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This is also Appendix I (Section 12.1) of the Survey Document

Major Languages of Africa

Language is the central consideration in localisation, and questions regarding choice of languages to localise in, choice of dialect when a language has more than one, and prioritization of languages when there will be work on several, are likely to confront any localisation effort. Therefore it is useful to have more information on the languages, their interrelationship, and their contemporary use. In brief, it is important to look at specifics to the extent possible when discussing localisation in Africa.

This section therefore provides profiles of a select group of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. An explanation of the choice of languages follows the list of language profiles, below.

1.  Language Profiles for Localisation

A template of the topics
covered in each language profile
provides explanations of the topics.

2.  Major Languages of Africa - explanation

2.1  Many languages, many dialects

The figure of 2000 languages is often cited for Africa, representing about a third of the living languages of the world. A lot depends on how one defines language. Many languages have dialectal variants, and in many cases tongues with different names are so closely related that native speakers can communicate. At what point is a variant so distinct as to be considered a separate language? When can different variants be treated as a unit? These are critical questions for localisation in many cases, and sometimes there may be more than one answer depending on the nature and goals of the localisation.

SIL International, through its well known encyclopedic effort called Ethnologue to document all human languages, has tended to distinguish among dialects as separate languages. While this may be appropriate when considering the linguistic characteristics of a particular tongue and the precise way to translate important texts, it is arguably of less importance for verbal communication and for less exacting text reqirements like a set of commands in a software interface.

On the other end of the spectrum is the tendency to group together interintelligible tongues - usually dialects of a language. This is the approach for instance of the Center for Advanced Studies of African Societies (CASAS) in its advocacy and research work. For purposes of this study, similar tongues will be considered together, though reference will be made to Ethnologue's linguistic information.

2.2  Choice of languages for this document

The question then arises how to choose which languages to consider in this report. A useful list is that arrived at for an entirely diferent purpose - prioritizing African language instruction efforts at U.S. universities. In 1979, specialists in African languages identified a total of 83 languages (some grouped) based on their importance in terms of number of speakers and regional use. A project headed by linguist David Dwyer of Michigan State University compiled information on these languages for publication (Dwyer 1987) and eventual posting on a website (Webbook of African Language Resources 1997). Along the way the number of languages was raised to 85 by the splitting up of one large grouping of southern African languages.

Because that list was not compiled with localisation in mind, it was recognized when adopting it for this PanAfrican Localisation project, that it probably would need to be modified. In addition, several questions were identified regarding the choice of languages, including:

  • For some smaller countries, their main indigenous language(s) are not included - is this a problem and should all countries in Africa have at least one language represented in the list?
  • How appropriate are some of the language categories that concern clusters of languages? That is, that the category includes tongues that are different enough that even though they may share a common origin, be closely related, or bear the same name, they can't be considered a single unit for localisation purposes.
  • Should we subdivide the list of languages by priority for attention as the abovementioned Handbook does?
  • Are there other sources that should be consulted about the list of languages and the inclusion of others?

We began this list with the 85 languages in the Webbook in 2005 for the purpose getting the process started, and as a basis for discussion in considering what ICT has to offer for the larger number of African languages. Much of the information we began with was drawn from the Webbook information, with additional information from sources such as Ethnologue added in progressively.

3.  Changes to the list of Major Languages

3.1  Changes in 2005

Several changes have been made as of early August 2005:

  • Added Afrikaans, as it is the third major language in South Africa in terms of speakers, and also spoken in Namibia. (It was not in the Webbook listing in early 2005, but has since been added.)
  • Added Beti, as it is a major cluster of interintelligible languages (Ewondo, Fang, Bulu) in southern Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. (It was not in the Webbook listing.)
  • Changed Kikuyu to Gikuyu, which is the preferred and more common usage now.
  • Added Runyakitara, incorporating the previous information on Nyoro, one of the four related tongues covered by this standardization. It is spoken mainly in Uganda.
  • Separated Northern Sotho (Sepedi), Southern Sotho (Sesotho), and Tswana into individual pages. They are separately listed as "official languages" in South Africa and despite their similarity have separate literature.

3.2  Changes in 2006

In August-September 2006 five lists of languages in Africa were reviewed to get an idea of which ones other experts considered as meriting special attention. (As mentioned above, the original choice of languages was based on the Webbook of African Language Resources). These five include:

  1. A list of 50 cross-border languages and language clusters put together by linguist Ben Elugbe of the University of Ibadan. This was part of an article for presentation at a conference on crossborder languages held in Okahandja, Namibia in 1996 (Elugbe 1998; Legère 1998).
  2. A list of about 400 languages published by French development expert Michel Malherbe (2000). Some of these are indicated as most important in terms of usage.
  3. A list of 159 "community languages" published in 1985 as part of a survey of use of African languages in literacy and education.
  4. A list of 12-15 "core languages" that, according to linguist Kwesi Kwaa Prah (2002, 2003), are spoken by 75-85% of Africans as first or additional languages.
  5. A list of nationally and areally dominant languages by country from an appendix of a book by linguist Herman Batibo of University of Dar es Salaam (Batibo 2005).

Like the the list of languages covered in Dwyer's Handbook/Webbook, these lists served purposes other than localisation of ICT. Nevertheless, they offer a helpful way to check whether there may be other languages that ought to be added based on number of speakers and importance of use.

Based on the information from those lists, the following languages were added (these include the mumerically most significant of the languages from Elugbe's list that were not previously on this list ...):

  • The Bedawi or Beja language, spoken by about a million people in Sudan and Eritrea.
  • The Dagaare language (or cluster), which has about a million speakers in northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso.
  • The Kwanyama language, spoken by about a million speakers in southeastern Angola and the Caprivi region of Namibia. It has been the subject of an effort at cross-border planning.

3.3  Changes in 2007

A new page on Oshiwambo replaces that of Kwanyama. Oshiwambo is an appelation covering the very closely related tongues Kwanyama, Ndonga, and Kwambi.

The article on Ndebele has been split into separate articles on Northern Ndebele, a Nguni language, and Southern Ndebele, which is closer to the Sotho languages.

4.  Other languages

Ultimately the selection of languages in the list does not indicate a determination that localization must take place in them, or a decision that localization is unimportant in other tongues. It is merely a way to begin discussing the specifics localisation.

If you would like to suggest other languages, please enter them on the More Languages page with a brief explanation justifying their inclusion in this list.

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