Monday, June 15, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Niger

In this week's country profile we're going to take a brief look at the languages of Niger, the largest country in West Africa. However, before we get started we thought we'd answer a related lexical question: If a person from Nigeria is Nigerian, what do you call a person from Niger? It turns out that their demonym is Nigerien, which we can only imagine leads to constant confusion.

The Official Language

Just like the nearby countries of Burkina Faso and Côte d'Ivoire, the sole official language of Niger is French, which dates back to its time under French colonial rule. Niger gained independence from France in 1960, but French remains an important administrative language in the country.

However, most Nigeriens speak French as a second language instead of as a native language. According to Ethnologue, there are under 10,000 native French speakers in the country, but over 1.2 million second language speakers.

A pair of scimitar oryx, an animal native to Niger
that is currently extinct in the wild.
Indigenous Languages

The most commonly spoken languages in Niger are several indigenous languages that have been recognized as national languages. This list includes Hausa, Zarma, Tamajaq, Fulfulde, Kanuri, and Dazaga.

Hausa, a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, is the country's primary trade language. It is also the native language of nearly 5.5 million Nigeriens, which makes it the country's most spoken language. It is followed by Zarma, a Nilo-Saharan language spoken by over 2 million people in southwestern Niger.

The next most spoken languages are Tamajaq and Fulfulde, which each boast nearly 500,000 native speakers. Tamajaq, also known as Tuareg, is a Berber language that belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family. Fulfulde, on the other hand, is a Niger-Congo language also known as Fulani that is spoken throughout West Africa.

Last but not least there's Kanuri and Dazaga, both of which are Nilo-Saharan languages. Kanuri is spoken by approximately 280,000 Nigeriens, while Dazaga has around 50,000 native speakers. Niger is also home to several other languages with much smaller numbers of speakers, including several varieties of Arabic.