Languages of Uganda

An ethnolinguistic map of Uganda.

Uganda is a multilingual country. Forty of its living indigenous languages[1] fall into three main families — Bantu, Nilotic, and Central Sudanic — with another two languages in the Kuliak family.

English, inherited from the colonial period, and Swahili, which is regionally important, are official languages. Include second-language speakers, there are more speakers of Swahili than English in Uganda . There is also a Ugandan Sign Language.


In all of the Bantu speaking areas of Uganda, dialect continua are very common. For example, people around Mbarara in Ankole District speak Nkole and people from Fort Portal in Toro District speak Tooro, 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 Nkole and Tooro. In recognition of the closeness of four of these languages (Nkole, Tooro, Kiga, and Nyoro), and in order to facilitate work in them such as teaching, a standardized version called "Runyakitara" was developed around 1990.

In south central Uganda, the Bantu languages of Luganda and Soga are largely interintelligible. This dialectic similarity also extends to the Lussese language spoken in the Ssese Islands of Lake Victoria.[2]

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 language and Kumam language of eastern Uganda are Western Nilotic Luo languages (Acholi and Lango are interintelligible, and sometimes the term "Luo" is used to cover them).

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 northwestern Uganda are languages of the Central Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan.

Language policy

In Uganda, as 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 Ganda 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,[3] 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.[4]

The native languages of the Ugandan people have influenced 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.[5] It is most widely spoken outside of Buganda.

Festos Kabengwa argues that until the language is included in the constitution it isn't official.


  1. Ethnologue, "Languages of Uganda" (lists also 2 languages with no speakers, English, Swahili, and Ugandan Sign Language for a total of 45)
  2. Alexandra Aikhenvald, Anne Storch (ed.). Perception and Cognition in Language and Culture. Koninklijke Brill NV. p. 252. ISBN 978-90-04-23367-6. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
  3. Ladefoged et al., 1972:28-30
  4. Mpuga 2003
  5. "Museveni Signs 3rd Term Bill". New Vision (Kampala). September 29, 2005. From now on, Swahili is the second official language...

See also


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