All In The Language Family: The Afro-Asiatic Languages

With 500 million native speakers, Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken across Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Which one should you learn?
June 17, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Afro-Asiatic Languages

The Afro-Asiatic language family is certainly an extensive one. It’s currently spoken across North and East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, by numbers of speakers, it’s one of the largest language families in Africa. More impressive yet, it’s also the 4th largest of all language families on Earth.

But what are the Afro-Asiatic languages? How many people speak them? And which one should you learn? In this post, we’ll answer all these questions and more.

What Are The Afro-Asiatic Languages?

There are six branches of the Afro-Asiatic family: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Omotic and Semitic. Languages in all but the Egyptian branch are still spoken today. The Egyptian Afro-Asiatic languages became extinct (or fell out of everyday use) by the 17th or 18th century. However, Coptic — the modern descendent of Ancient Egyptian — is still used in liturgies by the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic Churches. Its use today is mostly ceremonial, the same way Latin is often used in other Christian traditions, or how Sanskrit is used in Hinduism and Buddhism. Since Egyptian is not really considered a living branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, we’ll focus on the other 5 branches.

The most widely spoken Afro-Asiatic language today is Arabic (a Semitic language), but there are many other significant languages in the family. These include Shilha (a Berber language, spoken in Morocco), Hausa (from the Chadic branch — spoken in Nigeria and Niger) and Somali (a Cushitic language native to several East African countries). There’s also Mao (an Omotic language spoken in Ethiopia), and Hebrew (which also belongs to the Semitic branch). In total, you’ll find at least 40 distinct Afro-Asiatic languages spoken around the world. That’s quite a few! And depending on how you classify them, there are arguably many more.

How Many People Speak Afro-Asiatic Languages?

Today, there are almost 500 million people who speak an Afro-Asiatic language natively. At the top of the table is Arabic, with a whopping 300 million speakers. The next most spoken languages are Hausa (Chadic) with 40 million speakers, Oromo (Cushitic) with 34 million, Amharic (Semitic) with 25 million, and Somali (Cushitic) with 17 million. All of the Berber languages together make up about 15 million speakers. The Omotic branch brings up the rear with just over 6 million. 

But this is just the native speakers. If you count those who actively learned the language later in life (i.e. as a second or third language) the numbers rack up even more. Hausa has a significant number of additional speakers. It’s estimated that around 25 million people speak it as a second language, mostly in West Africa. In Nigeria and Niger, it’s often used as a lingua franca and as the language of business and media. However, people speak Hausa in many other places, too. This includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, Sudan and Togo.

How Similar Are The Afro-Asiatic Languages?

The Afro-Asiatic languages are very distinct. For instance, writing systems vary dramatically. The most widely used is the Arabic alphabet, although it is not just used for Arabic itself. Other writing systems include the Tifinagh alphabet (Tuareg, part of the Berber branch) and the Ge’ez script (Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, which are all Semitic languages). Also common is the Roman alphabet — used across several Semitic, Berber and Cushitic languages — and the Hebrew alphabet.

When we dig deeper, though — beyond written language — we find some similarities. For example, several of the Afro-Asiatic languages use bi- or triliteral roots. This means they use words (often verbs) with root forms made of 2 or 3 common letters. For instance, consider the verb “write.” In Tuareg, the word nektab means “we wrote.” In Arabic kataba means “he wrote.” And in Hebrew koteb means “writer.” Notice the similarities? These words all use the letters K-T-B. Another example (this time of a bi-literal root) is the verb “die.” Mutu in Hausa, māt in Hebrew and Arabic, ye-mmut in Tuareg and mut in Rendille all use the common root letters M-T.

Another significant division between Afro-Asiatic languages is tone. Tonal languages use pitch or accent as a distinguishing characteristic inherent to a word. In non-tonal languages, speakers can change their accent or inflection without changing the meaning of a word. For example, Mandarin Chinese is tonal, while English is non-tonal. In the Afro-Asiatic family, Berber, Semitic and Egyptian branches are non-tonal. However, some languages among the Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic branches are tonal.

The Afro-Asiatic language family is so extensive, it’s hardly surprising that the languages vary so much. While we can compare them by focusing on their similarities, the truth is, there are more differences than similarities between them.

Which Afro-Asiatic language Should You Learn?

If you want to learn an Afro-Asiatic language that you have a good chance of using, the obvious choice is Arabic. However, if you prefer the challenge of learning a tonal language (always trickier to master!) then Hausa or Somali are both good options. They have a large number of speakers spread across multiple countries. They’re also both written using the Roman alphabet (meaning you won’t have to spend time learning a new writing system). Whichever language you learn though, the most important thing to remember is to enjoy it!

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Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.

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