African Linguistic Atlas Project





The number of African languages has been estimated at 2035 (Grimes, ed. 1996). However, this number is not steady because some languages are becoming extinct from not being spoken, and are therefore discarded. And new ones are being discovered. When one discards Indo-European and Malayo-Polynesian that were introduced in Africa in the past two millennia among which Arabic, Malaga, Afrikaans, Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, Hindi, bouchpourri, Urdu, Chinese, there are 2000 languages remaining. These languages are divided into four  (4) phyla or groups: Niger-Congo (1456 languages of which 500 are Bantu languages), Afro-asiatic (371), Nilo-Saharan (196) and Khoisian (35). Brend Heine and Derek Nurse (2000: page 5) who reported these figures warned that the figure of 2000 languages depend greatly on the line of demarcation between language and dialect.

It is not always obvious whether one is dealing with a language or a dialect of a previously counted language. Also, a number of writers especially those of Encyclopedia Britannica estimate the number of indigenous African languages to be between 1000 and 15000, whereas those of the Encyclopedia Questia from the University of Columbia (USA) propose the figure of 800 among which 50 are spoken by more than half a million people! Mathias Brezinger (Cologne University, Germany) on the other hand, counts 103 languages spoken by more than a million people which he calls "major languages".

Despite these unsteady numbers that may vary from simple to double, many important works of compilation and classification have been continuously produced during decades bearing the signature of celebrities such as Delafosse, Westermann, Meihoff, Greenberg, Guthrie, Dalby. Again, today, David Dalby has authored one of the biggest register and system of codification of world languages for the programme known as Linguasphere that he initiated and developed. On the other hand, La Société Internationale de Linguistique (SIL) have compiled in the Ethnologue a vast document on world languages and has created a code system consisting of 3 letters that has been unified with the system ISO 639b. Altogether, this rich document has helped to create linguistic atlases or maps, most of the time limitted by region and some of them concern the African continent. One of the most impressive atlas is created by le Musée de Tervuren (Belgium). Nothing is perfect however and everybody knows that there is still a lot of ground to be covered before we gain serious knowledge of all languages spoken in the continent.

The Atlas Lingusitique d'Afrique that l'ACALAN is proposing to make is a new step in this road, a step that is particularly important because of imprecented technological means that are available today.




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