Languages of Uganda

Languages of Uganda

English is the official language of Uganda, even though only a relatively small percentage of the population speaks it. Access to economic and political power is almost impossible without having mastered that language. The East African lingua franca Swahili is relatively widespread as a trade language and was made an official national language of Uganda in September 2005. [ [ IPP (Tanzania)] , [ Britannica] ] Luganda, a language widespread in central Uganda, has been the official vernacular language in education for central Uganda for a long time. [Mukama 1991]

Linguistic divisions

A main division between the languages of Uganda can be made according to their linguistic affiliation. About half of Uganda's languages, all spoken in the southern part, are members of the Bantu language family whereas the other half, in northern Uganda, are of Nilo-Saharan stock. In Central-western Uganda this division coincides with the Victoria Nile flowing from Lake Kyoga to Lake Albert. In Central-eastern Uganda there is a Bantu 'bulge' east of the Victoria Nile in otherwise Nilotic territory formed by Lusoga, its close relatives Kenyi and Gwere, and even further eastward the three closely related languages Luhya, Masaba and Nyole (a dialect cluster which extends into Kenya). Among the Nilo-Saharan languages of the north, a division can be made between the Central Sudanic languages in the extreme north-west and the Nilotic languages in other parts of the north, two branches of Nilo-Saharan that are only very distantly related.


Nineteen Bantu languages are spoken in central and southern Uganda, the bulk of them of the Nyoro-Ganda subfamily. Ganda is the largest in number of speakers, over three million [All population numbers are based on the Ethnologue, 15th edition; many of them come from the 1991 national census as cited therein.] . It is also widespread as a second language. Other relatively widespread Bantu languages include Soga (1,870,845), Runyankore (1,643,193), its close relative Chiga (1,391,442), Masaba (751,253), Nyoro (the language of the ancient Bunyoro kingdom, 495,443), Tooro (488,024), Kenyi (closely related to Soga, 390,115), Konjo (361,709), and Gwere, Nyole and Luyia (about 250,000 each). Kinyarwanda is spoken by about 500,000 Ugandans, mainly in Kisoro district. There are also several smaller languages such as Amba, Gungu, Ruli, and Talinga-Bwisi (all less than 70,000 speakers). As a reflection of the arbitrarily drawn borders during the Scramble for Africa, many languages along the border of Uganda, especially the smaller Bantu languages in the Uganda-Congo borderland, extend into neighbouring countries.

In most of the Bantu speaking areas of Uganda, dialect continua are very common. For example, people around Mbarara in Ankole District speak Runyankore and people from Fort Portal in Toro District speak Rutooro — but in the area between those towns one will find villages where most of the people speak a dialect which is best characterized as intermediate between Runyankore and Rutooro. In recognition of the closeness of four of these languages - Runyankore, Rutooro, Chiga, and Nyoro - and in order to facilitate work in them such as teaching, a standardized version called "Runyakitara" was developed around 1990.

Of Nilo-Saharan, the Eastern Sudanic branch is well represented by several Nilotic languages, eastern as well as western. Eastern Nilotic languages include Karamojong of Eastern Uganda (370,000), the Bari languages in the extreme northwestern corner (about 150,000), and Teso south of Lake Kyoga (999,537). Alur (459,000), Acholi, Lango, Adhola and Kumam of eastern Uganda are Western Nilotic Luo languages. Some southern Nilotic Kalenjin languages are spoken along the border with Kenya, including Pokot and the Elgon languages near Kupsabiny. The eastern Ugandan Kuliak languages Ik and Soo are also members of the Eastern Sudanic branch. Lugbara, Aringa, Ma'di and Ndo of northeastern Uganda are languages of the Central Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan.

Language policy

In Uganda, like in many African countries, English, the language of the colonizing power, was introduced in government and public life by way of missionary work and the educational system. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Swahili gained influence as it was not only used in the army and the police, but was also taught in schools. The Baganda viewed the introduction of Swahili as a threat to their political power and partly through their influence, English remained the only official language at that time. Upon Uganda's independence in 1962, English was maintained as the official language, as it was already rooted deeply in administration, media, and education. Also, Uganda's ethnolinguistic diversity made it difficult to choose another language as the official language of Uganda.

After independence there were efforts to choose an indigenous official language, with Swahili and Luganda as the most considered candidates. Although Luganda was the most geographically spread language, people outside Buganda were opposed to having it as a national language [Ladefoged, 1972:28-30] , as were those of the Buganda kingdom because they felt other tribes' mispronunciation and grammar errors would ruin their language. English remained the official language. [Mpuga 2003]

The native languages of the Ugandan people have had interesting effects on the English spoken in the country, leading to what many call Ugandan English.

During the regime of Idi Amin, Swahili, the East African lingua franca, became the second official national language, but it lost its official and national status in the 1995 Constitution. In September 2005, the Ugandan Parliament voted to once again make Swahili the second official national language.

Notes and references



*Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: More specifically [ Ethnologue report for Uganda] , retrieved August 19, 2005.
* Ladefoged, Peter; Ruth Glick; Clive Criper; Clifford H. Prator; Livingstone Walusimbi (1972) "Language in Uganda" (Ford Foundation language surveys vol. 1). London/New York etc. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-436101-2
* Mpuga, Douglas (2003) ' [ The official language issue: A look at the Uganda Experience] '. Unpublished paper presented at the African Language Research Project Summer Conference, Maryland.
* Parry, Kate (ed.) (2000) "Language and literacy in Uganda: towards a sustainable reading culture". Kampala: Fountain Publishers.
*Mukama, Ruth G. (1991) 'Recent developments in the language situation and prospects for the future', pp. 334-350 in "Changing Uganda", eds. Holger Bernt Hansen & Michael Twaddle, Fountain Publishers, 1991, ISBN 9970-02-158-3

External links

* [ PanAfriL10n page on Uganda]

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