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Africa is generally recognised to have four main language families.Each of these has a common origin in the deep past.From the 19 century, West African writers, linguists and translators made use of the printing press and the roman script brought by Europeans to translate the Bible and to call for political change.For more on these developments, see the Spirit and Speaking Out articles. This was partly a quest to express their own languages fully.This includes the Mande languages of Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – some 10-12 million speakers – as well as the languages of the Atlantic Coast such as Fulfulde and Wolof, which have several million speakers.Yoruba and Igbo, two of the major languages of Nigeria, also belong to the Niger-Congo grouping.It was also an attempt to find an alternative to the roman script brought by Europeans, and to assert a different, autonomous vision of what it meant to write.

As one scholar puts it, ‘Africa’s contribution to the art and science of writing has gone largely unrecognised in the annals of history.’ century CE, and in Sudan the Meroïtic script was created about 180 BCE.The Tifinagh script is of particular importance for West Africa.It was created by speakers of Berber languages, living in and around the Sahara Desert, at least 2,000 years ago, and is known to have been in use south of the Sahara at least 1,500 years ago.Today, both the Arabic and the roman script are hugely important in West Africa.Arabic was brought to West Africa with the Islamic religion more than a millennium ago, and was taken up by scholars and students across the region.

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Large collections of rock inscriptions in this script survive in countries including Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and Libya.

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