Why does Africa have so many languages?
Why does Africa have a third of the world’s languages (over 2,000) with less than a seventh of the world’s population, whereas Europe has only about 300 with about an eighth of the world’s population?
Scientists have often attributed this linguistic diversity to Africa’s genetic diversity (Africans are more genetically diverse than non-Africans). That, in turn, is a result of humanity’s origin in the African continent.
But is this a valid, let alone sufficient explanation? Probably not.
Investigators from Terralingua did not find a strong correlation between genetic and linguistic diversity on the African continent. “There’s huge linguistic diversity in Africa, but it’s not concentrated in the continent in the same way as genetic diversity is,” said one of the investigators.
Another explanation for Africa’s disproportionate linguistic diversity could be historical/political: The various empires that ruled Europe throughout its history tended to assimilate the populations of the lands they conquered, thus slowly eliminating those lands’ languages. In Africa, on the other hand, kingdoms were not as assimilationist, therefore allowing several small languages to survive.
Encouragingly, CSM reports that “only about 13 percent of African languages are considered threatened. Meanwhile, in the Pacific region, which includes other areas of high linguistic diversity such as Australia and New Guinea, more than 60 percent of indigenous languages are threatened.”
Why is that? According to Jonathan Loh from Terralingua, “sure there were European colonies in Africa, but there wasn’t the migration of population from Europe to Africa in the same way as there was from Europe to the Americas or Europe to Australia.”
However, increasing rates of urbanization and mobility for all strata of society could reverse this trend over time. The concentration of large populations in urban centers has historically resulted in clashes of languages and cultures and the eventual prevalence some over others.