Atlantic languages

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West Atlantic, Volta–Congo A
Westernmost Africa
Linguistic classificationNiger–Congo

The Atlantic languages (or West Atlantic languages[note 1]) of West Africa are an obsolete proposed major group of the Niger–Congo languages. They are those languages west of Kru which have the noun-class systems characteristic of the Niger–Congo family; in this they are distinguished from their Mande neighbours, which do not. The Atlantic languages are highly diverse and it is now generally accepted that they do not form a valid group. Linguists such as Dimmendahl, Blench, Hyman and Segerer classify them into three or more independent branches of Niger–Congo. The term "Atlantic languages" is kept as a geographic term of convenience.

The Atlantic languages are spoken along the Atlantic coast from Senegal to Liberia, though transhumant Fula speakers have spread eastward and are found in large numbers across the Sahel, from Senegal to Nigeria, Cameroon and Sudan. Wolof of Senegal and several of the Fula languages are the most populous Atlantic languages, with several million speakers each; other significant members include Serer and the Jola dialect cluster of Senegal and Temne in Sierra Leone. The Senegambian languages exhibit consonant mutation, and most Atlantic languages have noun-class systems similar to those of the distantly related Bantu languages. Some languages are tonal, while others such as Wolof have pitch-accent systems. The basic word order tends to be SVO.


The Atlantic family was first identified by Sigismund Koelle in 1854. In the early 20th century, Carl Meinhof claimed that Fula was a Hamitic language, but August von Klingenhaben and Joseph Greenberg's work conclusively established Fula's close relationship with Wolof and Serer. W. A. A. Wilson notes that the validity of the family as a whole rests on much weaker evidence, though it is clear that the languages are part of the Niger–Congo family, based on evidence such as a shared noun-class system. However, comparative work on Niger–Congo is in its infancy. Classifications of Niger–Congo, usually based on lexicostatistics, generally propose that the various Atlantic languages are rather divergent, but less so than Mande and other languages that lack noun classes.

David Sapir (1971) proposed a classification of Atlantic into three branches, a northern group, a southern group, and the divergent Bijago language of the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau:[1]

Sapir's classification is widely cited in handbooks on African linguistics (e.g. Bender 1989, Williamson & Blench 2000), and is also used in the Ethnologue (22th ed., 2019).

The unity of the Atlantic languages has long been questioned, e.g. Dalby (1965), who argued for the Mel languages as a primary branch of Niger–Congo. At the current stage of research, the wide concept of a coherent Atlantic branch within the Niger–Congo family is no longer held up.[2]

Segerer (2010, 2016[3]) and Pozdniakov & Segerer (2017) propose a narrowed-down version of the Atlantic languages by excluding all languages of the southern branch, which they treat as four primary branches (viz. Sua, Limba, Gola, and the Mel languages) within the Niger–Congo family. The Bak languages are split from the northern languages as a coordinate subbranch within Atlantic (in the narrow sense). Bijago is assigned to the Bak languages.

Güldemann (2018) goes even further, and also treats Nalu amd MbulungishBaga Mboteni ("Rio Nunez") as unclassified first-order branches of Niger–Congo.[4]


Proto-Atlantic forms reconstructed by Pozdniakov & Segerer (2017):[5]

Gloss Proto-Atlantic
‘star’ *kʷʊʈ
‘to fly’ *yiiʈ
‘to die’ *keʈ
‘to rot’ *pʊʈ
‘three’ *taʈ
‘eye’ *giʈ
‘liver’ *heɲ
‘feather’ *lung
‘hair’ *wal
‘baobab’ *bak ~ *ɓak
‘to see’ *jok (?)
‘tree trunk’ *dik
‘to give birth’ *was / *bas


  1. ^ "West Atlantic" is the traditional term, following Diedrich Hermann Westermann; "Atlantic" is more typical in recent work, particularly since Bendor-Samuel (1989).



  1. ^ Sapir (1971), pp. 48–49.
  2. ^ Güldemann (2018), pp. 180–183.
  3. ^ Segerer, Guillaume (2016). A new, innovation-based classification of Atlantic languages. ACAL 47, Berkeley, Mar 23-26, 2016.
  4. ^ Güldemann (2018), p. 188.
  5. ^ Pozdniakov & Segerer (2017).


  • Dalby, David (1965). "The Mel languages: a reclassification of southern 'West Atlantic'." African language studies 6, 1-17.
  • Güldemann, Tom (2018). "Historical linguistics and genealogical language classification in Africa". In Güldemann, Tom (ed.). The Languages and Linguistics of Africa. The World of Linguistics series. 11. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 58–444. doi:10.1515/9783110421668-002. ISBN 978-3-11-042606-9.
  • Holst, Jan Henrik. "Reconstructing the mutation system of Atlantic." Neuried, 2008.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin. "Etudes atlantiques comparatives : questions de méthodologie." Mémoires de la Société linguistique de Paris, XV, 2007, p. 93-119.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin. "Problèmes de l’étude comparative historique des langues atlantiques". Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 2007.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin & Segerer, Guillame. Reconstruction des pronoms atlantiques et typologie des systèmes pronominaux // Systèmes de marques personnelles en Afrique. Collection «Afrique et Langage », 8, 2004, p. 151-162.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin & Segerer, Guillame. Tradition et rupture dans les grammaires comparées de différentes familles de langues », 2007, p. 93-119.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin & Segerer, Guillaume (2017). "A Genealogical classification of Atlantic languages." (Draft) To appear in: Lüpke, Friederike (ed.) The Oxford guide to the Atlantic languages of West Africa: Oxford:Oxford University Press.
  • Guillaume Segerer & Florian Lionnet 2010. "'Isolates' in 'Atlantic'". Language Isolates in Africa workshop, Lyon, Dec. 4
  • Sapir, David (1971). "West Atlantic: An inventory of the languages, their noun class systems and consonant alternations." Current Trends in Linguistics 7:45-112. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Williamson, Kay and Blench, Roger (2000). "Niger-Congo." In Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse (eds.) African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 11-42.
  • Wilson, W. A. A. (1989). Atlantic. In John Bendor-Samuel (Ed.), The Niger–Congo Languages. New York & London: University Press of America. pp. 81–104.

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