Wolof language

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Spoken in:  Senegal


Region: West Africa
Total speakers: 3.2 million (mother tongue)

3.5 million (second language) [1]

Language family: Niger-Congo
Official status
Official language in: None
Regulated by: CLAD (Centre de linguistique appliquée de Dakar)
Language codes
ISO 639-1: wo
ISO 639-2: wol
ISO 639-3: either:
wol – Wolof
wof – Gambian Wolof

Wolof is a language spoken in Senegal, The Gambia, and Mauritania, and it is the native language of the ethnic group of the Wolof people. Like the neighboring language Fula, it belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Unlike most other languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, Wolof is not a tonal language.

Wolof is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, spoken not only by members of the Wolof ethnic group (approximately 40 percent of the population) but also by most other Senegalese. Wolof dialects may vary between countries (Senegal and the Gambia) and the rural and urban areas. "Dakar-Wolof", for instance, is an urban mixture of Wolof, French, Arabic, and even a little English spoken in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

"Wolof" is the standard spelling, and is a term that may also refer to the Wolof ethnic group or to things originating from Wolof culture or tradition. As an aid to pronunciation, some older French publications use the spelling "Ouolof"; for the same reason, some English publications adopt the spelling "Wollof", predominantly referring to Gambian Wolof. Prior to the 20th Century, the forms "Volof", and "Olof" were used.

Unlike most African languages, Wolof has had some influence on Western European languages. Banana is a Wolof word in English, and the English word yam is believed to be derived from Wolof/Fula nyami, "to eat food." Hip or hep (e.g., jazz musicians' now cliched "hip cat") is believed by many etymologists to derive from the Wolof hepicat, "one who has his eyes open".[2] Some etymologists reject this, however, and in late 2007 adopted the pun "to cry Wolof" as a general dismissal or belittlement of etymologies they believe to be based on "superficial similarities" rather than documented attribution.[3]


[edit] Geographical distribution

About 40 percent (approximately 3.2 million people) of Senegal's population speak Wolof as their mother tongue. An additional 40 percent of the population speak Wolof as a second or acquired language. In the whole region from Dakar to Saint-Louis, and also west and southwest of Kaolack, Wolof is spoken by the vast majority of the people. Typically when various ethnic groups in Senegal come together in cities and towns, they speak Wolof. It is therefore spoken in almost every regional and departmental capital in Senegal. The official language of Senegal is French.

In The Gambia, about 15 percent (approximately 200,000 people) of the population speak Wolof as a first language, but Wolof has a disproportionate influence because of its prevalence in Banjul, The Gambia's capital, where 50 percent of the population use it as a first language. In Serrekunda, The Gambia's largest town, although only a tiny minority are ethnic Wolofs, approximately 90 percent of the population speaks and/or understands Wolof. Wolof is increasingly the mother tongue of young people of mixed ethnicity. Overall, Wolof is gaining influence in The Gambia, partly due to its association with the popular mbalax music and Senegalese popular culture. In Banjul and Serrekunda, Wolof has gained lingua franca status and is already more widely spoken than Mandinka. The official language of the Gambia is English; Mandinka (40 percent), Wolof (15 percent) and Fula (15 percent) are as yet not used in formal education.

In Mauritania, about 7 percent (approximately 185,000 people) of the population speak Wolof. There, the language is used only around the southern coastal regions. Mauritania's official language is Arabic; French is used as lingua franca.

[edit] Example phrases

This paragraph uses the exact orthography developed by the CLAD institute, which can be found in Arame Fal's dictionary (see bibliography below). For the literal translation please note that Wolof does not have tenses in the sense of the Indo-European languages, like for example the present progressive Tense in English; rather, Wolof marks aspect and focus of an action (and every translation into an English tense is just an approximation of the original meaning). The literal translation given in the table below is an exact word-by-word translation in the original word order, where the meaning of the single words are separated by dashes.

Wolof English Literal translation into English
(As)salaamaalekum !
Response: Maalekum salaam !

The previous greeting is not Wolof—it is Arabic(used by Arabic speakers), but is commonly used.

Response: Hello!
(Arabic) peace be with you
Response: and with you be peace
Na nga def ? / Naka nga def ? / Noo def?
Response: Maa ngi fii rekk
How do you do? / How are you doing?
Response: I am fine
How - you (already) - do
Response: I/me here - be - here - only
Naka mu ?
Response: Maa ngi fii
What's up?
Response: I'm fine
How is it?
Response: I'm here
Numu demee? / Naka mu demee?/
Response: Nice / Mu ngi dox
How's it going?
Response: Fine / Nice / It's going
How is it going?
Response: Nice (from English) / It's walking (going)
Lu bees ?
Response: Dara (beesul)
What's new?
Response: Nothing (is new)
What is it that is new?
Response: Nothing/something (is not new)
Ba beneen (yoon). See you soon (next time) Until - other - (time)
Jërëjëf Thanks / Thank you It was worth it
Waaw Yes Yes
Déedéet No No
Fan la ... am ? Where is a ...? Where - that which is - ... - existing/having
Fan la fajkat am ? Where is a physician/doctor? Where - the one who is - heal-maker - existing/having
Fan la ... nekk ? Where is the ...? Where - it which is - ... - found?
Ana ...? Where is ...? Where is ...?
Ana loppitaan bi? Where is the hospital? Where is - hospital - the?
Noo tudd(a)* ? / Naka nga tudd(a) ?
Response: ... laa tudd(a) / Maa ngi tudd(a) ...

(* Gambian Wolof uses the 'a' at the end usually)

What is your name?
Response: My name is ....
What you (already) - being called?
Response: ... I (objective) - called / I am called ...

[edit] Orthography and pronunciation

Note: Phonetic transcriptions are printed between brackets [] following the rules of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

The Latin-based orthograhy of Wolof in Senegal was set by government decrees between 1971 and 1985. The language institute "Centre de linguistique appliquée de Dakar" (CLAD) is widely acknowledged as an authority when it comes to spelling rules for Wolof.

Wolof is most often written in this orthography, in which phonemes have a clear, one-to-one correspondence to graphemes.

(A traditional Arabic-based transcription of Wolof called Wolofal dates back to the pre-colonal period and is still used by many people.)

[edit] Vowels

Wolof adds some diacritic symbols to the vowel letters to distinguish between open and closed vowels. Example: "o" [ɔ] is open like English "often", "ó" [o] is closed similar to the o-sound in English "most" (but without that u-sound at the end).

Single vowels are short, geminated vowels are long, so Wolof "o" [ɔ] is short and pronounced like "o" in English "soft", but Wolof "oo" [ɔ:] is long and pronounced like the "a" in English "call". If a closed vowel is long, the diacritic symbol is usually set only above the first vowel, e.g. "óo", but some sources deviate from this CLAD standard and set it above both vowels, e.g. "óó".

The very common Wolof letter "ë" is pronounced [ə], if not stressed.

[edit] Consonants

The character (U+014B) Latin small letter eng "ŋ" and (U+014A) Latin capital letter eng "Ŋ" is used in the Wolof alphabet.

The character (U+00F1) Latin small letter n with tilde "ñ" and (U+00D1) Latin capital letter n with tilde "Ñ" is also used.

[edit] Grammar

[edit] Notable characteristics

[edit] Pronoun conjugation instead of verbal conjugation

In Wolof, verbs are unchangeable words which cannot be conjugated. To express different tenses or aspects of an action, the personal pronouns are conjugated - not the verbs. Therefore, the term Temporal Pronoun has become established for this part of speech.

Example: The verb dem means "to go" and cannot be changed; the Temporal Pronoun maa ngi means "I/me, here and now"; the Temporal Pronoun dinaa means "I am soon / I will soon / I will be soon". With that, the following sentences can be built now: Maa ngi dem. "I am going (here and now)." - Dinaa dem. "I will go (soon)."

[edit] Conjugation with respect to aspect instead of tense

In Wolof, tenses like present tense, past tense and future tense are just of secondary importance, they even play almost no role. It is the aspect of an action from the speaker's point of view, which is of crucial importance. The most important aspect is, whether an action is perfective, i.e. finished, or imperfective, i.e. still going on, from the speaker's point of view, regardless, whether the action itself takes place in the past, present or future. Other aspects are, whether an action takes place regularly, whether an action will take place for sure, and whether an action wants to emphasize the role of the subject, predicate or object of the sentence. As a result, conjugation is not done by tenses, but by aspects. Nevertheless, the term Temporal Pronoun became usual for these pronouns to be conjugated, although Aspect Pronoun might be the better term.

Example: The verb dem means "to go"; the Temporal Pronoun naa means "I already/definitely", the Temporal Pronoun dinaa means "I am soon / I will soon / I will be soon"; the Temporal Pronoun damay means "I (am) regularly/usually". Now the following sentences can be constructed: Dem naa. "I go already / I have already gone." - Dinaa dem. "I will go soon / I am just going to go." - Damay dem. "I usually/regularly/normally go."

If the speaker absolutely wants to express that an action took place in the past, this is not done by conjugation, but by adding the suffix -(w)oon to the verb. (Please bear in mind, that in a sentence the Temporal Pronoun is already used in a conjugated form besides the past marker.)

Example: Demoon naa Ndakaaru. "I already went to Dakar."

[edit] Action verbs versus static verbs and adjectives

[edit] Consonant harmony

[edit] Gender

Wolof lacks gender-specific pronouns: there is one word encompassing the English 'he', 'she', and 'it'. The descriptors bu góor (male / masculine) or bu jigéen (female / feminine) are often added to words like xarit, 'friend', and rakk, 'younger sibling' in order to indicate the person's gender.

For the most part, Wolof does not have noun concord ("agreement") classes as in Bantu or Romance languages. But the markers of noun definiteness (usually called "definite articles" in grammatical terminology) do agree with the noun they modify. There are at least ten articles in Wolof, some of them indicating a singular noun, other a plural noun. In "City Wolof" (the type of Wolof spoken in big cities like Dakar), the article -bi is often used as a pro-article when the actual article is not known.

Any loan noun from French or English uses –bi –- butik-bi, xarit-bi, 'the boutique, the friend'

Most Arabic or religious terms use –ji -- jumma-ji, jigeen-ji, 'the mosque, the girl'

Nouns referring to person typically use -ki -- nit-ki, nit-ñi, 'the person, the people'

Miscellaneous articles: si, gi, wi, mi, li, yi.

[edit] Numerals

[edit] Cardinal numbers

The Wolof numeral system is based on the numbers "5" and "10". It is extremely regular in formation, comparable only to Chinese. Example: benn "one", juróom "five", juróom-benn "six" (literally, "five-one"), fukk "ten", fukk ak juróom benn "sixteen" (literally, "ten and five one"), ñett-fukk "thirty" (literally, "three-ten"). Alternately, "thirty" is fanweer, which also means "month".

0 tus / neen / zéro [French] / sero / dara ["nothing"]
1 benn
2 ñaar / yaar
3 ñett / ñatt / yett / yatt
4 ñeent / ñenent
5 juróom
6 juróom-benn
7 juróom-ñaar
8 juróom-ñett
9 juróom-ñeent
10 fukk
11 fukk ak benn
12 fukk ak ñaar
13 fukk ak ñett
14 fukk ak ñeent
15 fukk ak juróom
16 fukk ak juróom-benn
17 fukk ak juróom-ñaar
18 fukk ak juróom-ñett
19 fukk ak juróom-ñeent
20 ñaar-fukk
26 ñaar-fukk ak juróom-benn
30 ñett-fukk / fanweer
40 ñeent-fukk
50 juróom-fukk
60 juróom-benn-fukk
66 juróom-benn-fukk ak juróom-benn
70 juróom-ñaar-fukk
80 juróom-ñett-fukk
90 juróom-ñeent-fukk
100 téeméer
101 téeméer ak benn
106 téeméer ak juróom-benn
110 téeméer ak fukk
200 ñaari téeméer
300 ñetti téeméer
400 ñeenti téeméer
500 juróomi téeméer
600 juróom-benni téeméer
700 juróom-ñaari téeméer
800 juróom-ñetti téeméer
900 juróom-ñeenti téeméer
1000 junni / junne
1100 junni ak téeméer
1600 junni ak juróom-benni téeméer
1945 junni ak juróom-ñeenti téeméer ak ñeent-fukk ak juróom
1969 junni ak juróom-ñeenti téeméer ak juróom-benn-fukk ak juróom-ñeent
2000 ñaari junni
3000 ñetti junni
4000 ñeenti junni
5000 juróomi junni
6000 juróom-benni junni
7000 juróom-ñaari junni
8000 juróom-ñetti junni
9000 juróom-ñeenti junni
10000 fukki junni
100000 téeméeri junni
1000000 tamndareet / million

[edit] Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers are formed by adding the ending –éélu (pronounced ay-lu) to the cardinal number.

For example two is ñaar and second is ñaaréélu

The one exception to this system is “first”, which is bu njëk (or the adapted French word premier: përëmye)

1st bu njëk
2nd ñaaréélu
3rd ñettéélu
4th ñeentéélu
5th juróoméélu
6th juróom-bennéélu
7th juróom-ñaaréélu
8th juróom-ñettéélu
9th juróom-ñeentéélu
10th fukkéélu

[edit] Personal pronouns

[edit] Temporal pronouns

[edit] Conjugation of the temporal pronouns

Situative (Presentative)

(Present Continuous)


(Past tense for action verbs or present tense for static verbs)


(Emphasis on Object)

Processive (Explicative)

(Emphasis on Verb)


(Emphasis on Subject)

Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect
1st Person singular "I/me" maa ngi

(I am+ Verb+ -ing)

maa ngiy naa

(I + past tense action verbs or present tense static verbs)


(I will ... / future)


(Puts the emphasis on the Object of the sentence)


(Indicates a habitual or future action)


(Puts the emphasis on the Verb of the sentence)


(Indicates a habitual or future action)


(Puts the emphasis on the Subject of the sentence)


(Indicates a habitual or future action)

ma may
2nd Person singular "you" yaa ngi yaa ngiy nga dinga nga ngay danga dangay yaa yaay nga ngay
3rd Person singular "he/she/it" mu ngi mu ngiy na dina la lay dafa dafay moo mooy mu muy
1st Person plural "we" nu ngi nu ngiy nanu dinanu lanu lanuy danu danuy noo nooy nu nuy
2nd Person plural "you" yéena ngi yéena ngiy ngeen dingeen ngeen ngeen di dangeen dangeen di yéena yéenay ngeen ngeen di
3rd Person plural "they" ñu ngi ñu ngiy nañu dinañu lañu lañuy dañu dañuy ñoo ñooy ñu ñuy

In urban Wolof it is common to use the forms of the 3rd person plural also for the 1st person plural.

It is also important to note that the verb follows certain temporal pronouns and precedes others.

[edit] Literature

The New Testament was translated into Wolof and published in 1987, second edition 2004, and in 2008 with some minor typographical corrections. [1]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/, wolof entry here
  2. ^ Holloway, Joseph E. The Impact of African Languages on American English. Slavery in America. Retrieved on 2006.10.05.
  3. ^ e.g. Grant Barrett, "Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar", in "The Lexicographer's Rules", 2007.11.09

[edit] Bibliography

  • Omar Ka: Wolof Phonology and Morphology. University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, 1994, ISBN 0-8191-9288-0.
  • Mamadou Cissé: « Graphical borrowing and African realities » in Revue du Musée National d'Ethnologie d'Osaka, Japan, June 2000.
  • Mamadou Cissé: "Revisiter "La grammaire de la langue wolof" d'A. Kobes (1869), ou étude critique d'un pan de l'histoire de la grammaire du wolof.", in Sudlangues[2] February 2005
  • Leigh Swigart: Two codes or one? The insiders’ view and the description of codeswitching in Dakar, in Carol M. Eastman, Codeswitching. Clevedon/Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters, ISBN 1-85359-167-X.
  • Fiona McLaughlin: Dakar Wolof and the configuration of an urban identity, Journal of African Cultural Studies 14/2, 2001, p.153-172
  • Gabriele Aïscha Bichler: Bejo, Curay und Bin-bim? Die Sprache und Kultur der Wolof im Senegal (mit angeschlossenem Lehrbuch Wolof), Europäische Hochschulschriften Band 90, Peter Lang Verlagsgruppe, Frankfurt am Main, Germany 2003, ISBN 3-631-39815-8.
  • Pathé Diagne: Grammaire de Wolof Moderne. Présence Africaine, Paris, France, 1971.
  • Pape Amadou Gaye: Wolof - An Audio-Aural Approach. United States Peace Corps, 1980.
  • Amar Samb: Initiation a la Grammaire Wolof. Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, Université de Dakar, Ifan-Dakar, Sénegal, 1983.
  • Michael Franke: Kauderwelsch, Wolof für den Senegal - Wort für Wort. Reise Know-How Verlag, Bielefeld, Germany 2002, ISBN 3-89416-280-5.
  • Michael Franke, Jean Léopold Diouf, Konstantin Pozdniakov: Le wolof de poche - Kit de conversation (Phrasebook/grammar with 1 CD). Assimil, Chennevières-sur-Marne, France, 2004 ISBN 978-2-7005-4020-8.
  • Jean-Léopold Diouf, Marina Yaguello: J'apprends le Wolof - Damay jàng wolof (1 textbook with 4 audio cassettes). Karthala, Paris, France 1991, ISBN 2-86537-287-1.
  • Michel Malherbe, Cheikh Sall: Parlons Wolof - Langue et culture. L'Harmattan, Paris, France 1989, ISBN 2-7384-0383-2 (this book uses a simplified orthography which is not compliant with the CLAD standards; a CD is available).
  • Jean-Léopold Diouf: Grammaire du wolof contemporain. Karthala, Paris, France 2003, ISBN 2-84586-267-9.
  • Fallou Ngom: Wolof. Verlag LINCOM, Munich, Germany 2003, ISBN 3-89586-616-4.
  • Mamadou Cissé: Dictionnaire Français-Wolof, L’Asiathèque, Paris, 1998, ISBN 2-911053-43-5
  • Arame Fal, Rosine Santos, Jean Léonce Doneux: Dictionnaire wolof-français (suivi d'un index français-wolof). Karthala, Paris, France 1990, ISBN 2-86537-233-2.
  • Pamela Munro, Dieynaba Gaye: Ay Baati Wolof - A Wolof Dictionary. UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics, No. 19, Los Angeles, California, 1997.
  • Peace Corps The Gambia: Wollof-English Dictionary, PO Box 582, Banjul, The Gambia, 1995 (no ISBN, available as PDF file via the internet; this book refers solely to the dialect spoken in the Gambia and does not use the standard orthography of CLAD).
  • Nyima Kantorek: Wolof Dictionary & Phrasebook, Hippocrene Books, 2005, ISBN 0-7818-1086-8 (this book refers predominantly to the dialect spoken in the Gambia and does not use the standard orthography of CLAD).
  • [Senegal, Government of], Décret n° 71-566 du 21 mai 1971 relatif à la transcription des langues nationales, modifié par décret n° 72-702 du 16 juin 1972.
  • [Senegal, Government of], Décrets n° 75-1026 du 10 octobre 1975 et n° 85-1232 du 20 novembre 1985 relatifs à l'orthographe et à la séparation des mots en wolof.
  • [Senegal, Government of], Décret n° 2005-992 du 21 octobre 2005 relatif à l'orthographe et à la séparation des mots en wolof.

[edit] External links

Wolof language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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