Map showing the distribution of Niger-Congo languages. area is divided into B (Bantu) and A (rest) to show the extent of the Bantu subfamily.
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 about what constitutes a distinct language. Most 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.
Niger-Congo as it is known today was only gradually recognized as a unity. In early classifications of African languages, one of the principal criteria used to distinguish different groupings was the languages’ use of prefixes to classify nouns, or the lack thereof. A major advance came with the work of Koelle, who in his 1854 Polyglotta Africana attempted a careful classification, the groupings of which in quite a number of cases correspond to modern groupings. An early sketch of the extent of Niger-Congo as one language family can be found in Koelle’s observation, echoed in Bleek (1856), that the Atlantic languages used prefixes just like many Southern African languages. Subsequent work of Bleek, and some decades later the comparative work of Meinhof, solidly established Bantu as a linguistic unit.
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 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.
Westermann, Greenberg and beyond
Westermann’s 1911 Die Sudansprachen. Eine sprachvergleichende Studie laid much of the basis for the understanding of Niger-Congo.Westermann, a pupil of Meinhof, set out to establish the internal classification of the then Sudanic languages. In a 1911 work he established a basic division between ‘East’ and ‘West’. A historical reconstruction of West Sudanic was published in 1927, and in his 1935 ‘Charakter und Einteilung der Sudansprachen’ he conclusively established the relationship between Bantu and West Sudanic.
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, the family was renamed Niger-Kordofanian. Greenberg’s work, 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 thought to be one of several primary branches rather than being coordinate to the phylum 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 valid group.
Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan
Over the years, several linguists have suggested a link between Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan, probably starting with Westermann’s comparative work on the ‘Sudanic’ family in which ‘Eastern Sudanic’ (now classified as Nilo-Saharan) and ‘Western Sudanic (now classified as Niger-Congo) were united. Gregersen (1972) proposed that Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan be united into a larger phylum which he termed Kongo-Saharan. His evidence was mainly based on the uncertainty in the classification of Songhay, morphological resemblances, and lexical similarities. A more recent proponent is Roger Blench (1995), who puts forward phonological, morphological and lexical evidence for uniting Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan in a Niger-Saharan phylum. Within Nilo-Saharan, Blench considers Niger-Congo to be most closely related to Central Sudanic. Most hypotheses uniting the two families have failed to generate much discussion.
Niger-Congo languages have a clear preference for open syllables of the type CV (Consonant Vowel). The typical word structure of Proto-Niger-Congo is thought to have been CVCV, a structure still attested in, for example, Bantu, Mande and Ijoid — in many other branches this structure has been reduced through phonological change. Verbs are composed of a root followed by one or more extensional suffixes. Nouns consist of a root originally preceded by a noun class prefix of (C)V- shape which is often eroded by phonological change.
Consonant and vowel systems
Reconstructions of the consonant system of several branches of Niger-Congo (Stewart for proto-Volta-Congo, Mukarovsky for his proto-West-Nigritic, roughly corresponding to Atlantic-Congo) have posited independently a regular phonological contrast between two classes of consonants. Pending more clarity as to the precise nature of this contrast it is commonly characterized as a contrast between ‘fortis’ and ‘lenis’ consonants. Five places of articulation are postulated for the consonant inventory of proto-Niger-Congo: labial, alveolar, palatal, velar, and labial-velar.
Many Niger-Congo languages show vowel harmony based on the feature [ATR] (advanced tongue root). In this type of vowel harmony, the position of the root of the tongue is the phonetic basis for the distinction between two harmonizing sets of vowels. In its fullest form, this type involves two classes, each of five vowels: [+ATR] /i, e, ə, o, u/ and [-ATR] /ɪ, ɛ, a, ɔ, ʊ/. Vowel inventories of this type are still found in some branches of Niger-Congo, for example in the Ghana Togo Mountain languages. To date, many languages show reductions from this fuller system. The fact that ten vowels have been reconstructed for proto-Atlantic, proto-Ijoid and possibly proto-Volta-Congo leads Williamson (1989:23) to the hypothesis that the original vowel inventory of Niger-Congo was a full ten-vowel system. On the other hand, Stewart in recent comparative work reconstructs a seven vowel system for his proto-Potou-Akanic-Bantu.
Several scholars have documented a contrast between oral and nasal vowels in Niger-Congo. In his reconstruction of proto-Volta-Congo, Steward (1976) postulates that nasal consonants have originated under the influence of nasal vowels; this hypothesis is supported by the fact that there are several Niger-Congo languages that have been analysed as lacking nasal consonants altogether. Languages like this have nasal vowels accompanied with complementary distribution between oral and nasal consonants before oral and nasal vowels. Subsequent loss of the nasal/oral contrast in vowels may result in nasal consonants becoming part of the phoneme inventory. In all cases reported to date, the bilabial /m/ is the first nasal consonant to be phonologized. Niger-Congo thus invalidates two common assumptions about nasals: that all languages have at least one primary nasal consonant, and that if a language has only one primary nasal consonant it is /n/.
Niger-Congo languages commonly show fewer nasalized than oral vowels. Kasem, a language with a ten-vowel system employing ATR vowel harmony, has seven nasalized vowels. Similarly, Yoruba has seven oral vowels and only five nasal ones.
The large majority of present-day Niger-Congo languages are tonal. A typical Niger-Congo tone system involves two or three contrastive level tones. Four level systems are less widespread, and five level systems are rare. Only a few Niger-Congo languages are non-tonal; Swahili is perhaps the best known, but within the Atlantic branch some others are found. Proto-Niger-Congo is thought to have been a tone language with two contrastive levels. Synchronic and comparative-historical studies of tone systems show that such a basic system can easily develop more tonal contrasts under the influence of depressor consonants or through the introduction of a downstep. Languages which have more tonal levels tend to use tone more for lexical and less for grammatical contrasts.
This section requires expansion.
Niger-Congo languages are known for their system of noun classification, traces of which can be found in every branch of the family but Mande, Ijoid, Dogon, and the Katla and Rashad branches of Kordofanian. These noun-classification systems are somewhat analogous to grammatical gender in other languages, but there are often a fairly large number of classes (often 10 or more), and the classes may be male human/female human/animate/inanimate, or even completely gender-unrelated categories such as places, plants, abstracts, and groups of objects. For example, in Bantu, the Swahili language is called Kiswahili, while the Swahili people are Waswahili. Likewise, in Ubangian, the Zande language is called Pazande, while the Zande people are called Azande.
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)’.
The same Atlantic-Congo languages which have noun classes also have a set of verb applicatives and other verbal extensions, such as the reciprocal suffix -na (Swahili penda ‘to love’, pendana ‘to love each other’; also applicative pendea ‘to love for’ and causative pendeza ‘to please’).
A Subject Verb Object word order is quite widespread among today’s Niger-Congo languages, but SOV is found in branches as divergent as Mande, Ijoid and Dogon. As a result, there has been quite some debate as to the basic word order of Niger-Congo.
Whereas Claudi (1993) argues for SVO on the basis of existing SVO>SOV grammaticalization paths (SOV>SVO is never found), Gensler (1997) points out that the notion of ‘basic word order’ is problematic as it excludes structures with, for example, auxiliaries. 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).
Noun phrases in most Niger-Congo languages are characteristically noun-initial, with adjectives, numerals, demonstratives and genitives all coming after the noun. The major exceptions are found in the western reas 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 adpositions 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 relative clauses, in both of which the head occurs inside the relative clause rather than the main clause.