Apart from the well-known cereals such as sorghum and millet, Africa has a number of small millets, notably fonio, iburu, ṭef and Paspalum scrobiculatum which are poorly represented in the archaeobotanical record. The fragmented distribution of fonio suggests that it was formerly more widely cultivated. The paper uses the patterns discerned in vernacular names to explore their history. Fonio is the most widely distributed and its vernacular names fall into two significant subgroups, in the Mande/Atlantic area of West Africa and in Central Nigeria. Iburu names are only recorded for Nigeria, although there is another region of cultivation in the Atakora mountains in Benin. Names for ṭef are extremely similar throughout the Ethiopian region, suggesting that the crop has been dispersed by a dominant culture, probably the Ethiosemitic speakers, perhaps as part of the diffusion of seed/plough agriculture. The paper calls for further more detailed research on these important and neglected species.