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Tue, 10.21.1000

The Wolof Language, a story

*The Wolof language is celebrated on this date in 1000. Wolof is a black African language of SenegalMauritania, and the Gambia, and the native language of the Wolof people. Like the neighboring languages Serer and Fula, it belongs to the Senegambian branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Unlike most other languages of the Niger-Congo family, Wolof is not a tonal language. Wolof 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. 


All vowels may be long (written double) or short. /aː/ is written ⟨à⟩ before a long (prenasalized or geminate) consonant (example làmbi "arena"). When é and ó are written double, the accent mark is often only on the first letter. There may be an additional low vowel, which may be confused with orthographic à. Vowels fall into two harmonizing sets according to advance tonged root (ATR):

i u é ó ë are +ATR, e o a are the −ATR analogues of é ó ë. For example,




'You (plural) ate.'




'You (plural) hit.'

There are no ATR analogs of the high vowels I u. They trigger +ATR harmony in suffixes when they occur in the 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 coordinate with them. They reset the connection as if they were separate words. However, when a suffix/clitic contains a high vowel +ATR that occurs after a −ATR root, any other suffixes harmonize with the root. The +ATR suffix/clitic is "transparent" to vowel harmony.  An example is the negative -u- in,




'I did not begin them there.'

where harmony would predict *door-u-më-léén-fë. I or U behave as if they are their ATR analogs.  Authors differ in whether they indicate vowel harmony in writing and whether they write clitics as separate words. 


Consonants in word-initial position are all simple nasals, oral stops apart from q and glottal, and the sonorants l r y w may geminate (doubled). However, geminate r only occurs in ideophones. (Geminate consonants are written double.) Q is inherently geminate and may appear in an initial position. Otherwise, geminate consonants and consonant clusters, including nt, nc, nk, and nq ([ɴq]), are restricted to word-medial and -final positions. In the last place, geminate consonants may follow a faint epenthetic schwa vowel.  Consonants p d c k do not occur in the intermediate or final position, replaced by f r s and zero, though geminate pp dd cc kk are common. Phonetic p c k occurs finally, but only as allophones of b j g due to final devoicing.

Minimal pairs:

bët ("eye") - bëtt ("to find")

boy ("to catch fire") - boyy ("to be glimmering")

dag ("a royal servant") - dagg ("to cut")

dëj ("funeral") - dëjj ("cunt")

fen ("to (tell a) lie") - fenn ("somewhere, nowhere")

gal ("white gold") - gall ("to regurgitate")

goŋ ("baboon") - goŋŋ (a kind of bed)

gëm ("to believe") - gëmm ("to close one's eyes")

Jaw (a family name) - jaww ("heaven")

nëb ("rotten") - nëbb ("to hide")

woñ ("thread") - woññ ("to count")


Unlike most sub-Saharan African languages, Wolof has no tones. Other non-tonal languages of sub-Saharan Africa include Amharic, Swahili, and Fula. The principal dialect of Dakar is an urban mixture of Wolof, French, and Arabic. Variants include the older French Ouolof, Jollof, Jolof, Gambian Wolof, etc., which typically refers to either the Jolof Empire or jollof rice, a West African rice dish. Now-archaic forms include Volof and Olof. English has adopted some Wolof, such as banana, through Spanish or Portuguese, and nyam in several Caribbean English Creoles, meaning "to eat." 

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