Atlantic languages

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The Atlantic languages ( originally called "West Atlantic" by Joseph Greenberg ) are a group of African languages ​​within the Niger-Congo languages . While they have long been regarded as a primary branch of the Niger-Congo, according to more recent research it is more a mainly geographical and language- typological grouping of several primary branches of the Niger-Congo.

The 50 or so Atlantic languages ​​are spoken from the mouth of the Senegal River along the African Atlantic coast to Liberia , especially in today's states of Senegal , Gambia , Guinea , Guinea-Bissau , Sierra Leone , Mali , Niger , Nigeria , Ghana and Burkina Faso from about 27 million people spoken.

Main languages

By far the most important Atlantic language is Fulfulde (also called Ful, Fula, Fulani, Pulaar or Peul), whose dialects are spoken by 18 million native speakers and by at least another four million secondary speakers (see the breakdown of the Ful dialects below). The Fulani are an old West African pastoral people who settled or nomadized in a large area in sub-Saharan western Africa, today the focus is on Niger , Burkina Faso , Nigeria , Cameroon , Benin , Togo , Mali , Guinea , Senegal , Mauritania and Gambia . Other North Atlantic main languages ​​are Wolof , which is closely related to Fulfulde (8 million with second speakers, the main language of Senegal), Serer-Sine with 1.2 million speakers and the South Atlantic Temne (1.5 million speakers, Sierra Leone).

Classification of the Atlantic languages

The Atlantic is divided into three main branches: North Atlantic with 24.5 million speakers, the largest branch, South Atlantic (2.5 million speakers) and the isolated language Bijago or Bissagao , which is spoken in the Bissagos Archipelago off Guinea-Bissau and cannot be assigned to either of the two great branches. The Atlantic split off from the main line of the Niger-Congo at about the same time as the Mande languages . The classification of the Atlantic follows the web link below, all languages ​​are listed.

Classification of the Atlantic

  • Atlantic
    • North Atlantic (33 languages ​​with 25 million native speakers, almost 35 million with second speakers)
    • South Atlantic (16 languages ​​with 3 million speakers)
    • Bijago : Bijago (Bissago, Bidyogo) (33 thousand)

Linguistic characteristics

The Atlantic languages ​​originally had a fully developed system of nominal classes , which was marked by prefixes and augments (prefixes) and acted on the entire sentence via concordance . The class prefixes were later often abraded and replaced by suffixes or augments. The change of the initial consonant has grammatical meaning, often it marks the plural formation . The usual sentence order is SVO (subject-verb-object), prepositions (no postpositions ) are usually used. In the noun phrase , the specific noun is in front, i.e. noun + genitive , noun + numerals , noun + demonstrative . The exact form depends on the language.

Nominal classes

The nominal class systems of the Atlantic languages ​​are often very complex and quite different in their structure. The Ful has 20 to 25 nominal classes with the corresponding concordance characters, the Serer distinguishes 16 nominal classes by prefixes and suffixes, the Wolof has a concordance system, but no class characters on the noun. Of the Cangin languages ​​(Saafi, Noon, Lehar; Ndut, Falor) the first three have a very reduced class system, characterized by suffixes, Ndut and Falor no longer have any concordance. The Bak languages ​​have up to 19 nominal classes, consonant changes only occur in Mandjak and Papel. This small list (after De Wolf 1981) shows the great variety of grammatical expressions of Atlantic languages, which has led some researchers to consider the South Atlantic group as an independent primary branch of the Niger-Congo. The similarity of some Atlantic class prefixes with those of Bantu speaks for the embedding of the Atlantic in the Niger-Congo:

  • mo-, wo- singular of living beings, cf. Bantu mu-
  • Be plural of living beings, cf. Bantu ba-
  • ma- collectives, cf. Bantu ma-

Initial changes and plural formation

Some examples from the Fulfulde follow for the initial change and its function (see more in the article Fulfulde ). The nouns of Fulfulde are initially divided into the classes human (person class) and non-human (material class). The plural is formed in the nouns of the person class by the following initial change:

  • b> w / g, ch> s, d> r, g> w / y, j> y, k> h, p> f.

In the plural formation for nouns of the factual class, exactly the opposite change occurs:

  • w> b / g, h> k, s> ch, f> p, y> j / g, r> d.

Nasal initial consonants (/ mb /, / nd /, / ng /) do not change, nouns of the person class with the singular ending in / -o / form the plural in addition to the initial change with the suffix / -mpe / or / -en /. Here are a few examples:

  • gorko "male person"> plural worbe
  • wordu "dog"> plural gordi
  • debbo "woman"> plural reube
  • reuro "bitch"> plural debbi
  • konowo "warrior"> plural honombe (both initial changes and ending / -mbe /)

These examples show that in addition to the initial sound change, there are usually other sound changes, so the formation of the plural form can ultimately only be grasped lexically.

More information about the linguistic characteristics in the article Niger-Congo languages .


  • Joseph Greenberg: The Languages ​​of Africa. Mouton, The Hague and Indiana University Center, Bloomington 1963.
  • Bernd Heine and others (ed.): The languages ​​of Africa. Buske, Hamburg 1981.
  • Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse (eds.): African Languages. An Introduction. Cambridge University Press 2000.
  • John Bendor-Samuel (Ed.): The Niger-Congo Languages: A Classification and Description of Africa's Largest Language Family. University Press of America, Lanham, New York, London 1989.
    Therein: WAA Wilson: Atlantic.

Web links