It’s impossible to encapsulate the variety of Africa’s languages in a single picture. The Continent’s complex history has had an equally complex effect on language. Some languages are vast, spoken over great distances by tens of millions. Some are tiny, spoken by single villages, towns or tribes. Many of these languages, which each encode millennia of tradition, history and culture, are critically endangered: one of the many reasons why the UN holds its International Mother Language Day.
To celebrate the day, we’ve produced an infographic, showing – if schematically – the range of Africa’s six most widely-spoken languages, languages that cover almost the entire continent. Also on the map are six languages chosen from the UNESCO atlas of world languages in danger, with populations ranging from 3 to 55,000 speakers. These are representatives only of the immense diversity of Africa’s 2000-3000 tongues.
Compiler’s note: it is of course extremely difficult to count numbers of language speakers, especially when the data is vague. Should only first-language speakers be counted? But then, what about Kiswahili and Hausa, which have fewer native speakers but are used across wide geographical areas as trade languages? It is important to remember that any depiction of African languages, other than the most exhaustive study, will be a compromise at best.