Most of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan languages still have no writing (except perhaps for translations of the Bible), although there are several important exceptions. The Nilo-Saharan tongue Nubian, the only modern African language with early written records (dating from the 8th cent. A.D. to the 14th cent.), is of considerable linguistic interest. Its alphabet was derived from that of Coptic. Swahili, a Bantu tongue of the Niger-Kordofanian stock, was written before the European conquest of Africa (see Swahili language), and Vai, a language belonging to the Mande subdivision of Niger-Congo, employs an indigenous script developed in the 19th cent.
Because the majority of Africans do not know a European tongue, the use of written African languages has become increasingly important for the growing field of mass communication. Arabic and Roman letters are now being used increasingly for languages of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan stocks, and the International African Institute has had some success in promoting the use of the written form of indigenous African languages. Many newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts now employ various vernaculars, and film theaters can switch sound tracks to accommodate the audience in a given language area. However, Africa's linguistic diversity can be a hindrance to mass communication, and European tongues (especially English and French) are still widely used in the media.
The modern scientific study of the classification and distribution of African languages has thrown some light on the history of Africa and its inhabitants. More knowledge can be expected from the combined use in the future of evidence from linguistic sources, historical records, reliable traditions, and archaeology. For example, the study of loan words from languages such as Greek, Latin, Punic, Arabic, and Portuguese should reveal much about contacts between African and non-African cultures. The study of loan words of African origin that have been absorbed by English has become of increasing interest to American linguists and scholars.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.