Niger–Congo is a hypothetical language family spoken over nearly the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa.
It is the third-largest language family in the world by a number of native speakers, comprising around 700 million people as of 2015. Within Niger–Congo, the Bantu languages alone account for 350 million people (2015), or half the total Niger–Congo speaking population. The most widely spoken Niger–Congo languages by number of native speakers are Yoruba language, Igbo language, Fula language and Zulu language. The most widely spoken by the total number of speakers is Swahili language, which is used as a lingua franca in parts of eastern and southeastern Africa.
While the ultimate genetic unity of the core of Niger–Congo (called Atlantic–Congo) is widely accepted, the internal cladistic structure is not well established. Other primary branches may include Dogon languages, Mande languages, Ijaw languages, Katla languages and Rashad languages. The connection of the Mande languages especially has never been demonstrated, and without them, the validity of Niger–Congo family as a whole (as opposed to Atlantic–Congo or a similar subfamily) has not been established.
One of the most distinctive characteristics common to Atlantic–Congo languages is the use of a noun-class system, which is essentially a gender system with multiple genders. “Niger-Congo Languages”, ”The Language Gulper”, March 2015
According to Roger Blench (2004), all specialists in Niger–Congo languages believe the languages to have a common origin, rather than merely constituting a typological classification, for reasons including their shared noun-class system, shared verbal extensions and shared basic lexicon.Blench, Roger, The Benue-Congo languages: a proposed internal classification. "No comprehensive reconstruction has yet been done for the phylum as a whole, and it is sometimes suggested (e.g. by Dixon 1997) that Niger-Congo is merely a typological and not a genetic unity. This view is not held by any specialists in the phylum, and reasons for thinking Niger-Congo is a true genetic unity will be given in this chapter. It is, however, true that the subclassification of the phylum has been continuously modified in recent years and cannot be presented as an agreed scheme. The factors which have delayed reconstruction are the large number of languages, the inaccessibility of much of the data, and the paucity of able researchers committed to this field. Emphasis will be placed on three characteristics of Niger-Congo; noun-class systems, verbal extensions, and basic lexicon." See also: Bendor-Samuel, J. ed. 1989. The Niger–Congo Languages. Lanham: University Press of America. Similar classifications to Niger–Congo have been made ever since Diedrich Westermann in 1922.Westermann, D. 1922a. Die Sprache der Guang. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer. Joseph Greenberg continued that tradition, making it the starting point for modern linguistic classification in Africa, with some of his most notable publications going to press starting in the 1960s.Greenberg, J.H. 1964. Historical inferences from linguistic research in sub-Saharan Africa. Boston University Papers in African History, 1:1–15. However, there has been active debate for many decades over the appropriate subclassifications of the languages in this language family, which is a key tool used in localising a language's place of origin. No definitive "Proto-Niger–Congo" lexicon or grammar has been developed for the language family as a whole.
An important unresolved issue in determining the time and place where the Niger–Congo languages originated and their range prior to recorded history is this language family's relationship to the Kordofanian languages, now spoken in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, which is not contiguous with the remainder of the Niger–Congo-language-speaking region and is at the northeasternmost extent of the current Niger–Congo linguistic region. The current prevailing linguistic view is that Kordofanian languages are part of the Niger–Congo language family and that these may be the first of the many languages still spoken in that region to have been spoken in the region.Herman Bell. 1995. The Nuba Mountains: Who Spoke What in 1976?. (The published results from a major project of the Institute of African and Asian Studies: the Language Survey of the Nuba Mountains.) The evidence is insufficient to determine if this outlier group of Niger–Congo language speakers represent a prehistoric range of a Niger–Congo linguistic region that has since contracted as other languages have intruded, or if instead, this represents a group of Niger–Congo language speakers who migrated to the area at some point in prehistory where they were an isolated linguistic community from the beginning.
There is more agreement regarding the place of origin of Benue–Congo, the largest subfamily of the group. Within Benue–Congo, the place of origin of the Bantu languages as well as time at which it started to expand is known with great specificity. Blench (2004), relying particularly on prior work by Kay Williamson and P. De Wolf, argued that Benue–Congo probably originated at the confluence of the Benue River and in central Nigeria.Williamson, K. 1971. The Benue–Congo languages and Ijo. Current Trends in Linguistics, 7. ed. T. Sebeok 245–306. The Hague: Mouton.Williamson, K. 1988. Linguistic evidence for the prehistory of the Niger Delta. The early history of the Niger Delta, edited by E.J. Alagoa, F.N. Anozie and N. Nzewunwa. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.Williamson, K. 1989. Benue–Congo Overview. In The Niger–Congo Languages. J. Bendor-Samuel ed. Lanham: University Press of America.De Wolf, P. 1971. The noun class system of Proto-Benue–Congo. The Hague: Mouton.Blench, R.M. 1989. A proposed new classification of Benue–Congo languages. Afrikanische Arbeitspapiere, Köln, 17:115–147. These estimates of the place of origin of the Benue-Congo language family do not fix a date for the start of that expansion, other than that it must have been sufficiently prior to the Bantu expansion to allow for the diversification of the languages within this language family that includes Bantu.
The classification of the relatively divergent family of the Ubangian languages, centred in the Central African Republic, as part of the Niger–Congo language family is disputed. Ubangian was grouped with Niger–Congo by Greenberg (1963), and later authorities concurred,Williamson, Kay & Blench, Roger (2000) 'Niger–Congo', in Heine, Bernd & Nurse, Derek (eds.) African languages: an introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. but it was questioned by Dimmendaal (2008).Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent", Language and Linguistics Compass 2/5:841.
The Bantu expansion, beginning around 1000 BC, swept across much of Central and Southern Africa, leading to the extinction of much of the indigenous Pygmy and Bushmen (Khoisan) populations there.Martin H. Steinberg, Disorders of Hemoglobin: Genetics, Pathophysiology, and Clinical Management, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 717.
The core phylum of the Niger–Congo group are the Atlantic–Congo languages. The non-Atlantic–Congo languages within Niger–Congo are grouped as Dogon languages, Mande languages, Ijaw languages (sometimes with Defaka language as Ijoid languages), Katla languages and Rashad languages.
The proposed Savannas group combines Adamawa, Ubangian and Gur languages. Outside of the Savannas group, Volta–Congo comprises Kru languages, Kwa languages (or "West Kwa"), Volta–Niger (also "East Kwa" or "West Benue–Congo") and Benue–Congo (or "East Benue–Congo"). Volta–Niger includes the two largest languages of Nigeria, Yoruba language and Igbo language. Benue–Congo includes the Southern Bantoid group, which is dominated by the Bantu languages, which account for 350 million people (2015), or half the total Niger–Congo speaking population.
The strict genetic unity of any of these subgroups may themselves be under dispute. For example, Roger Blench (2012) argued that Adamawa, Ubangian, Kwa languages, Bantoid, and Bantu languages are not coherent groups.
Although the Kordofanian branch is generally included in the Niger-Congo languages, some reseachers do not agree with its inclusion. Glottolog 3.4 (2019) does not accept that the Kordofanian branches (Lafofa languages, Talodi languages and Heiban languages) or the difficult-to-classify Laal language have been demonstrated to be Atlantic–Congo languages. It otherwise accepts the family but not its inclusion within a broader Niger–Congo. Glottolog also considers Ijoid languages, Mande languages, and Dogon languages to be independent language phyla that have not been demonstrated to be related to each other.
The Atlantic–Congo group is characterised by the noun class systems of its languages. Atlantic–Congo largely corresponds to Mukarovsky's "Western Nigritic" phylum.Hans G. Mukarovsky, A Study of Western Nigritic, 2 vols. (1976–1977). Blench (2004): "Almost simultaneously with, Mukarovsky (1976-7) published his analysis of 'Western Nigritic'. Mukarovsky's basic theme was the relationship between the reconstructions of Bantu of Guthrie and other writers and the languages of West Africa. Mukarovsky excluded Kordofanian, Mande, Ijo, Dogon, Adamawa-Ubangian and most Bantoid languages for unknown reasons, thus reconstructing an idiosyncratic grouping. Nonetheless, he buttressed his argument with an extremely valuable compilation of data, establishing the case for Bantu/Niger-Congo genetic link beyond reasonable doubt."
The polyphyletic Atlantic group accounts for about 35 million speakers as of 2016, mostly accounted for by Fula language and Wolof language speakers. Atlantic is not considered to constitute a valid group.
In many cases, wider classifications employed a blend of typological and racial criteria. Thus, Friedrich Müller, in his ambitious classification (1876–88), separated the 'Negro' and Bantu languages. Likewise, the Africanist Karl Richard Lepsius considered Bantu to be of African origin, and many 'Mixed Negro languages' as products of an encounter between Bantu and intruding Asiatic languages.
In this period a relation between Bantu and languages with Bantu-like (but less complete) noun class systems began to emerge. Some authors saw the latter as languages which had not yet completely evolved to full Bantu status, whereas others regarded them as languages which had partly lost original features still found in Bantu. The Bantuist Meinhof made a major distinction between Bantu and a 'Semi-Bantu' group which according to him was originally of the unrelated Sudanic stock.
Joseph Greenberg took Westermann's work as a starting-point for his own classification. In a series of articles published between 1949 and 1954, he argued that Westermann's 'West Sudanic' and Bantu formed a single genetic family, which he named Niger–Congo; that Bantu constituted a subgroup of the Benue–Congo branch; that Adamawa–Eastern, previously not considered to be related, was another member of this family; and that Fula belonged to the West Atlantic languages. 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, he renamed the family Congo–Kordofanian, later Niger–Kordofanian. Greenberg's work on African languages, though initially greeted with scepticism, became the prevailing view among scholars.
Bennet and Sterk (1977) presented an internal reclassification based on lexicostatistics that laid the foundation for the regrouping in Bendor-Samuel (1989). Kordofanian was presented as one of several primary branches rather than being coordinate to the family as a whole, prompting re-introduction of the term Niger–Congo, which is in current use among linguists. Many classifications continue to place Kordofanian as the most distant branch, but mainly due to negative evidence (fewer lexical correspondences), rather than positive evidence that the other languages form a valid genealogical group. Likewise, Mande is often assumed to be the second-most distant branch based on its lack of the noun-class system prototypical of the Niger–Congo family. Other branches lacking any trace of the noun-class system are Dogon and Ijaw, whereas the Talodi branch of Kordofanian does have cognate noun classes, suggesting that Kordofanian is also not a unitary group.
Glottolog (2013) accepts the core with noun-class systems, the Atlantic–Congo languages, apart from the recent inclusion of some of the Kordofanian groups, but not Niger–Congo as a whole. They list the following as separate families: Atlantic–Congo, Mande, Dogon, Ijoid, Lafofa, Katla–Tima, Heiban, Talodi, and Rashad.
Oxford Handbooks Online (2016) has indicated that the continuing reassessment of Niger-Congo's "internal structure is due largely to the preliminary nature of Greenberg’s classification, explicitly based as it was on a methodology that doesn’t produce proofs for genetic affiliations between languages but rather aims at identifying “likely candidates.”...The ongoing descriptive and documentary work on individual languages and their varieties, greatly expanding our knowledge on formerly little-known linguistic regions, is helping to identify clusters and units that allow for the application of the historical-comparative method. Only the reconstruction of lower-level units, instead of “big picture” contributions based on mass comparison, can help to verify (or disprove) our present concept of Niger-Congo as a genetic grouping consisting of Benue-Congo plus Volta-Niger, Kwa, Adamawa plus Gur, Kru, the so-called Kordofanian languages, and probably the language groups traditionally classified as Atlantic."
The coherence of Niger-Congo as a language phylum is supported by Grollemund, et al. (2016), using computational phylogenetic methods.Rebecca Grollemund, Simon Branford, Jean-Marie Hombert & Mark Pagel. 2016. Genetic unity of the Niger-Congo family. Towards Proto-Niger-Congo: comparison and reconstruction (2nd International Congress) The East/West Volta-Congo division, West/East Benue-Congo division, and North/South Bantoid division are not supported, whereas a Bantoid group consisting of Ekoid, Bendi, Dakoid, Jukunoid, Tivoid, Mambiloid, Beboid, Mamfe, Tikar, Grassfields, and Bantu is supported.
The Automated Similarity Judgment Program (ASJP) also groups many Niger-Congo branches together.
|ɪMorton, Deborah. [ATR] Harmony in an Eleven Vowel Language. Ohio State University, 2012:70–71.|
There are two types of ATR vowel harmony controllers in Niger–Congo. The first controller is the root. When a root contains a +ATR or −ATR vowel, then that value is applied to the rest of the word, which involves crossing morpheme boundaries. For example, suffixes in Wolof language assimilate to the ATR value of the root to which they attach. Some examples of these suffixes that alternate depending on the root are:
Furthermore, the directionality of assimilation in ATR root-controlled vowel harmony need not be specified. The root features +ATR and −ATR spread left and/or right as needed, so that no vowel would lack a specification and be ill-formed.
Unlike in the root-controlled harmony system, where the two ATR values behave symmetrically, a large number of Niger–Congo languages exhibit a pattern where the +ATR value is more active or dominant than the −ATR value. This results in the second vowel harmony controller being the +ATR value. If there is even one vowel that is +ATR in the whole word, then the rest of the vowels harmonize with that feature. However, if there is no vowel that is +ATR, the vowels appear in their underlying form. This form of vowel harmony control is best exhibited in West African languages. For example, in Nawuri, the diminutive suffix /-bi/ will cause the underlying −ATR vowels in a word to become phonetically +ATR.
There are two types of vowels which affect the harmony process. These are known as neutral or opaque vowels. Neutral vowels do not harmonize to the ATR value of the word, and instead maintain their own ATR value. The vowels that follow them, however, will receive the ATR value of the root. Opaque vowels maintain their own ATR value as well, but they affect the harmony process behind them. All of the vowels following an opaque vowel will harmonize with the ATR value of the opaque vowel instead of the ATR vowel of the root.
The vowel inventory listed above is a ten-vowel language. This is a language in which all of the vowels of the language participate in the harmony system, producing five harmonic pairs. Vowel inventories of this type are still found in some branches of Niger-Congo, for example in the Ghana Togo Mountain languages. However, this is the rarer inventory as oftentimes there are one or more vowels that are not part of a harmonic pair. This has resulted in seven-and nine-vowel systems being the more popular systems. The majority of languages with ATR controlled vowel harmony have either seven- or nine-vowel phonemes, with the most common non-participatory vowel being /a/. It has been asserted that this is because vowel quality differences in the mid-central region where /ə/, the counterpart of /a/, is found, are difficult to perceive. Another possible reason for the non-participatory status of /a/ is that there is articulatory difficulty in advancing the tongue root when the tongue body is low in order to produce a low +ATR vowel.
And seven-vowel languages have one of two inventories:
The fact that ten vowels have been reconstructed for proto-Ijoid has led to the hypothesis that the original vowel inventory of Niger–Congo was a full ten-vowel system. (Re: proto-Atlantic)
Niger–Congo languages commonly show fewer nasalized than oral vowels. Kasem language, a language with a ten-vowel system employing ATR vowel harmony, has seven nasalized vowels. Similarly, Yoruba language has seven oral vowels and only five nasal ones. However, the language of Zialo language has a nasal equivalent for each of its seven oral vowels.
|+ Contrastive levels of tone in some Niger–Congo languages||Dyula language–Bambara language, Maninka language, Temne language, Dogon languages, Dagbani language, Gbaya language, Efik language, Lingala language|
|Yakuba language, Nafaanra, Kasem language, Banda languages, Yoruba language, Jukun, Dangme language, Yukuben language, Akan languages, Anyi language, Ewe language, Igbo language|
|Gban language, Wobe language, Munzombo, Igede language, Mambila language, Fon language|
|Ashuku language (Benue–Congo), Dan-Santa (Mande)|
|Mandinka (Senegambia), Fula language, Wolof language, Kimwani|
|Abbreviations used: T top, H high, M mid, L low, B bottom, PA/S pitch-accent or stress|
Adapted from Williamson 1989:27
In the Bantu languages, where noun classification is particularly elaborate, it typically appears as prefixes, with verbs and adjectives marked according to the class of the noun they refer to. For example, in Swahili, watu wazuri wataenda is 'good (zuri) people (tu) will go (ta-enda)'.
Below are some Niger-Congo noun class markers (Vossen & Dimmendaal 2020:145,Vossen, Rainer and Gerrit J. Dimmendaal (eds.). 2020. The Oxford Handbook of African Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. from Schadeberg 1989:72Schadeberg, Thilo C. (1989). ‘Kordofanian’, in J. Bendor-Samuel (ed.). The Niger-Congo Languages: A classification and description of Africa's largest language family, 66-80. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.):
Below are some Proto-Niger-Congo, Proto-Bantu, and Proto-Atlantic verbal extensions (Vossen & Dimmendaal 2020:146, from Hyman 2007:157Hyman, L. M. (2007). ‘Niger-Congo verb extensions: overview and discussion’, in D. L. Payne and J. Pena (eds.), Selected Proceedings of the 37th Annual Conference on African Linguistics. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla, 149-63.):
Whereas Claudi (1993) argues for SVO on the basis of existing SVO > SOV grammaticalization paths, Gensler (1997) points out that the notion of 'basic word order' is problematic as it excludes structures with, for example, Auxiliary verb. However, the structure SC-OC-VbStem (Subject concord, Object concord, Verb stem) found in the "verbal complex" of the SVO Bantu languages suggests an earlier SOV pattern (where the subject and object were at least represented by pronouns).
in most Niger–Congo languages are characteristically noun-initial, with , numerals, and all coming after the noun. The major exceptions are found in the westernHaspelmath, Martin; Dryer, Matthew S.; Gil, David and Comrie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures; pp 346–385. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. areas where verb-final word order predominates and genitives precede nouns, though other modifiers still come afterwards. Degree words almost always follow adjectives, and except in verb-final languages are prepositional.
The verb-final languages of the Mende region have two quite unusual word order characteristics. Although verbs follow their direct objects, oblique adpositional phrases (like "in the house", "with timber") typically come after the verb, creating a SOVX word order. Also noteworthy in these languages is the prevalence of internally headed and correlative , in both of which the head occurs inside the relative clause rather than the main clause.