Monday, September 14, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Benin

Last Monday we looked at the languages of Guinea, an African country that often gets confused with other countries around the world that have similar-sounding names. Today, we'll be turning our attention to another West African country, Benin, which is home to over 50 languages.

The Official Language

Just as in Guinea, the sole official language of Benin is French. As usual, the French language gained importance in this African country during the colonial era. In the early 1900s, the area that is now known as Benin was a French colony called French Dahomey. It gained independence from France in 1960, and eventually changed its name to Benin in 1975.

While French is the official language of Benin, it is generally not the native language of Beninese people. Instead, most people speak one of the country's many indigenous languages, which we'll get to in a moment. However, French is taught in Beninese schools, which is why a large percentage of the population speaks it as a second language.

A 1770 map of West Africa and the
Bight of Benin, which borders Benin.
Indigenous Languages

Two of the most important indigenous languages spoken in Benin are Fon and Yoruba, which are both members of the Niger-Congo language family. Fon, the language of the country's largest ethnic group, is the native language of approximately 1.4 million people in Benin. The Yoruba language, on the other hand, is spoken by nearly 500,000 Beninese people, in addition to having nearly 19 million native speakers in the neighboring country of Nigeria.

Other prominent languages in Benin include Hausa, Baatonum, Gen, and Aja. Hausa is one of the most spoken languages in Africa and is an important lingua franca throughout West Africa, with about 800,000 native speakers in Benin. It is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, unlike the rest of these languages, which belong to the Niger-Congo family.

Baatonum, the language of the Bariba people, is the native language of approximately 450,000 people in Benin. Both Gen and Aja are Gbe languages, a group of closely related languages that includes Fon. Many of the 20 or so Gbe languages are spoken by significant numbers of Beninese people, including Aja, with about 350,000 native speakers, and Gen, which has around 120,000.

Finally, there's Fulfulde and Yom, which are both spoken throughout West Africa. Fulfulde, also known as Fula or Fulani, is spoken by about 280,000 people in Benin, while Yom has around 300,000 speakers. Of course, there are a few dozen other languages used in Benin, but they are spoken by smaller percentages of the population and we simply don't have time to mention them all.