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The Niger-Congo languages constitute one of the world's major language families, and Africa's largest in terms of geographical area, number of speakers, and number of distinct languages. They may constitute the world's largest language family in terms of distinct languages, although this question is complicated by ambiguity in what is a distinct language. Almost all of the most widely spoken indigenous languages of Subsaharan Africa belong to this group. A common property of many Niger-Congo languages is the use of a noun class system.
Joseph Greenberg was the first to identify the boundaries of this family, which he called Niger-Congo, in a series of articles published between 1949 and 1954. Just before these articles were collected in final book form (The Languages of Africa) in 1963, he amended his classification by adding Kordofanian as a branch co-ordinate with Niger-Congo as a whole; consequently, the family was renamed Niger-Kordofanian. Bennet and Sterk (1977) presented a reclassification based on lexicostatistics that laid the foundation for the influential classification in Bendor-Samuel 1989. Kordofanian was thought to be be one of the first branchings instead of being co-ordinate to the phylum as a whole, prompting re-introduction of the term 'Niger-Congo', which is in current use among linguists. (see also Kordofanian languages)
The major languages or subgroups belonging to Niger-Congo are
- Mande: spoken in West Africa; includes Bambara, the main language spoken in Mali, as well as Soninke , a language spoken mainly in Mali but also in Senegal and Mauritania.
- Atlantic: includes Wolof, spoken in Senegal, and Fula, a language spoken across the Sahel.
- Ijoid in Nigeria, including Ijo
- Kwa: includes Akan, spoken in Ghana and the Gbe languages, spoken in Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, of which Ewe is best known.
- Benue-Congo, including among others:
- Dogon , spoken in Mali
- Kru: spoken in West Africa, include Bété, Nyabwa, and Dida.
- Gur: Including Dagbani in Northern Ghana, they are spoken among others in Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali.
- Adamawa-Ubangi: includes Sango, spoken in the Central African Republic)
Some linguists consider the twenty or so Kordofanian languages to form part of the Niger-Congo family, while others consider them and Niger-Congo to form two separate branches of a Niger-Kordofanian language family. There is also an on-going debate as to whether the Mande languages should be included in the Niger-Congo language family or the Nilo-Saharan language family. Others are sceptical about both Niger-Kordofanian and Niger-Congo itself.
An alternate classification, after Blench, follows. (Families are in bold; single languages in italics.)
- West Atlantic
- ? Ijaw
- North Volta-Congo (= Volta-Kru)
- Savannas (= Greenberg's Voltaic and Adamawa-Ubanguian)
- Ubangian (e.g. Gbaya, Sango, Banda, Zande)
- ? Senufo
- Gur I (e.g. Mossi, Dagbani, Ditamari)
- Gur II (e.g. Kabre, Dan, Doghose)
- Tusya (= Win)
- South Volta-Congo (= Benue-Kwa)
- Nyo (e.g. Akan)
- Ka (e.g. Gbe)
- West Benue-Congo (= Ogun)
- Defoid (e.g. Yoruba)
- Edoid (e.g. Benin)
- (East) Benue-Congo
- ? Ukaan
- Platoid (e.g. Bauchi, Jukun, Birom)
- ? Bendi
- Cross River (e.g. Calabar, Ogoni, Abua, Efik)
- Bantoid (e.g. Jarawa, Tiv, Bantu)
- Bennett, Patrick R. & Sterk, Jan P. (1977) 'South Central Niger-Congo: A reclassification'. Studies in African Linguistics, 8, 241–273.
- Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963) The Languages of Africa. Indiana Univ. Press.
- Bendor-Samuel, John & Rhonda L. Hartell (eds.) (1989) The Niger-Congo Languages — A classification and description of Africa's largest language family. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.
- Williamson, Kay & Blench, Roger (2000) 'Niger-Congo', in Heine, Bernd and Nurse, Derek (eds) African Languages - An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, pp. 11—42.
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