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AFRICAN ENGLISH Short form AfrE. The English language as used in Africa. In principle, the term can refer to English used anywhere from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope, including in Egypt by speakers of Arabic, in Nigeria by speakers of Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, and in the Republic of South Africa by speakers of Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, and other regional languages, as well as by settlers of British origin. In practice, however, the term is usually restricted to Black Africa, especially to ex-British colonies, with three subcategories: WEST AFRICAN ENGLISH (Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, with Liberia as a special case because of its American associations), EAST AFRICAN ENGLISH (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and perhaps Sudan), and Southern African English (Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, with South Africa as a special case because of its history and ethnic diversity).

In the second sense, the term is open to two further interpretations: as either all forms of English since the establishment of trading posts in the 17c, including pidgins and creoles, or only the forms spoken and written by educated Black Africans after some territories were administered by the British (such as Ghana and Nigeria) and/or settled by the British (such as Kenya and Zimbabwe). If the first sense is adopted, English has been in Africa for nearly 400 years. If the second sense is adopted, English in Africa dates from the mid-19c. However the term is interpreted, the reality and worth of an indigenized African English (with subvarieties such as Kenyan English and Nigerian English) are controversial matters, asserted by some, denied by others, advocated by some and denounced by others. English is in daily use for many purposes in 18 sub-Saharan countries (including as a lingua franca between speakers of different indigenous languages), and reflects all manner of local and regional influences. It is also taught as a second language in francophone countries. To discuss such matters, the term African English seems inescapable.


The English pidgins and creoles of West Africa have been the product of contacts between Africans and Europeans who were concerned at first with trade and later with colonialism. These varieties were significant not only in West Africa but also in the development of creoles elsewhere, particularly in the New World. Educated AfrE, however, evolved out of the formal teaching of English as a second language during the colonial era, when the grammar–translation method was the dominant approach to language learning and the teaching of English literature was central to all advanced work. Most teachers were British, with little or no knowledge of indigenous languages. During this period, the language was taught to multilingual Africans by multidialectal Britons, so that two kinds of variation were present from the start. Multilingualism and the difficulty of establishing a single national African language in each of the countries concerned made it easy to impose and then continue the use of English as the language for education, administration, and pan-regional communication.

Like French, Portuguese, and Spanish in other colonies, English became the medium of communication between the administration and its educated subjects as well as the prized vehicle of upward mobility. Formal education was a primary agent in its spread to the relatively few Africans admitted to the school system. As a result, English became the shared language of the colonial establishment and a Western-educated élite, while such African lingua francas as Hausa and Swahili continued to serve the everyday needs of the masses. Contact between standard English and these lingua francas (including the pidgin and creole Englishes of West Africa) has added to the complexity of AfrE and provided it with a range of situations in which diglossia, code-switching, and borrowing have been common.

Creative writing

As in other former colonial societies, creative writing has contributed to the emergence and recognition of AfrE as a distinct variety or group of varieties. In attempting to transcreate African cultures through their literary works in English, African writers have found it necessary to adapt and indigenize certain aspects of the language, including both lexicon and narrative style. The work of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe is an example of such creative indigenization. He has observed:
My answer to the question, can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say: I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost (Transition 18, 1965).

This adaptation of the language to accommodate the African cultural experience, combined with the unconscious structural adjustments attendant on language contact and foreign-language learning, accounts for the development of an English that is distinctively African.

The contemporary situation

English is an official language of 16 countries: in West Africa Cameroon (with French), Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone; in East Africa Sudan (with Arabic), Uganda; in Southern Africa Botswana, Lesotho (with Sesotho), Malawi (with Chichewa), Namibia, South Africa (with Afrikaans and nine indigenous languages), Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili is the official language, English the second language and medium of higher education. Because of its official role and use by the media, standard English occupies a privileged place in the stratification of languages in these regions, but is by and large a minority language learned mainly through formal education. Depending on situation, the choice of code to be used in a conversation is generally a local language, a national language or lingua franca, or English. Other elements in such a range of choices are the pidgins and creoles of English in West Africa and of Afrikaans in South Africa and Namibia. Because of the large number of countries and the vast distances and considerable cultural differences involved, it is not easy to list examples of usages that are true for AfrE as a whole, but some generalizations are possible.


(1) Non-rhotic and generally syllable-timed. (2) West African speakers tend to have antepenultimate word stress as in 'condition, East and Southern African speakers to have penultimate word stress as in main'tenance, reflecting that of the Bantu languages. (3) By and large, there is a reduced system of five to seven vowels /i, e, a, o, u/ and perhaps /ɔ, ɛ/, with such homophones as bit/beat (sometimes distinguished by length), had/hard as /had/, full/fool as /ful/, and cut/court/caught as /kɔt/. Individual items may be variously realized: bed as /bed/ or /bɛd/, bird as /bed/ or /bɔd/. (4) The consonants /ɵ, ð/, are usually realized in West Africa as /t/ and /d/ (‘tree of dem’ for three of them), in East and Southern Africa as /s/ and /z/ (‘sree of zem’ for three of them). Useful/youthful and breeze/breathe may be homophones, having the first pronunciation for both members of each pair. (5) The nasal /ŋ/ is often pronounced as /n/ or /ŋg/ (‘singgin’ for singing). (6) The consonants /l/ and /r/ are often exchanged (‘load’ for road, ‘rolly’ for lorry, ‘fright’ for flight), but this is becoming rare in West Africa. In parts of Nigeria, there is an exchange of /l/ and /n/, as in lomba wan for number one. (7) Word-final consonant clusters are often simplified: ‘nest’ for next, ‘nees’ for needs.


The discussion of syntax tends to centre on deviation from standard English rather than a consideration of distinctively AfrE forms. Features include: (1) Sporadic countable use of usually uncountable nouns: firewoods for bits of firewood, furnitures for pieces of furniture, correspondences for letters. (2) The inconsistent omission of the plural in some contexts: Madam X gave birth to triplet. (3) A tendency to repeat words for emphasis and rhetorical purposes: Do it small small Do it slowly, bit by bit; What you say, you say; My boy, I see what I see; They blamed them, they blamed them for all the troubles that have befallen our land. (4) A common use of resumptive pronoun subjects: My daughter she is attending that school; My father he is very tall. (5) Yes–no questions typically answered to accord with form rather than meaning: Hasn't he left yet?—Yes, He hasn't; Didn't you break that?—Yes, I didn't. (6) Simple verbs often used instead of their phrasal-verb derivatives: crop crop up, pick pick up, leave leave out, leave in.


(1) Words and phrases borrowed from local languages: West African oga master, boss (Yoruba); South African madumbi tubers (Zulu), East African pombe local traditional beer (Swahili). (2) Hybrids from English and local languages: Southern African lobola-beast, from Nguni ukolobola (to give dowry), an enemy who uses a bride price as a means of exploitation while feigning friendship, kwela music, from Xhosa kwela (to get moving), penny-whistle music; East African mabenzi people and wabenzi, from Swahili, people who own Mercedes-Benz cars, the rich. (3) Loan translations from local languages: West African chewing stick a piece of wood used as a toothbrush, cornstick a corncob, tight friend a close friend, intimate, mami water a female water spirit, enstool to enthrone, destool to overthrow (a chief), with derivatives enstoolment, destoolment. (4) Semantic shift in the use of everyday words: Nigerian and Cameroonian in state pregnant, Nigerian to have long legs to wield power and influence, West African high life local music similar to jazz, Kenyan thank you reply to ‘goodbye’, East African beat me a picture take my photograph, and It's/that's porridge It's/that's a piece of cake.


(1) AfrE, especially in works of fiction and the media, is marked by the use of African proverbs and figurative usage, and by a narrative style characteristic of African rhetoric, using titles, praise words, and special epithets: My brother, son of my fathers, you have failed; You are mighty, my brother, mighty and dangerous; Do you blame a vulture for perching over a carcass?; Father, isn't it true that a wise man becomes wiser by borrowing from other people's heads? Isn't it true that a rich man becomes richer through the toils of those he exploits? (2) It is frequently marked by codemixing involving various lingua francas: ‘He paraded me to the world, I'ogolonto’ (Igbo ‘stark-naked’, in Wole Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest, 1967); ‘Each feared onwana wa rikutene—a bastard child’ (in Abel Mwanga's Nyangeta: The Name from the Calabash, 1976). This mixing may also include the use of pidgin: ‘“He no be like dat,” said Joseph. “Him no gentleman. Not fit take bribe”’ ( Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease, 1960).

English influence

The influence of English on African languages varies considerably, depending on the extent of contact in an area. In some languages, such as those in the francophone zones, English has supplied very few words: for example, forms of kitchen, matches, and school. In others, such as Hausa, Shona, and Swahili, because of bilingualism and code-mixing, the influence may have affected not only vocabulary but also structure. Anglicisms typically occur in such registers as administration, education, finance, and technology, such as: Hausa cifjoji chief judge, satifiket certificate, dala dollar, injin engine; Shona inispekita inspector, chikoro school, cheki cheque, rori lorry; and Swahili meneja manager, jiografia geography, pensheni pension, beteri battery.


As English continues to spread, through education, the media, and administrative institutions, with Africans serving as models for Africans, the distinctness of the varieties subsumed under the term African English is likely to become more evident and the varieties are more likely to be recognized as legitimate by both their own users and the rest of the English speaking world. See SOUTH AFRICAN ENGLISH.

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African languages

African languages, geographic rather than linguistic classification of languages spoken on the African continent. Historically the term refers to the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, which do not belong to a single family, but are divided among several distinct linguistic stocks. It is estimated that more than 800 languages are spoken in Africa; however, they belong to comparatively few language families. Some 50 African languages have more than half a million speakers each, but many others are spoken by relatively few people. Tonality is a common feature of indigenous African languages. There are usually two or three tones (based on pitch levels rather than the rising and falling in inflections of Chinese tones) used to indicate semantic or grammatical distinction.

In the last few decades great strides have been made in the study and classification of the African languages, although the results are still far from definitive. The principal linguistic families of Africa are now generally said to be Afroasiatic; Niger-Kordofanian (including Niger-Congo); Nilo-Saharan; and Khoisan, or Click; two other stocks, Indo-European and Malayo-Polynesian, are also represented. Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan are two large families of languages spoken exclusively in Africa. These languages are spoken in all parts of the continent, from the extreme south up to the territory of the Afroasiatic languages of N Africa. The Afroasiatic family is also spoken in the Middle East. Some authorities believe that the languages spoken in the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan families are sufficiently similar to suggest that both stocks had the same ancestor language.


The Niger-Kordofanian family has two branches, Niger-Congo and Kordofanian. The Kordofanian tongues are spoken in Sudan and form five small groups (Koalib, Tegali, Talodi, Tumtum, and Katla). Niger-Congo is an enormous branch whose languages are found throughout S and central Africa and in most of W Africa below the Sahara. It is generally subdivided into six groups: West Atlantic; Mande; Gur, or Voltaic; Kwa; Benue-Congo; and Adamawa-Eastern.

The West Atlantic branch includes many languages, among them Wolof (in Senegal), Temne (in Sierra Leone), and Fulani, the tongue of several million people inhabiting an area from Senegal to a region E of Lake Chad. The Mande group consists of languages prevalent in the Niger valley, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, such as Mende in Liberia and Malinke in Mali. Gur, or Voltaic, is made up of several language groups and includes Mossi, the dominant tongue of Burkina Faso, as well as the Dagomba and Mamprusi of N Ghana. The Kwa languages, spoken chiefly in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, and Liberia, include Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo, Nupe, Bini, Ashanti, and possibly Ijo (which is sometimes considered a separate branch). Benue-Congo includes the huge Bantu group of hundreds of tongues found throughout central and S Africa (see Bantu languages), as well as such non-Bantu languages as Tiv, Jukun, and Efik, which are spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon. The Adamawa-Eastern branch, to which Banda, Zande, and Sango belong, is composed of a number of languages spoken in Nigeria, Cameroon, and an area north of the Bantu territory to Sudan.

A characteristic feature of most of the Niger-Congo languages is the use of tones. Case inflection is entirely lacking, and gender marking is almost unknown in the Niger-Congo family. The verb root tends to remain unchanged; moods and tenses are denoted either by particles or by auxiliary verbs. For example, in a number of languages the infinitival is the auxiliary designating the future. Typical of the Niger-Kordofanian stock as a whole is the division of nouns, which has been compared to the gender system of the Indo-European tongues. However, Indo-European features only three classifications (masculine, feminine, and neuter), whereas some of the Niger-Kordofanian languages have as many as 20 noun classes. One class, for example, designates human beings, another is used for liquids, and a third class is used for animals. Each class has its own pair of affixes to indicate the singular and the plural.


The Nilo-Saharan language stock has six branches: Songhai (spoken in Mali), Saharan (including languages spoken both near Lake Chad, as in Kanuri, and in central Sahara), Maban (a group of tongues found E of Lake Chad), Furian (comprising only Fur, an important language of Sudan), Koman (a group of languages of Ethiopia and Sudan), and Chari-Nile, the principal branch of Nilo-Saharan, composed of the Eastern Sudanic languages, the Central Sudanic languages, and two additional tongues, Kunama and Berta; the Chari-Nile tongues are spoken in Sudan, Congo (Kinshasa), Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Kenya, mainland Tanzania, and Ethiopia. The Eastern Sudanic subdivision of Chari-Nile itself has ten branches, the two most important of which are Nubian and Nilotic, both found in Sudan. Nubian is unique among modern African languages in that it has written texts of the medieval period. The Nilotic tongues include Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer, Masai, Turkana, Nandi, and Suk. The Central Sudanic subdivision of Chari-Nile consists of a number of languages, among them Mangbetu, spoken in Congo (Kinshasa), and Efe, used by the pygmies. Like the Niger-Congo languages, most of the Nilo-Saharan languages use tones; some Nilo-Saharan tongues inflect their nouns according to case, and still others have gender. The verb in many Nilo-Saharan languages has a system of verb derivation.


The Khoisan, or Click, linguistic family is made up of three branches: the Khoisan languages of the San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoi, spoken in various parts of sub-Saharan Africa; Sandawe, a language found in E Africa; and Hatsa (Hadzane or Hadzapi), also spoken in E Africa. Although all the Khoisan languages use click sounds, Sandawe and Hatsa are unlike the other Khoisan tongues and are not related to each other. All of the Khoisan languages appear to use tones to distinguish meanings, and the Khoikhoi languages and some of the San languages inflect the noun to show case, number, and gender. The outstanding characteristic of the Khoisan tongues, however, is their extensive use of click sounds. (Examples of click sounds familiar to speakers of English are the interjection tsk-tsk and the click used to signal to a horse.) Click sounds, which are found only in Africa as parts of words, involve a sucking action by the tongue, but the position of the tongue and the way in which air is released into the mouth vary, just as in the formation of other sounds; thus clicks may be dental, palatal, alveolar, lateral, labial, or retroflex; voiced, voiceless, or nasal; aspirated or glottal. Six types of clicks are known for the San languages as a whole, although no single tongue has all of them. The Khoikhoi languages have dental, palatal, retroflex, and lateral clicks. Some Bantu languages, notably Zulu and Xhosa, which are spoken near the Khoisan area, have borrowed click sounds from the Khoisan languages.

Indo-European and Malayo-Polynesian

Indo-European tongues used in Africa include Afrikaans and English (native to many people in the Republic of South Africa and Zimbabwe). African Americans coming to Liberia in the 19th cent. introduced English there, and repatriated slaves who settled in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the 19th cent. used a form of pidgin English, from which a creole English (now called Krio) developed. A form of creole Portuguese is current in Guinea-Bissau. Many other African lands employ European languages, particularly French, Portuguese, and English, which are often used in schools and in government as a second language. The Malayo-Polynesian family is represented by Malagasy, which is spoken on the island of Madagascar.

Twentieth-Century Developments

Most of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan languages still have no writing (except perhaps for translations of the Bible), although there are several important exceptions. The Nilo-Saharan tongue Nubian, the only modern African language with early written records (dating from the 8th cent. AD to the 14th cent.), is of considerable linguistic interest. Its alphabet was derived from that of Coptic. Swahili, a Bantu tongue of the Niger-Kordofanian stock, was written before the European conquest of Africa (see Swahili language), and Vai, a language belonging to the Mande subdivision of Niger-Congo, employs an indigenous script developed in the 19th cent.

Because the majority of Africans do not know a European tongue, the use of written African languages has become increasingly important for the growing field of mass communication. Arabic and Roman letters are now being used increasingly for languages of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan stocks, and the International African Institute has had some success in promoting the use of the written form of indigenous African languages. Many newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts now employ various vernaculars, and film theaters can switch sound tracks to accommodate the audience in a given language area. However, Africa's linguistic diversity can be a hindrance to mass communication, and European tongues (especially English and French) are still widely used in the media.

The modern scientific study of the classification and distribution of African languages has thrown some light on the history of Africa and its inhabitants. More knowledge can be expected from the combined use in the future of evidence from linguistic sources, historical records, reliable traditions, and archaeology. For example, the study of loan words from languages such as Greek, Latin, Punic, Arabic, and Portuguese should reveal much about contacts between African and non-African cultures. The study of loan words of African origin that have been absorbed by English has become of increasing interest to American linguists and scholars.


See E. A. Gregersen, ed., Language in Africa (1977); M. Mann and D. Dalby A Thesaurus of African Languages (1987).

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AFRIKAANS ENGLISH. English used as a second language in South Africa and Namibia by speakers of AFRIKAANS. It is generally rhotic, characterized by a trilled or rolled r. It also has schwa where RP has the vowel /I/ in such words as pin and sit (/pən/ and /sət/), a sound regarded as the characteristic South African vowel, with a varying influence on SOUTH AFRICAN ENGLISH. Initial and medial /h/ is often voiced, and gives the impression of being dropped, so that red hair may be heard as ‘red air’. Conversely, there is often an intrusive aspirate between vowels, as in ‘cre-haytion’ for creation and ‘hi-haytus’ for hiatus. Before /ju/, as in you, the intrusive /h/ is palatalized as in English huge, while huge is often rendered as ‘yoodge’. Final voiced consonants tend to be devoiced: ‘dok’ for dog, ‘piecess’ for pieces. Because Afrikaans verbs are not marked for third-person singular, confusion of concord is common, including in the media, particularly with is/are, has/have, does/do. Use of prepositions is also influenced by Afrikaans: He's by the house (at the house), She's not here on the moment (at the moment), They're waiting on their results (for their results). Many expressions are carried over from Afrikaans: 'I rode (drove) all over town looking for my shoes but didn't find it (compare *dit, the Afrikaans inanimate pronoun for ‘them’). Most frequently heard is the phrase Is it?, from Afrikaans Is dit? (Really? Is that so? Are they?, etc.). Some Afrikaans-derived expressions have been assimilated into South African English, such as He's lazy to get up He's too lazy to get up, The tree is capable to withstand frost The tree is capable of withstanding frost, He farms with wine grapes He grows grapes for wine, and The village boasts with beautiful vineyards The village boasts beautiful vineyards.

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AFRICANISM. An African usage, style, or way of thought; a word or phrase from an African language, such as juju a charm or fetish (probably from Hausa djudju evil spirit, fetish). The term is sometimes modified to refer to parts of the continent: South Africanism, West Africanism. See AFRICAN ENGLISH.

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