West Africa as a Common Linguistic and Cultural Area

Author: Nina Pawlak (University of Warsaw, Poland)
Speaker: Nina Pawlak
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


West Africa is a sub-region of the African continent designated by geographic and political criteria. The region which covers the Sub-Saharan countries from Senegal to Nigeria (excluding Northern Africa and the Magreb) is characterized by extensive linguistic diversity which is significant because of the fact that three great language families meet here. For decades, research on languages of this area has been conducted in separate linguistic circles and, as a result, studies oriented at areal phenomena has begun rather late (Aikhenvald & Dixon 2001). Contact zones and linguistic convergence areas in West Africa have been confirmed by various linguistic patterns and language structures (Cyffer & Ziegelmeyer 2009; Zima 2009; Caron & Zima 2006).

The paper deals with some remarkable linguistic features that determine the recognition of West Africa as a convergence zone. Striking or remarkable structural resemblances across genealogical boundaries are the result of the common history of West African societies, which, in addition to political and cultural influences, also included processes of linguistic convergence. The presentation includes grammatical features shared by different, genetically unrelated languages (Zima 2006), common lexicon, Arabic loanwords in particular (Baldi 2008), distinctive patterns in communication (Pawlak 2020), and some characteristic features of phraseological units (Jaggar & Buba). The focus is on new phenomena to integrate the areal zones in West Africa that are based on simplified varieties of European languages (English and French), among which Nigerian Pidgin English is the most widespread (Frąckiewicz 2019). In developing their structural means, these languages rely on West African common patterns of grammaticalization (Heine 2014), common cognitively-based strategies of conceptualization and some shared cultural values.

The presentation of common features identified so far are to show that contact phenomena justify distinguishing West Africa not only as a linguistic but also as a cultural area.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. & Robert M. W. Dixon (eds.). 2001. Areal diff usion and genetic inheritance:problems in comparative linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baldi, S. 2008. Dictionnaire des emprunts arabes dans les langues de l’Afrique de l’Ouest et en swahili, Paris: KARTHALA.
Caron, Bernard & Petr Zima  2006. Sprachbund in the West African Sahel . Collection Afrique et langage 11, Louvain: Peeters.
Cyffer, Norbert & Georg Ziegelmeyer (eds.). 2009. When Languages Meet. Language Contact and Change in West Africa. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.

Keywords: West Africa, linguistic convergence areas, linguistic patterns.