Niger-Congo languages

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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. The most widely spoken Niger-Congo languages by native speaker are Yoruba, Igbo, Fula and Shona. The most widely spoken by total number of speakers is Swahili.

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Classification history

Early classifications

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.

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