The Atlantic languages (or West Atlantic languages[note 1]) of West Africa are an obsolete proposed major group of the Niger–Congo languages. They are those languages west of Kru which have the noun-class systems characteristic of the Niger–Congo family; in this they are distinguished from their Mande neighbours, which do not. The Atlantic languages are highly diverse and it is now generally accepted that they do not form a valid group. Linguists such as Dimmendahl, Blench, Hyman and Segerer classify them into three or more independent branches of Niger–Congo. The term "Atlantic languages" is kept as a geographic term of convenience.

West Atlantic, Volta–Congo A
Westernmost Africa
Linguistic classificationNiger–Congo

The Atlantic languages are spoken along the Atlantic coast from Senegal to Liberia, though transhumant Fula speakers have spread eastward and are found in large numbers across the Sahel, from Senegal to Nigeria, Cameroon and Sudan. Wolof of Senegal and several of the Fula languages are the most populous Atlantic languages, with several million speakers each; other significant members include Serer and the Jola dialect cluster of Senegal and Temne in Sierra Leone. The Senegambian languages exhibit consonant mutation, and most Atlantic languages have noun-class systems similar to those of the distantly related Bantu languages. Some languages are tonal, while others such as Wolof have pitch-accent systems. The basic word order tends to be SVO.



The Atlantic family was first identified by Sigismund Koelle in 1854. In the early 20th century, Carl Meinhof claimed that Fula was a Hamitic language, but August von Klingenhaben and Joseph Greenberg's work conclusively established Fula's close relationship with Wolof and Serer. W. A. A. Wilson notes that the validity of the family as a whole rests on much weaker evidence, though it is clear that the languages are part of the Niger–Congo family, based on evidence such as a shared noun-class system. However, comparative work on Niger–Congo is in its infancy. Classifications of Niger–Congo, usually based on lexicostatistics, generally propose that the various Atlantic languages are rather divergent, but less so than Mande and other languages that lack noun classes.

David Sapir (1971) proposed a classification of Atlantic into three branches, a northern group (Senegambian and Bak), a southern group (Mel, Limba and Gola) and the divergent Bijago language of the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau (Wilson 1989). However, Segerer (2010, 2017), the only classification since Sapir, ties Bijago to the Bak languages, based on previously unrecognised sound correspondences, and excludes the southern branch, with Mel, Sua, Gola and Limba not showing any particular relationship to each other within the Niger–Congo family.


  1. ^ "West Atlantic" is the traditional term, following Diedrich Hermann Westermann; "Atlantic" is more typical in recent work, particularly since Bendor-Samuel (1989).


  • Holst, Jan Henrik. "Reconstructing the mutation system of Atlantic." Neuried, 2008.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin. "Etudes atlantiques comparatives : questions de méthodologie." Mémoires de la Société linguistique de Paris, XV, 2007, p. 93-119.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin. "Problèmes de l’étude comparative historique des langues atlantiques". Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 2007.
  • Pozdniakov, Konstantin & Segerer, Guillame. Tradition et rupture dans les grammaires comparées de différentes familles de langues », 2007, p. 93-119.
  • Guillaume Segerer & Florian Lionnet 2010. "'Isolates' in 'Atlantic'". Language Isolates in Africa workshop, Lyon, Dec. 4
  • [author?] Reconstruction des pronoms atlantiques et typologie des systèmes pronominaux // Systèmes de marques personnelles en Afrique. Collection «Afrique et Langage », 8, 2004, p. 151-162.
  • Sapir, David (1971). West Atlantic: An inventory of the languages, their noun class systems and consonant alternations. Current Trends in Linguistics 7:45-112. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Wilson, W. A. A. (1989). Atlantic. In John Bendor-Samuel (Ed.), The Niger–Congo Languages, pp. 81–104.

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