called Boko or Bokobaru), Atlantic (which is represented in Nigeria by Fulani), Gur (which is represented in Nigeria by Batonu in Kwara State), Kwa (which is represented by such big language groups as Yoruba, Igbo, Itsekiri, Nupe, Igala, Ibibio-Efik, Idoma, etc. making it the biggest subphylum in the Niger Congo family), Benue–Congo ( represented in Nigeria by Tiv, Jukun, Tarok, Kambari, Ogoni, etc.) and Adamawa–Ubangian (represented by several Adamawa and Taraba languages).

Note that these classifications aren’t neat, unchanging categories. Linguists frequently revise the classifications based on new evidence. But experts have determined that the Niger Congo languages share sufficient similarities in structural characteristics and lexical properties to warrant being identified as a language family.

The Afro-Asiatic family
This is one of only two language families in the world that are found in two continents—Asia and Africa. The other is the Indo-European language family that is found in Asia and Europe. 

Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Hausa are prominent members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Historical linguists say that the earliest speakers of Afro-Asiatic languages lived in Asia. Some of them later migrated to Africa. The Bayajidda myth of origin that the Hausa people cherish may very well be, as one anthropologist says, a folk crystallization of the memories of this migration.

As with the Niger Congo family, there are many subphyla of the Afro-Asiatic family in Nigeria. They are the Chadic subphylum (represented in Nigeria by Hausa, Angas, Bole, Tangale, etc.), the Semitic subphylum (represented in Nigeria by Shuwa Arab in Borno State), and the Berber subphylum represented in Nigeria by the clusters of migrant Tuareg or “Buzu” people in northern Nigeria. The other subphyla of the Afro-Asiatic family—Cushitic, Egyptian, and Omotic—have no representatives in Nigeria.

The Nilo-Saharan family
This is the least numerically significant language family in Nigeria. Most of the members of this language group are in Southern Sudan and East Africa, suggesting that the Proto-Nilo-Saharan language was somewhere between Southern Sudan and East Africa. Luo, the native language of President Barack Obama’s father, is a prominent member of the Nilo-Saharan language family.

The most prominent representative of the Nilo-Saharan language family in Nigeria is Kanuri. Other less well-known members of the group in Nigeria are Dendi (who can be found in small numbers in the Borgu area of Kwara State and in Argungu and Bagudo local government areas of Kebbi State) and Zarma (who are native to Niger Republic and whose language is mutually intelligible with Dendi, but who can be found in small numbers in many northern Nigerian states). Zarma and the Dendi are Songhai languages.

How languages are classified
Linguists determine the relationship between languages and map their divergence, that is, the time they started sounding different from their “original” source through the science of lexicostatistics and glottochronology. An American linguist by the name of Morris Swadesh was the first to develop what he called “100 basic vocabularies” that he said are so intrinsic to a language that they can’t be borrowed from another language. Some examples from his list are “one,” “woman,” “tree,” “sand,” “good,” “name,” “sun,” “moon,” “star,” “blue,” etc.

 He compared these vocabularies (which are now called the “Swadesh list") across languages to determine similarities in sound and meaning. He used this to group languages. 

Other linguists challenged, advanced, or tweaked his formula over the course of the years to map the development of languages and to classify languages. The formula isn’t fool-proof, but it has been used to shed light on the form and content of languages.

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