Languages of Nigeria

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Languages of Nigeria
Regional languages Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo
Sign languages Nigerian Sign Language
Hausa Sign Language
Bura Sign Language
A Linguistic map of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Benin.
Sign in English, outside the University of Lagos

There are 521 languages that have been spoken in Nigeria (nine of which are now extinct).[1][2] The official language of Nigeria, English, the former colonial language, was chosen to facilitate the cultural and linguistic unity of the country. Communication in English language is much more popular in the country's urban communities than it is in the rural areas (comprising about three quarters of the country's population).

The other major languages are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Ibibio, Edo, Fulfulde, and Kanuri. Nigeria's linguistic diversity is a microcosm of Africa as a whole, encompassing three major African languages families: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, and Niger–Congo. Nigeria also has several as-yet unclassified languages, such as Cen Tuum, which may represent a relic of an even greater diversity prior to the spread of the current language families.

Language families[edit]

Niger–Congo languages[edit]

Niger–Congo predominates in central and southern Nigeria; the main branches represented in Nigeria are Mande, Atlantic, Gur, Kwa, Benue–Congo and Adamawa–Ubangian. Mande is represented by the Busa cluster and Kyenga in the northwest. Fulfulde is the single Atlantic language, of Senegambian origin but now spoken by cattle pastoralists across the Sahel and largely in the North of Nigeria by the Fulani (sometimes Fulbe) diaspora.

The Ijoid languages are spoken across the Niger Delta and include Ịjọ (Ijaw), Kalabari, and the intriguing remnant language Defaka. The Efik language is spoken across the coastal southeastern part of Nigeria and includes the dialects Ibibio, Annang, and Efik proper. The single Gur language spoken is Baatọnun, in the extreme Northwest.

The Adamawa–Ubangian languages are spoken between central Nigeria and the Central African Republic. Their westernmost representatives in Nigeria are the Tula-Waja languages. The Kwa languages are represented by the Gun group in the extreme southwest, which is affiliated to the Gbe languages in Benin and Togo.

The classification of the remaining languages is controversial; Joseph Greenberg classified those without noun-classes, such as Yoruba, Igbo, and Ibibio (Efik, Ibibio, and Annang), as 'Eastern Kwa' and those with classes as 'Benue–Congo'. This was reversed in an influential 1989 publication and reflected on the 1992 map of languages, where all these were considered Benue–Congo. Recent opinion, however, has been to revert to Greenberg's distinction. The literature must thus be read with care and due regard for the date. There are several small language groupings in the Niger Confluence area, notably Ukaan, Akpes, Ayere-Ahan and Ọkọ, whose inclusion in these groupings has never been satisfactorily argued.

Former Eastern Kwa, i.e. West Benue–Congo would then include Igboid, i.e. Igbo language proper, Ukwuani, Ikwerre, Ekpeye etc., Yoruboid, i.e. Yoruba, Itsekiri and Igala, Akokoid (eight small languages in Ondo, Edo and Kogi state), Edoid including Edo (sometimes referred to as) Bini in Edo State, Ibibio-Efik, Idomoid (Idoma) and Nupoid (Nupe) and perhaps include the other languages mentioned above.

East Benue–Congo includes Kainji, Plateau (46 languages, notably Gamai language), Jukunoid, Dakoid and Cross River. Apart from these, there are numerous Bantoid languages, which are the languages immediately ancestral to Bantu. These include Mambiloid, Ekoid, Bendi, Beboid, Grassfields and Tivoid languages.

The geographic distribution of Nigeria's Niger–Congo languages is not limited to south-central Nigeria, as migration allows their spread to the linguistically Afro-Asiatic northern regions of Nigeria, as well as throughout West Africa and abroad. Igbo words such as 'unu' for 'you people', 'sooso' for 'only', 'obia' for 'native doctoring', etc. are used in patois of Jamaica and many Central American nations, Yoruba is spoken as a ritual language in cults such as the Santeria in the Caribbean and South-Central America, and the Berbice Dutch language in Surinam is based on an Ijoid language.

Even the above listed linguistic diversity of the Niger–Congo in Nigeria is deceptively limiting, as these languages may further consist of regional dialects that may not be mutually intelligible. As such some languages, particularly those with a large number of speakers, have been standardized and received a romanized orthography. Nearly all languages appear in a Latin alphabet when written.

The Efik, Igbo and Yoruba languages are notable examples of this process. The more historically recent standardization and romanization of Igbo has provoked even more controversy due to its dialectical diversity, but the Central Igbo dialect has gained the widest acceptance as the standard-bearer. Many such as Chinua Achebe have dismissed standardization as colonial and conservative attempts to simplify a complex mosaic of languages.

Such controversies typify inter- and intra-ethnic conflict endemic to post-colonial Nigeria. Also worthy of note is the Enuani dialect, a variation of the Igbo that is spoken among the Anioma. The Anioma are the Aniocha, Ndokwa, Ika and Oshimilli. An ethnic Igbo found in the Niger-Delta region. Standard Yoruba came into being due to the work Samuel Crowther, the first African bishop of the Anglican Church and owes most of its lexicon to the dialects spoken in Ọyọ and Ibadan.

Since Standard Yoruba's constitution was determined by a single author rather than by a consensual linguistic policy by all speakers, the Standard has been attacked regarding for failing to include other dialects and spurred debate as to what demarcates "genuine Yoruba". Linguistically speaking, all demonstrate the varying phonological features of the Niger–Congo family to which they belong, these include the use of tone, nasality, and particular consonant and vowel systems; more information is available here.

Afroasiatic languages[edit]

A map showing Afroasiatic speaking peoples in Nigeria.

The Afroasiatic languages of Nigeria divide into Chadic, Semitic and Berber. Of these, Chadic languages predominate, with 70+ languages. Semitic is represented by various dialects of Arabic spoken in the Northeast and Berber by the Tuareg-speaking communities in the extreme Northwest.

The Hausa language is the most well-known Chadic language in Nigeria; though there is a paucity of statistics on native speakers in Nigeria, the language is spoken by 24 million people in West Africa and is the second language of 15 million more. Hausa has therefore emerged as lingua franca throughout much of West Africa and the Sahel in particular. The language is spoken primarily amongst Muslims, and the language is often associated with Islamic culture in Nigeria and West Africa on the whole.

Hausa is classified as a West Chadic language of the Chadic grouping, a major subfamily of Afroasiatic. Culturally, the Hausa people have become closely integrated with the Fulani following the jihadist establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate by the Fulani Uthman dan Fodio in the 19th century. Hausa is the official language of a number states in Northern Nigeria and the most important dialect is generally regarded as that spoken in Kano,an Eastern Hausa dialect, which is the standard variety used for official purposes.

Eastern dialects also include some dialects spoken in Zaria, and Bauchi; Western Hausa dialects include Sakkwatanchi spoken in Sokoto, Katsinanchi in Katsina Arewanchi in both Gobir and Adar, Kebbi, and Zamfara. Katsina is transitional between Eastern and Western dialects. Northern Hausa dialects include Arewa and Arawa, while Zaria is a prominent Southern tongue version; Barikanchi is a pidgin formerly used in the military.

Hausa is a highly atypical Chadic language, with a reduced tonal system and a phonology influenced by Arabic. Other well-known Chadic languages include Ngas, Goemai, Mwaghavul, Bole, Ngizim, Bade and Bachama. In the East of Nigeria and on into Cameroun are the Central Chadic languages, such as Bura, the Higi cluster and Marghi. These are highly diverse and remain very poorly described. Many Chadic languages are severely threatened; recent searches by Bernard Caron for Southern Bauchi languages show that even some of those recorded in the 1970s have disappeared. However, unknown Chadic languages are still being reported, witness the recent description of Dyarim.

Hausa, as well as other Afroasiatic languages like Bade (another West Chadic language spoken in Yobe State), have historically been written in a modified Arabic script known as ajami, however, the modern official orthography is now a romanization known as boko first introduced by the British regime in the 1930s.

Systematic graphic of the Niger–Congo languages with numbers of speakers

References[edit]

  • Blench, Roger (2002) Research on Minority Languages in Nigeria in 2001. Ogmios.
  • Blench, Roger (1998) 'The Status of the Languages of Central Nigeria', in Brenzinger, M. (ed.) Endangered languages in Africa. Köln: Köppe Verlag, 187-206. online version
  • Crozier, David & Blench, Roger (1992) An Index of Nigerian Languages (2nd edition). Dallas: SIL.

External links[edit]

Lamle, Elias Nankap, Coprreality and Dwelling spaces in Tarokland. NBTT Press. Jos Nigeria in "Ngappak" journal of the Tarok Nation 2005