Wolof language

Native to Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania
Ethnicity Wolof
Native speakers
4.2 million (2006)[1]
L2 speakers: ?
Latin (Wolof alphabet)
Arabic (Wolofal)
Official status
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
Glottolog wolo1247[2]
Linguasphere 90-AAA-aa

Wolof (/ˈwɒlɒf/) is a language of Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania, and the native language of the Wolof people. Like the neighbouring languages Serer and Fula, it belongs to the Senegambian branch of the Niger–Congo language family. Unlike most other languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, Wolof is not a tonal language.

Wolof originated as the language of the Lebu people.[3][4] It is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, spoken natively by the Wolof people (40% of the population) but also by most other Senegalese as a second language.

Wolof dialects vary geographically and between rural and urban areas. "Dakar-Wolof", for instance, is an urban mixture of Wolof, French, and Arabic.

"Wolof" is the standard spelling and may refer to the Wolof people or to Wolof culture. Variants include the older French Ouolof and the principally Gambian "Wollof". "Jolof", "jollof", etc., now typically refers either to the Jolof Empire or to jollof rice, a common West African rice dish. Now-archaic forms include "Volof" and "Olof".

Wolof words in English are believed to include yum/yummy, from Wolof nyam "to taste";[5] nyam in Barbadian English[6] meaning "to eat" (also compare Seychellois Creole nyanmnyanm, also meaning "to eat");[7] and banana, via Spanish or Portuguese.[8]

Geographical distribution

States of the Wolof Empire

Wolof is spoken by more than 10 million people and about 40 percent (approximately 5 million people) of Senegal's population speak Wolof as their native language. Increased mobility, and especially the growth of the capital Dakar, created the need for a common language: today, 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. Nevertheless, the official language of Senegal is French.

In the Gambia, about 20–25 percent of the population speak Wolof as a first language, but Wolof has a disproportionate influence because of its prevalence in Banjul, the Gambian capital, where 75 percent of the population use it as a first language. In Serekunda, the Gambia's largest town, although only a tiny minority are ethnic Wolofs, approximately 70 percent of the population speaks and/or understands Wolof. The official language of the Gambia is English; Mandinka (40 percent), Wolof (10 percent) and Fula (15 percent) are as yet not used in formal education.

In Mauritania, about seven percent (approximately 185,000 people) of the population speak Wolof because of the river that is shared with Senegal. There, the language is used only around the southern coastal regions. Mauritania's official language is Arabic; France colonized the tribes and forced them all to speak French as the official language but the most common language of all other tribes is their common language of Wolof.


Wolof is one of the Senegambian languages, which are characterized by consonant mutation. It is often said to be closely related to the Fula language because of a misreading by Wilson (1989) of the data in Sapir (1971) that have long been used to classify the Atlantic languages. However, Segerer (2009, 2010) confirms Sapir's findings that Wolof is not close to the Fula language; he finds the closest relatives of Wolof are several obscure languages along the Casamance River.[9]


Senegalese/Mauritanian Wolof and Gambian Wolof are distinct national standards: they use different orthographies and use different languages (French vs English) as their source for technical loanwords. However, both the spoken and written languages are mutually intelligible. Lebu Wolof, on the other hand, is unintelligible with standard Wolof, a distinction that has been obscured because all Lebu speakers are bilingual in standard Wolof.[10]

Orthography and pronunciation

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

The Latin orthography 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.

Additionally, two other scripts exist: a traditional Arabic-based transcription of Wolof called Wolofal, which dates back to the pre-colonial period and is still used by many people, and the Garay script, dating to 1961, which has been adopted by a small number of Wolof-speakers[11]

The first syllable of words is stressed; long vowels are pronounced with more time, but are not automatically stressed, as they are in English.


The vowels are as follows:

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i i u u
Close-mid e é o ó
mid ə ë
Open-mid ɛ e ɛː ɔ o ɔː
Open a a

There may be an additional low vowel, or this may be confusion with orthographic à.

All vowels may be long (written double) or short.[12] /aː/ is written à before a long (prenasalized or geminate) consonant. When é and ó are written double, the accent mark is often only on the first letter.

Vowels fall into two harmonizing sets according to ATR: i u é ó ë are +ATR, e o a are the −ATR analogues of é ó ë. For example,[13]

Lekk-oon-ngeen /lɛkːɔːnŋɡɛːn/
'Y'all ate.'
Dóór-óón-ngéén /doːroːnŋɡeːn/
'Y'all hit.'

There are no −ATR analogues of the high vowels i u. They trigger +ATR harmony in suffixes when they occur in a root, but in a suffix they may be transparent to vowel harmony.

The vowels of some suffixes or enclitics do not harmonize with preceding vowels. In most cases following vowels harmonize with them. That is, they reset the harmony, as if they were a separate word. However, when a suffix/clitic contains a high vowel (+ATR) occurs after a −ATR root, any further suffixes harmonize with the root. That is, the +ATR suffix/clitic is "transparent" to vowel harmony. An example is the negative -u- in,

Door-u-ma-leen-fa /dɔːrumalɛːnfa/
'I did not begin them there'

where harmony would predict *door-u-më-léén-fë. That is, i u behave as if they are their own −ATR analogues.

Authors differ in whether they indicate vowel harmony in writing, as well as whether they write clitics as separate words.


Consonants in word-initial position are as follows:[14]

Wolof consonants
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m m n n ɲ ñ ŋ ŋ[15]
Prenasalized stop mb mb nd nd ɲɟ nj ŋɡ ng
Plosive voiced b b d d ɟ j ɡ g
voiceless p p t t c c k k q ʔ
Fricative f f s s x~χ x
Trill ɲ r
Approximant central w w j y
lateral l l

All simple nasals, oral stops apart from q and glottal, and the sonorants l r y w may be geminated (doubled), though geminate r only occurs in ideophones.[16][17] (Geminate consonants are written double.) Q is inherently geminate and may occur in initial position; otherwise geminate consonants and consonant clusters, including nt, nc, nk, nq ([ɴq]), are restricted to word-medial and -final position. Of the consonants in the chart above, p d c k do not occur in medial or final position, being replaced by f r s and zero, though geminate pp dd cc kk are common. Phonetic p c k do occur finally, but only as allophones of b j g due to final devoicing.

Minimal pairs of geminates (glosses in French):[18]

nëb 'pourri' [rotten], nëbb 'cacher' [to hide]; dag 'valet' [a valet], dagg 'couper' [to cut]; dëj 'funérailles' [funerals], dëjj 'vulve (injurieux)' [a cunt]; gal 'or blanc', gall 'régurgiter'; gëm 'croire' [to believe], gëmm 'fermer les yeux' [to close one's eyes] ; fen 'mentir' [to lie], fenn 'quelque, nulle part' [somewhere, nowhere]; woñ 'essorer', woññ 'compter' [to count] ; goŋ 'cynocéphale' [a dog-headed ape], goŋŋ 'sorte de lit' [a kind of bed] ; bët 'oeil' [an eye], bëtt 'trouver, percer' [to find]; Jaw (a family name), jaww 'firmament' [heaven]; boy 'prendre feu' [to catch fire], boyy 'être resplendissant'; also fecc 'danser' [to dance], sedd 'froid' [cold], bakkan 'nez' [nose], dëpp 'renverser'


Unlike most sub-Saharan African languages, Wolof has no tone. Other non-tonal languages of Africa include Amharic, Swahili and Fula.


Notable characteristics

Pronoun conjugation instead of verbal conjugation

In Wolof, verbs are unchangeable stems that cannot be conjugated. To express different tenses or aspects of an action, personal pronouns are conjugated – not the verbs. Therefore, the term temporal pronoun has become established for this part of speech. It is also referred to as a focus form.[19]

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)."

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 play almost no role. Of crucial importance is the aspect of an action from the speaker's point of view. The most important distinction 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 indicate 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 conjugated pronouns, although aspect pronoun might be a 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/am about to 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 (in a sentence, the temporal pronoun is still used in a conjugated form along with the past marker).

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


Wolof does not mark for grammatical gender: there is one pronoun 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' to indicate the person's sex.

Markers of noun definiteness (usually called "definite articles") agree with the noun they modify. There are at least ten articles in Wolof, some of them indicating a singular noun, others a plural noun. In Urban Wolof, spoken in large cities like Dakar, the article -bi is often used as a generic 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, jigéen-ji, "the mosque, the girl"

Four nouns referring to persons use -ki/-ñi:' nit-ki, nit-ñi, 'the person, the people"

Plural nouns use -yi: jigéen-yi, butik-yi, "the girls, the boutiques"

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


Cardinal numbers

The Wolof numeral system is based on the numbers "5" and "10". It is extremely regular in formation, comparable 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"), ñent-fukk "forty" (literally, "four-ten"). Alternatively, "thirty" is fanweer, which is roughly the number of days in a lunar month (literally "fan" is day and "weer" is moon.)

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

Ordinal numbers

Ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc.) are formed by adding the ending –éél (pronounced ayl) to the cardinal number.

For example, two is ñaar and second is ñaaréél

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

1st bu njëk
2nd ñaaréél
3rd ñettéél
4th ñeentéél
5th juróoméél
6th juróom-bennéél
7th juróom-ñaaréél
8th juróom-ñettéél
9th juróom-ñeentéél
10th fukkéél

Temporal pronouns

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 and/or Descriptive)

(Emphasis on Verb)


(Emphasis on Subject)

Perfect Imperfect Perfect Future Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect Perfect Imperfect
1st Person singular "I" 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 or the state 'condition' 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.


The New Testament was translated into Wolof and published in 1987, second edition 2004, and in 2008 with some minor typographical corrections.[20]

Boubacar Boris Diop published his novel Doomi Golo in Wolof in 2002.[21]

The 1994 song "7 Seconds" by Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry is partially sung in Wolof.

See also


  1. Wolof at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Gambian Wolof at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Wolof". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Falola, Toyin; Salm, Steven J. Urbanization and African cultures. Carolina Academic Press, 2005. ISBN 0-89089-558-9. p 280
  4. Ngom, Fallou. Wolof. Lincom, 2003. ISBN 3-89586-845-0. p 2
  5. Pamela Munro and Dieynaba Gaye, "Ay Baati Wolof/A Wolof Dictionary, Revised Edition, 1997, UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics, Number 19". Regents of the University of California, Los Angeles, 1997. p 145
  6. Frank A. Collymore, Notes for a Glossary of Words and Phrases of Barbadian Dialect, Advocate Company, Bridgetown, 1970.
  7. Danielle D'Offay & Guy Lionet, Diksyonner Kreol-Franse / Dictionnaire Créole Seychellois – Français, Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg, 1982. In all fairness, the word might as easily be from Fula: nyaamde, "to eat".
  8. Harper, Douglas. ""banana"". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  9. Such as Kobiana and Banyum. Guillaume Segerer & Florian Lionnet 2010. "Isolates in Atlantic". Language Isolates in Africa workshop. 25images.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr. December 4, 2010.
  10. Hammarström (2015) Ethnologue 16/17/18th editions: a comprehensive review: online appendices
  11. Everson, Michael (26 April 2012). "Preliminary proposal for encoding the Garay script in the SMP of the UCS" (PDF). UC Berkeley Script Encoding Initiative (Universal Scripts Project)/International Organization for Standardization. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  12. Long ëë is rare (Torrence 2013:10).
  13. Torrence 2013:11
  14. Omar Ka, 1994, Wolof Phonology and Morphology
  15. Or in some texts.
  16. Pape Amadou Gaye, Practical Cours in / Cours Practique en Wolof: An Audio–Aural Approach.
  17. Some are restricted or rare, and sources disagree about this. Torrence (2013) claims that all consonants but prenasalized stops may be geminate, while Diouf (2009) does not list the fricatives, q, or r y w, and does not recognize glottal stop in the inventor. The differences may be dialectical or because some sounds are rare.
  18. Diouf (2009)
  19. Ngom, Fallou (2003-01-01). Wolof. Lincom. ISBN 9783895868450.
  20. "Biblewolof.com". Biblewolof.com. Retrieved 2013-04-15.
  21. Encyclopedia of African Literature, p 801


Official documents
Wolof edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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