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Alternative Names: Fulah, Ful, Fulfulde, Fulani, Fulbe, Peul, Pular, Pulaar.

Classification: Niger-Congo, Atlantic, Northern. Other Northern Atlantic languages are Wolof and Serer.

Overview. Fula is a macrolanguage or dialect continuum spread through many African countries, from Senegal in the Atlantic coast to the savannas of East Africa. Its wide geographical extent compared with that of other Atlantic languages is accounted by the nomadic, pastoral, way of life of the Fulbe people.

    Fula lacks tones and has laryngealized and prenasalized consonants. Like many Niger-Congo languages, it has a system of noun-classes and marks plurals by mutating the initial consonant of a word. The main categories in the verbal system are voice and aspect, and in the sentence the usual order is subject-verb-object.

Distribution. Atlantic languages are spoken in the west coast of Africa, ranging from Senegal to Liberia. Fula is the only Atlantic language to stretch inland, ranging from Senegal to Sudan and being scattered in 16 states: Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic (C.A.R.) and Sudan. The Fula speaking area is not geographically continuous; it is interrupted by regions where hundreds of other languages are spoken.

Speakers. About 18 million people speak a Fula dialect in the following countries:








Burkina Faso




Sierra Leone























Varieties. Fula is a typical example of a dialect continuum. Neighboring dialects are mutually intelligible but those that are separated by a string of other dialects are not necessarily so. The main dialects are:

*Pulaar (or Peul) spoken by about 4.5-5 million people in, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Mauritania.

*Pular (or Futa Jalon) spoken by about 4.5-5 million people in Guinea, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

*Maasina Fulfulde spoken by 1,1 million in Mali.

*Borgu Fulfulde with 400,000 speakers in Benin and Togo.

*Western Niger Fulfulde spoken in Niger and Burkina Faso by 1.5 million people.

*Central-Eastern Niger Fulfulde spoken in Niger by about 650,000.

*Nigerian Fulfulde with about 2 million speakers in Nigeria.

*Adamawa Fulfulde with some 2 million speakers in Cameroon, Chad and Sudan.

*Bagirmi Fulfulde with 250,000 speakers in Central African Republic and Chad.

Oldest Documents

12th-14th c. Fula words were recorded by Arabic travelers in Western Sudan.

17th c. First European records.


Vowels (10).  Fula has five basic vowels, a, e, i, o, u, which can be short or long.

Consonants (27). The consonantal system is distinguished by the existence of up to four series of stops and affricates: voiceless, voiced, laryngealized and prenasalized. Besides, consonants may be short or long.


Tones: uniquely among Niger-Congo, most Atlantic languages (and Fula among them) lack tones.

Script and Orthography.

Fula has been written in the Arabic script or Ajami since before colonization. This continues to a certain degree in some areas (e.g. Guinea) but now the Latin script is generally preferred.

  1. In Nigeria ʼy substitutes ƴ, and in Senegal ñ is used instead of ny.

  2. Vowels and consonants are written doubled to signal that they are long.

  3. Prenasalized consonants are indicated by digraphs: mb, nd, ng, nj.

  4. The apostrophe (ʼ) is used as a glottal stop.

  5. The letters q, x, z are used in some cases for loanwords.

  6. In the Pular of Guinea an additional letter, ɠ, is also part of the orthography.


  1. Nominal. There are no articles and nouns are not inflected for case or gender.

  1. noun class system: nouns are grouped, according to semantic and formal grounds, in noun classes marked by suffixes. There are between 20-25 noun classes in different dialects. Some classes are reserved for singular nouns and others for plurals. Some classes include semantically related nouns, others are based on morphological categories, others are miscellaneous. For example, classes 1-2 are for persons, classes 3, 4 and 6 are diminutives, class 5 is pejorative, and classes 7-8 are augmentatives, class 15 is for animals and collectives, 16 for plants, birds and some body parts, class 17 for long thin objects, class 19 for trees and bladed instruments, and 22 for liquids and abstracts. Classes 2, 6, 8, 24 and 25 are plurals.

  1. agreement system: there is concordance between noun modifiers, like adjectives and demonstratives, and the noun i.e., they all share a suffix of the same class. As each class suffix has several allomorphs the suffix of the modifiers is not necessarily identical to the class suffix of the noun:

  1. loongel ɓaleeyel           (class 3, diminutive singular)

  2. pot      black

  1. A small black pot

  1. gender: there is no distinction of gender. The main distinction is between human and non-human.

  1. number: singular and plural. Related to the noun-class system is the phenomenon of initial consonant mutation by which the initial consonants of nouns, adjectives and verb stems alternate between continuant, stop or nasal grades to form the plural. The place of articulation stays the same but the manner of articulation of the consonant changes. If a singular word begins with a continuant (fricative, liquid or glide), this consonant becomes a stop (or affricate) in the plural or vice versa. If a singular word begins with a voiced stop, this becomes a nasal in the plural or vice versa:

  1. f p

  2. s c

  3. h k

  4. r d nd

  5. w b mb

  6. w g ng

  7. y g ng

  8. y j nj

  1. To form the plural of a noun, besides initial consonant mutation, it is required a change of suffix  according to the noun class. For example:


  1. Class 2 is the plural of class 1, class 6 is the plural of classes 3 to 5, class 8 is the plural of class 7, classes 24 and 25 are the plurals of the other classes.

  1. pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, relative.

  1. Fula’s personal pronouns distinguish inclusive and exclusive first-person plural:


  1. Possessive and demonstrative pronouns follow the noun. The latter recognize three deictic degrees and two numbers: mi, ɓe (‘this’, singular, plural), on/ɗon, ɓen (‘that’, singular, plural), to/oya, ɓeya (‘that’ [further away] singular, plural).

  1. The interrogative pronouns are moi (‘who?’ sg.), ɓeye (‘who?’ pl.), and ɗuma (‘what?’).

  1. Verbal. Voice and aspect, more than tense, are central in the verbal system. The indicative has, besides the affirmative, relative and negative conjugations. The relative conjugations are used in relative clauses, wh-questions and focus constructions. Most verbal roots are monosyllabic but they can be extended with derivational affixes to modify their meaning. After the root (simple or extended) comes a suffix that indicates voice, aspect and mood. In most paradigms, a subject independent pronoun precedes the verb but the relative and subjunctive include some forms with suffixed subject pronouns.

  1. persons and numbers: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p inclusive, 1p exclusive, 2p, 3p.

  1. voice: active, middle, passive (infrequent). Some middle voice verbs are reflexive. Not every root is used in all voices.

  1. tense-aspect: perfective, imperfective. The perfective expresses a completed action. The imperfective may express an habitual or a future action depending on the context. In plural verb forms the initial consonant of the stem changes following the same pattern as the consonant mutation observed in nouns. The particle no may occur in all indicative paradigms to set an action one stage back in time.

  2. The perfective is marked by the suffixes -ii (active voice), -ake (middle voice), -aama (passive voice):

  3. o-loot-ii            He washed (something)

  4. o-loot-ake        He washed (himself)

  5. o-loot-aama        He was washed

  1. The imperfective is marked by the suffixes -ay/-(e)t (active voice), -(o)to/-(e)t (middle voice) and -(e)te (passive voice):

  1. o-loot-ay         He washes (something). He will wash (something)

  2. o-loot-(o)to     He washes (himself). He will wash (himself)

  3. o-loot-(e)te      He was washed. He will be washed

  1. mood: indicative, subjunctive, imperative.

  1. derivative conjugations: causative, instrumental, repetitive, iterative, reciprocal, reversive, etc. Several meanings may be added to the root by attaching one or more derivational affixes or "extensions" to it. The repetitive indicates a single repeated action while the iterative expresses the continuous repetition of an action (it is marked by reduplication of the verb). The reciprocal indicates a mutual action, the reversive expresses an action opposite to that of the stem (e.g. open → close).

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, perfective and imperfective participles.


Subject-Verb-Object is the neutral order but when a word is emphasized it takes the first place in the sentence. A focalizing particle is obligatory in some dialects but facultative in others. Fula uses prepositions and it is head-initial i.e. within the noun phrase all of the modifiers follow the head noun. A genitive relation is indicated by a construct with the order possessed-possessor.


Fula has loanwords from Arabic, French and English. Certain terms of address, personal names and direct or indirect reference to body parts are taboo.

Basic Vocabulary (Pular dialect). Numbers 6-9 are based on 5.

one: go'o

two: ɗiɗi

three: tati

four: nayi

five: jowi

six: jeego'o

seven: jeeɗiɗi

eight: jeetati

nine: jeenay

ten: sappo

hundred: teemedere

father: baaba, baaba'en

mother: neene

brother/sister: banndan

son/daughter: ɓiɗɗo, geɗal

head: sala

face: yeeso

eye: kolonngaare

hand: junngo

foot: koyngal

heart: fonndo, ɓernde

tongue: ɗenngal

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati


Further Reading

  1. -'Fulfulde'. J. O. Breedveld. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World,  430-433. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  2. -'Fula'. D. W. Arnott. In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, vol. 2, 46-52. W. Frawley (ed). Oxford University Press (2003).

  3. -Grammaire Moderne du Pulaar. Y. Sylla. Nouvelles Editions Africaines (1982).

  4. -The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula. D. W. Arnott. Clarendon Press (1970).

  5. -Fulfulde Syntax and Verbal Morphology. M. McIntosh. Routledge (1984).

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