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date: 29 February 2024

Language Endangerment in Africafree

Language Endangerment in Africafree

  • Tucker ChildsTucker ChildsDepartment of Applied Linguistics, Portland State University


As elsewhere in the world, languages in Africa are endangered. The estimates for language loss on a world scale likely hold for Africa as well. Although the particular group of factors at work in Africa may be unique, they come from a well-established inventory familiar elsewhere. The forces reducing African language diversity come from the combination of a set of macro socioeconomic factors and historical events, such as colonization and globalization, coupled with local factors such as military conquest and misguided government policies. Simple demographic factors, such as number of speakers, are also important: the less widely spoken languages are more severely threatened than are those spoken more widely. The shift from African languages is to both European languages and the more widely spoken languages on the continent. Shifts also occur to localized or appropriated versions of the two. Climatic factors, most notably global warming, have played and will continue to play a role as well; the correlation between biological and linguistic diversity has often been remarked. For example, with the growth of plantation economies and the destruction of rain forests, there is a concomitant reduction in linguistic diversity.


  • Language Families/Areas/Contact

1. Multilingualism and Language Diversity

Language endangerment is both encouraged and forestalled by multilingualism. Multilingualism allows many languages to carve out their own domains in the speech economy. At the same time it allows the more widely spoken languages to invade those domains. Multilingualism is the order of the day in Africa, as any visitor from a less diverse part of the world will immediately remark. It has been said that “multilingualism is the African lingua franca” (Fardon & Furniss, 1994, p. 4). Africa’s major urban centers, particularly its political capitals with their concentrations of wealth and power, teem with problems but also with a multiplicity of languages, some of which have arisen ab novo in those cities. Multilingualism is also the norm outside the capital cities in many parts of Africa, even in rural areas such as the Casamance region of Senegal and in multiple areas of both Nigeria and Cameroon. In South Africa the typical citizen will control at least three languages and often more.

To say that a society is multilingual says nothing about the value speakers place on the various languages they control, or how the languages are ranked in the larger society with respect to prestige or influence. Very often there are at least three distinct levels to an attitudinal hierarchy. The first level is occupied by a local language, usually the language of the home, whose use is restricted to the village or even just the home.1 The second level is represented by a national language or language of wider communication, sometimes a pidgin or koiné, which is used in markets and cities. The third often features a European language, typically a colonial legacy, in a localized or even appropriated form (Manessy & Wald, 1984; Mufwene, 1998). This hierarchy has been called a “triglossia” (Batibo, 2005), but that term belies the complexity of the relations between the languages and limits to three the number of languages that can be featured in such an economy for there are often more than three.

Multilingualism as a descriptor also says little about the health or vitality of the languages in play. By definition, endangered languages are threatened with some question as to whether they will survive into another generation. Not surprisingly they fall into the first category (local use only), and their functions are considerably reduced from what they have been historically.

On the quantitative side, one can begin with a statement about the parlous state of languages around the world:

There are more than 6,900 languages used around the world today, ranging in size from those with hundreds of millions of speakers to those with only one or two. Language experts now estimate that as many as half of the existing languages are endangered, and by the year 2050 they will be extinct. The major reason for this language loss is that communities are switching to larger politically and economically more powerful languages, like English, Spanish, Hindi or Swahili (Austin, 2008).

Another source gives a slightly lower number of total languages but says more about the distribution and the problems in reaching such an estimate:

There are six thousand languages spoken worldwide, of which two-thirds have yet to be described. As many as 96% of the world population speak just 4% of all languages. A quarter of the world’s languages are spoken by groups of less than 1,000 people. Almost all these groups live in the most vulnerable areas of the world. Of all languages, 50 to 90% will probably die out in the course of the current century (Cheng, Lubotsky, & Mous, 2009).

What fascinates, and indeed challenges, the linguist is the dynamism, fluidity, and acceptance of multilingualism as a natural state of affairs in Africa. Western-derived ideologies of language purity and nationalism are relatively uncommon (e.g., Lüpke, 2013), though they may be detected in the language-revitalization movement (Brenzinger, 2012), likely due to Western influence. Yet despite the pervasiveness of multilingualism on the continent, which could be argued to support multiple languages, African languages are disappearing. Concomitant with the disappearance of many languages is, of course, the loss of the cultures with which those languages are associated.

This article includes a partial synthesis of current research on language endangerment in Africa. Given the recent interest in endangered African languages (and the funding for research on African languages, or “language documentation”), the literature is becoming increasingly rich.2 Accompanying this survey are insights from independent work and experiences in southern, eastern, and western Africa. This comes from research on dying languages conducted since the start of the 21st century in both Guinea and Sierra Leone, a representative part of the continent because of its colonial past, its language diversity, and its considerable natural resources and extractive industries.

This article does not cover all of Africa, being limited to Sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa is distinct from the rest of the continent yet nonetheless instructive about language endangerment, especially with regard to the Berber languages and the spread of the Arab language and culture. A summary of language endangerment in northern African can be found in Brenzinger (2007a). Many of the forces at work there, particularly Islamization, colonization, and language policy, are relevant to language endangerment in Sub-Saharan Africa.

1.1 Outline of the Discussion

At the least this survey explores and maybe explodes several myths about language endangerment in Africa. First, the received wisdom, as exemplified in ‘Literature Review’ section, is that African languages are not endangered. They are. There is a naïve and utopian view that multilingualism will flourish and endangered languages will survive. The second myth is the belief that colonial languages do not threaten African languages. They do. The threat may be indirect, in the form of a nativized version of a European language or in a localized version of a European nationalist ideology (Connell, 2015), but both those threats are formidable.

1.2 Literature Review

The years since 2000 have produced a set of reviews of language endangerment, most admirable but some less so. They represent a diversity of viewpoints as well as a diversity of assessments. They also differ in terms of their geographic focus. It is rare for a single author to deal with the entirety of the continent, a task not undertaken here. This article relies heavily on the expertise of others and is limited to Sub-Saharan Africa, relying on the work of others supplemented with independent fieldwork on dying African languages.

Most of the important work on language endangerment in Africa has come from Europe, especially from countries with a colonizing past: France, Germany, and the UK. Researchers include both professors and students at the University of Cologne and other German universities, as well as those based in Paris (Langage, Langues et Cultures d’Afrique [LLACAN] and Langues et Civilisations à Tradition Orale [LACITO]), Lyon, Leiden, and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Because of the colonial past, there are strong links between the major countries of Europe and their former colonies. American connections have emerged from missionary initiatives and the Peace Corps.

Since the final decade of the 20th century, fieldwork has been funded by three major initiatives, the third of which is no longer operating: the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Foundation at the University of London; the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Endangered Languages Program in the US; and the Volkswagen Foundation (Volkswagen Stiftung, specifically DOBES) in Germany.

One of the earliest collections (Brenzinger, 1992) emanated from a 1990 conference and established the basis for later assessments, among them Brenzinger (2007b), Lüpke (2009), and Essegbey, Henderson, and McLaughlin (2015). Here is a statement representative of the tenor of such works:

A number of African languages are now in stronger positions than they were twenty years ago and these languages have gained ground against the European official languages (Mous, 2003, p. 157).

This is definitely not true for languages in Sierra Leone and Guinea, where the African languages are all losing ground.

In a later article Mous is even more sanguine, praising the mobile phone:

In the long run Africa has a good chance to keep its linguistic diversity. Mother tongues keep entering the educational system, language shift is often to another African language while the international language remains a second/third language. The mobile phone revolution has linked the spoken word to modern technology and the written world is giving way to the oral one. All these tendencies give hope for many African languages to survive but these are most like the languages of wider communication and the languages that are dominant in sub-national regions (Mous, 2007).

The last sentence is instructive: it is the more widely spoken languages that will survive.

Michael Cahill (2006) is also optimistic, and confident of the good work being done by missionaries such as himself:

Also, I believe there is reason to be somewhat more hopeful than Batibo 2005 is about the survival of many African languages. With orthographies being developed by groups such as NACALCO and CABTAL in Cameroon, BTL in Kenya, SIL and Lutheran Bible Translators in various countries, as well as by other groups, several hundred languages are in the process of receiving orthographic representations, literacy materials, and Bibles in their own language, and a number of these are also getting dictionaries and grammars. Besides the direct value of having literacy and other materials available, the presence of these tends to raise the prestige of the language in the speakers’ minds, and their attitudes towards their own languages become crucially more positive (Cahill, 2006).

Not everyone would agree that a translated Bible is a culture- and language-supporting entity (Mühlhäusler, 1996), or even that literacy is relevant to the survival of a language (and culture) (Mühlhäusler, 1990).

Another source (Blench, 2007) claims that “In general, West African languages are in a healthy state,” despite treating only a subset of West African languages (those in Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali, where Blench has conducted fieldwork). An introductory survey by Batibo, a prominent African scholar (Batibo, 2005, reviewed in Cahill, 2006), also sees no cause for alarm when looking at southern African languages. Batibo sees primarily widely spoken African languages as threats. Thus, there are a number of prominent observers who do not see the situation as dire for African languages.

2. An Assessment

One of the first surveys of language death (Brenzinger, 1992) contained an article that tried to quantify the extent to which languages were dying in Africa (Sommer, 1992). The result of such an endeavor would likely be only slightly more accurate in 2019, despite the considerable time and resources that have been devoted to the task in the interim. This section gives some numbers, all of which should be treated with caution. Censuses and other surveys on which they are based are notoriously inaccurate, as has been pointed out by many (e.g., Childs, 1995, 2012). According to Mous (2003), Africa has roughly 2,000 languages of which he estimates only 300 are threatened. This estimate seems highly conservative given what is known of Kordofanian and Khoisan, as pointed out in a review by Cahill (2003), and what has been said of Atlantic by Childs (2003).

Table 1. The Four Language Phyla of Africa: Member Languages and Number of Speakers


No. of Languages

Member Languages and Numbers of Speakers



Nama (140K), Sandawe (70K), Kung (8–30K), !Xóõ (3–4K)



Kanuri (4), Luo (3.4), Dinka (all groups, 1.4), Maasai (883K), Nuer (840)

Afro-Asiatic (in Africa)


Arabic (all varieties, 180), Amharic (20), Hausa (22), Oromo (10), Somali (5–8), Songhai (2), Tachelhit Berber (3)



Bambara (3), Fula (13), Igbo (17), Mooré (11), Swahili (5), Yoruba (20), Zulu (9.1)

Note. K = thousands; all other speaker numbers are in millions.

One way to see the unequal state of language endangerment is by looking at African languages phylum by phylum, inappropriate as these macro divisions may be (Campbell, 2013, p. 177). Table 1 lists the four major phyla of African languages, with rough estimates of the number of languages in each.Both Khoisan and Nilo-Saharan are highly threatened phyla (only the largest language groups within each phylum are shown), with Khoisan, a highly divergent group containing “five Khoisan lineages” (Güldemann, 2014), the more threatened of the two. In addition, the Kordofanian family of Niger-Congo has suffered severely because of fighting in the area.

The rest of this section consists of four parts. Although the section discusses only African languages, the generalizations accord with studies of dying languages in general and reference will occasionally be made to non-African contexts. Section 2.1 characterizes the causes of language endangerment. Section 2.2 discusses what happens to a language when it dies, primarily in terms of structural changes but also in terms of how the abandonment of a language affects its speakers. Section 2.3 gives some reasons for worrying about the death of a language. Section 2.4 raises more problematic questions, asking what, if anything, can be done to reverse current trends.

2.1 Causes of Language Endangerment

The causes of language endangerment in Africa are no different from those in other parts of the world, especially at the macro level of socioeconomic forces, urbanization, and globalization. There is also the overarching threat of climate change. At the micro level, however, various cultural and ideological factors come into play that make Africa unique (see Mufwene, 2009, 2012).

2.1.1 Macro Forces Endangering African Languages

Both major religions on the African continent, Christianity and Islam, have had an impact on indigenous languages and cultures. Be it by disallowing African languages or creating Bible or Koran literacy to the exclusion of any other, traditional languages and genres have been affected (Mühlhäusler, 1990). The transition from missionary linguistics to colonial linguistics was an easy one according to Zimmermann and Kellermeier-Rehbein (2015). Both fields predicated on a policy of “divide and conquer,” a policy which may even have led to the creation of the Herero as a distinct group (Stroomer, 2015).

Simple demographics, the size of a linguistic group, may be the most obvious source of endangerment—“Language diversity on the African continent is mainly reduced by the spread of dominant African languages” (Brenzinger, 2003, p. 60, referencing Brenzinger, 2001)—but size and growth are related to many other factors.

Poverty and its many concomitants—hunger, disease, warfare, etc.—illustrate how intertwined are the forces influencing decisions about language use (Brenzinger, 2009). “Marginalization leads to frequent elimination of distinct languages, while Globalization is threatening linguistic distinctiveness, in particular conceptual diversity” (Brenzinger, 2003, p. 59). Because young people realize early on the socioeconomic importance of a language other than the one they first learned, they are eager to learn another one that may help remove them from village poverty. The notion of “mother tongue” can become problematic, since in many cases Africans feature “adaptive linguistic repertoires” (Lüpke, 2016) that allow them to negotiate their way through multilingual societies (Storch, 2013). It is not uncommon for children even to refuse to speak a first language (Mufwene, 2004). Such was certainly the case in the Samu region of Sierra Leone (Childs, 2011).

The impact of European languages, the legacy of colonization, has been great, particularly in terms of devaluing indigenous languages:

Whether colonial languages are replacing . . . African languages is only part of the story. Their use reduces African languages in terms of both prestige and structure, and this contributes to their endangerment. Finally, and from a more general perspective, the pressure to create a “modern nation state,” on a Western (colonial) model, in requiring a single unifying language, must be seen as an important factor in language endangerment in Africa (Connell, 2015, p. 107).

In a case study of the use of French in Gabon (Boussougou & Menacere, 2015), the assessment is the same: the use of French exacerbates differences, especially those in class, rather than uniting the country, and at the same time denigrates the indigenous languages by considering them inappropriate for wider use. A case study referenced in Connell (2015, pp. 118–119) shows that young Nigerians are shifting to English even in rural areas (Schaefer & Egbokhare, 1999).

Urbanization has led to the rise of specifically urban varieties of language (e.g., Kiessling & Mous, 2004), to the detriment of traditional varieties (cf., McLaughlin, 2015). Young people are attracted to cities and the use of urban varieties rather than the village variety they learned as children. Isicamtho, for instance, is no more than a dialect of Zulu—Mfusi (1990) terms it a Zulu “slang.” Urban varieties are certainly relevant as one of the consequences of urbanization and globalization and in their displacement of indigenous varieties. Sometimes the colonial language will serve the same function (e.g., Kiessling & Mous, 2006; Beck, 2010).3

2.1.2 Micro or Local Forces Endangering African Languages

This section draws on independent work in multiple African contexts to exemplify how local forces can endanger languages. Here are the factors listed in Childs (2008) as responsible for the abandonment of Mani, a Bolom language (formerly Atlantic) spoken in the Samu/Samou region straddling the coastal border between Sierra Leone and Guinea:

Economic: the young seeking employment in the cities or on plantations.

Demographic: the proximity of large and powerful rapidly spreading groups, for example Soso and Temne.

Religious: Islam and Christianity.

Militaristic: Fula jihads, Mandeng Empire, European colonizers (slavery).

Cultural: welcome to “strangers,” openness to external influences, lack of political organization.

The last item needs some explaining. In many parts of West Africa there is a well-established practice of welcoming “strangers,” or outsiders (e.g., Shack & Skinner, 1979). Until recent times this hospitality could extend to offering the stranger a wife and land in the community. In this way Mande outsiders gained entry into Atlantic hamlet communities (Paulme, 1954), yet never abandoned their own customs and language. Because they controlled greater technology and resources (from trade, political organization, and secret societies), they assumed positions of power and influence to which the Atlantic autochthons aspired (Brooks, 1993). Language shift was soon underway and continues to this day. For example, the Sherbro, Kim, and Bom are shifting to Mende; the Mani to Soso.4

A somewhat surprising local factor is the language of the country’s leader. Who the head of state was in Guinea, and what his primary language was, made a difference as to the language of the government and the capital. It was Malinké during the time of Sekou Toure, a Malinké himself (1958–1984); changed to Soso when Lansana Conté, a Soso, was in power (1984–2008); and probably back to Malinké with the ascension of Alpha Condé (2010–present).

Apartheid and preceding colonial policies have, not surprisingly, endangered many African languages. Earlier European imperialism and slaughter decimated the Khoisan peoples (Traill, 1995, 1997), and both economic and language policies have since endangered some Bantu languages. With their land being taken by whites, blacks moved to the mines and cities, where various pidgins and slangs were learned by the young in the townships to which they were confined. For advancement in the schools all students had to pass a language exam in their “mother tongue.” (For discussion of the term “mother tongue” see section 2.1.1.) Even after Nelson Mandela was freed, language exams were based on rural varieties to which students often had no exposure and which they could not pass. Similarly, many dialects of Swahili are disappearing as the language is standardized (Hinnebusch, Nurse, Kisseberth, & Vianello, 2016; Swahili Endangered Languages). Somewhat provocatively, it has been suggested that languages can endanger themselves (McLaughlin, 2015); certainly Isicamtho, a Zulu slang, is quite consciously diverging from Standard Zulu (Childs, 1997).

Ironically, the belief that multilingualism is perfectly acceptable and commonplace (Lüpke & Storch, 2013a) may itself be undermining the less widely spoken languages, as their speakers easily shift to a more useful language outside the home. Africans are simply not as attached to their languages as are people in other parts of the world (Grinevald, 2006; Lüpke, 2009), and will quickly learn other languages to their advantage. The function of a language can vary situationally as exemplified in the ‘An Assessment’ section of this article.

Although Hausa is not endangered, it illustrates the instrumental approach to language in Africa (for some East African examples, see Scotton, 1976, 1983, 1988). Fardon and Furniss (1994, pp. 22–23) have discussed variable significance attached to Hausa language choice, and note the following:

A mother tongue Hausa using Hausa in Kano might subscribe to ideas of Hausa culture, Hausa centrality in the north, and Hausa nationalism that are widely shared in community.

A speaker using Hausa in Adamawa, Tabara, or Borno might be using it as an expedient to allow communication between Suwa and Kanuri, or Kanuri and Fulani.

It might also signify personal allegiance to a particular group within Maiduguri or the wider north.

Using Hausa in Cameroon has totally different implications: since the northern area has been variably Fulbe-ized, Hausa provides a way to finesse commitment.

The loose connection between ethnicity and language is illustrated by a widely known truism in Guinea: if a man from the Kisi-Lele area has money, he will identify as Lele (a Mande language); if he is poor, he will say he is Kisi (an Atlantic language). The Kisi are the autochthons of the area, and are generally dominated by their Mande counterparts, by whom they are surrounded (Childs, 2002). Language is used with purpose, and sometimes self-consciously, for interactional ends in Africa (e.g., Myers-Scotton, 1993).

2.2 What Happens When an African Language Dies?

Many writers have addressed this issue for language in general (e.g., Thomason, 2015), especially since the call to arms issued by Hale et al. (1992); the discussion here will focus on an African context. Because Africa is different from other parts of the world, due to its multilingualism and lack of nationalistic ideology (Dimmendaal, 2015), abandoning a language does not always mean as much to individuals there as it does elsewhere. It is also the case that culture institutions and cultural knowledge may be preserved despite language loss, because of sharing across language boundaries. For example, initiation societies have commonalities from Senegal down to Nigeria (see Lüpke & Storch, 2013c).

Nonetheless, there are severe repercussions when a language dies. Anecdotally, it has been observed that people feel disappointment and pain when their language is ridiculed as “monkey language,” and when women are not allowed to sing their songs at cultural performances because “no one will understand” (Childs, 2001), even though generally the shift is “not a traumatic event” (Lüpke & Storch, 2013b).

On the formal-structural side, the changes occurring in a dying language are well documented (e.g., Dorian, 1981; Dressler, 1988; Austin & McGill, 2011), and these are no different for African languages (Childs, 2006, 2009b). But when one looks beyond core grammar, the changes are profound. The loss of figurative language and such genres as proverbs and idioms chronicled in Bété, a Western Kru language of Côte-d’Ivoire, provides an example (Zouogbo, 2015). Although specific traditional genres (song and story-telling, for example) may be the sole domains in which a dying language survives, it is generally the case that when a language dies there is a loss of the specialized lexicon features in such genres as ideophones in folk tales (Childs, 1994, 1996). Further, more profound changes have been documented by Brenzinger (2003, 2007b).

2.3 Why Should We Care?

Aside from their professional interest in the facts of another language, especially if it is undocumented, linguists should care if the people themselves care (cf. Ladefoged, 1992). Linguists working in a community should try to help whenever and wherever they can, feeble as those efforts may be, when the community so desires (Cameron, Frazer, Harvey, Rampton, & Richardson, 1992). The will, however, must come from the people themselves, and there must be some provisions for sustainability. Otherwise, no matter how substantial and well-intentioned the effort, revitalization is doomed to failure. Researchers should listen to the stakeholders and respect their wishes, even when those wishes to not accord with linguists’ own priorities for language restoration. An example might be when stakeholders seek to promote literacy, which may not be the best course for revitalization (Childs, 2017; Ameka, 2015).

Some of the consequences of language death are given below. All of them are worthy reasons for documenting a language.

A language is lost.

The language rights of its speakers are ignored.

A cultural voice is silenced: “a community treasure,” a shared heritage, an entire world view fades into oblivion.

Cultural diversity is reduced.

Linguistic theory is compromised, as the loss of a language makes it harder for researchers to determine the nature, range, and limits of communicative behavior and grammatical competence, and hampers comparative-historical linguistics, reconstruction, etc.

African prehistory is lost, as the lack of written records renders oral memory key to untangling the past (Blench, 2006).

The literature is rich with many more reasons for both documentation (Austin & Sallabank, 2011, 2014) and revitalization (Goodfellow, 2010; Grenoble & Whaley, 2006; Hinton & Hale, 2001), there being some overlap between the two.

2.4 What Can Be Done?

Unfortunately, it seems little can be done to arrest language endangerment in Africa. Language policy and language planning are feeble instruments, especially in the hands of weak and unstable governments with many demands on the resources available. Linguists, especially those embedded in academic situations, have little time for such endeavors and appear to lack motivation. In truth, linguists outside a community do not have much of a voice, and what small voice they have is seldom heeded (perhaps rightly).

The question arises as to whether we should do anything, or whether we should be worried. Dimmendaal (2015) notes the challenges faced by the outsider involved in such issues, quoting Newman (2003) in observing that “language revitalization as such is a hopeless cause.” His richly detailed account of the Tima effort to revitalize their language presents some of the frustrating details of one such endeavor (Dimmendaal, 2015). Childs (2006) tells a similar story, and other experiences have revealed how little can be done, particularly in the brief time linguists typically have with speech communities. The future (not just in Africa) lies in maintaining communication with leaders in the community, particularly with those invested in documentation and revitalization.

Ekkehard Wolff provides an excellent overview of language as a resource on the African continent. He adopts what he calls an “applied African sociolinguistics perspective,” and regrets that governing colonialist ideologies have deflected significance from native African languages to Arabic and European ones (Wolff, 2016).

3. Africa Is Special

This article has shown that language endangerment in Africa is significant, complex, and probably different from that in other parts of the world. The particular configuration of the impacting factors and widespread non-Western ideologies make Sub-Saharan Africa unique. Africans tend to see language serving a more incidental or instrumental function than do Westerners (Lüpke & Storch, 2013a, 2013c; Brenzinger, 1992, 1998; Mous, 2003), where 19th-century associations of language with political boundaries persist. To conclude, the factors that make Africa different may briefly be summarized thus:

The distinct shape of colonialism on the African continent: the colonists returned to Europe for the most part, or remained as minorities who were eventually displaced, disempowered, or both.

The extant linguistic diversity: Africa is the home for at least five language phyla (with much internal diversity) and many isolates.5

Governing ideologies, the acceptance and toleration of diversity, and the lack of attachment to language as a fixed and single identity.

That the less widely spoken languages will soon disappear is inevitable, despite the assertions of several prominent linguists that they will survive (see section 1.2). Both the past and the present record contradict such a belief, particularly where groups traditionally associated with hunting and gathering economies are concerned.

“Glottophagie” (Calvet, 1974), the colorful term for one language “eating” another, will persist in two distinct ways. First, the more widely spoken languages will prevail, particularly those serving as lingua francas or favored by national governments (e.g., Swahili in Tanzania, and the language of government in Guinea; see section 2.1.2). Second, due to the increasing urbanization of the continent, urban varieties will prevail, especially former pidgins and creoles that serve as lingua francas.

There are several important avenues for further research. Investigating the highly specialized semantics of the many endangered languages of Africa should be a favored initiative (e.g., Brenzinger, 2003, 2006). Investigation of how the languages are used would also be valuable, particularly when conducted with as much sociolinguistic and cultural embedding possible (Flores Farfán & Ramallo, 2010; Childs, Good, & Mitchell, 2014). The papers in Piirainen and Sherris (2015) represent one such effort, as does the recent work of Brenzinger (e.g., Brenzinger, 2006; Brenzinger & Fehn, 2013). Unfortunately, it is difficult to acquire information on semantics through casual and limited observation. Formal and structural analyses have a place, to be sure, as does the collection of lexical data, but the vital thing is to record the special functions of languages in situ, before those languages fall into the desuetude where such information is no longer accessible (Childs, 2009a).

Little has been said about the sister of language documentation, language revitalization, which seldom sparks much interest in Africa and for which there is therefore little hope (Childs, 2017). Long-established fieldworkers see revitalization as a “hopeless cause” (Newman, 2003; Dimmendaal, 2015). This view can be countered with a measure of optimism, but only with the proper constellation of factors in place: there has to be a critical mass of speakers with a charismatic leader, and there must be at least some domains in which the language group sees the variety as appropriate and desirable. Start small. Linguists would play only a minor role. An important paper on revitalization is Ameka (2015), which argues for the primacy of the non-written medium—an entirely plausible argument given the low levels of literacy in Africa. This may be the route to follow. Revitalization of a dying language, if done in the framework of written language, will involve the twin tasks of developing literacy and restoring a threatened language (Childs, 2014).


The author wishes to thank the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Foundation at the University of London, and the National Science Foundation’s Endangered Languages Program in the US, for their support.

Links to Digital Materials


  • Ameka, F. K. (2015). Unintended consequences of methodological and practical responses to language endangerment in Africa. In J. Essegbey, B. Henderson, & F. McLaughlin (Eds.), Language documentation and endangerment in Africa (pp. 1–15). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins.
  • Austin, P. K. (2008). 1,000 languages: Living, endangered and lost. London, U.K.: Thames & Hudson.
  • Austin, P. K., & McGill S. (Eds.). (2011). Endangered languages: Vol. 2. Critical concepts in linguistics. Milton Park, U.K.: Routledge.
  • Austin, P. K., & Sallabank, J. (Eds.). (2011). The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Austin, P. K., & Sallabank, J. (Eds.). (2014). Endangered languages: Beliefs and ideologies in language documentation and revitalisation. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  • Batibo, H. M. (2005). Language decline and death in Africa: Causes, consequences, and challenges. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.
  • Beck, R. M. (2010). Urban languages in Africa. Africa Spectrum, 3, 11–41.
  • Blench, R. M. (2006). Archaeology, language, and the African past. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
  • Blench, R. M. (2007). Endangered languages in West Africa. In M. Brenzinger (Ed.), Language diversity endangered (pp. 140–162). The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Blench, R. M. (2013). Why is Africa so linguistically undiverse? Exploring substrates and isolates. Mother Tongue, Journal of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory, 18, 43–68.
  • Boussougou, S., & Menacere, K. (2015). The impact of French on the African vernacular languages: For better or for worse? Gabon as a case study. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars.
  • Brenzinger, M. (Ed.). (1992). Language death: Factual and theoretical explorations with special reference to East Africa. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.
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  • 1. The telling story of how the Cangin languages of Senegal were “discovered” reveals how limited home use may be. Because speakers of Cangin languages used them only in the home, they were unknown to outsiders until relatively recently (Pichl, 1966).

  • 2. A piece by Matthias Brenzinger, one of the world’s leading authorities on endangered languages, which at the time of writing (2019) is forthcoming (2020) in the Oxford handbook of African languages, may cover much of the same ground as this article.

  • 3. An edited volume (McLaughlin, 2009) contains case studies of all languages used in urban environments.

  • 4. These Atlantic groups are also shifting to Temne, a widely spoken Atlantic language, and to Krio in Sierra Leone, the major lingua franca in that country.

  • 5. Africa has recently been seen as having a number of isolates in addition to these phyla (Campbell, 2010; Blench, 2013; Segerer, 2010), and Khoisan is now seen as comprising at least five “lineages” and two isolates (Güldemann, 2014).