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Alternative Names. Songhai, Songai, Sonrai.

Overview. The Songhay are a small group of languages, of uncertain classification, spoken mainly in Mali and Niger as well as in neighboring countries. They probably spread with the expansion of the Songhay Empire (centered in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu) from the 9th century until the late Middle Ages. Songhay languages have been in contact with Arabic, Berber and different Niger-Congo languages, such as Mande, Kwa and Gur, resulting in considerable typological variation within this cluster and a high proportion of Afroasiatic items in the basic vocabulary.

Distribution. Songhay languages are spoken mainly in eastern Mali and in southwest Niger, but also in parts of Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin.

External Classification. The classification of Songhay languages is disputed. One view is that they constitute a separate branch within the Nilo-Saharan phylum, but others think they do not belong there and are probably related to the Mande languages of Niger-Congo. If they belong to Nilo-Saharan they would be the westernmost family of the phylum.

Internal Classification and Speakers. There are about 4 million first language speakers of Songhay of which 2.8 million speak Zarma. They are divided into a small Northern branch and a larger Southern branch:

  1. a)Northern: spoken by cultural Tuaregs mainly in eastern Mali and central Niger with an enclave in southern Algeria.

  1. 1)Tadaksahak (Dausahaq), spoken around Ménaka in southeastern Mali by about 100,000 people. Its lexicon, grammar and syntax are heavily influenced by Berber languages.

  1. 2)Tasawaq spoken around In-Gall, a town in the Agadez region of Niger, by some 8,000 speakers.

  1. 3)Korandje spoken in the Tabelbala oasis of southern Algeria by perhaps 3,000 people. It is the most northerly of the Songhay languages and has been very influenced by Berber and Arabic.

  1. b)Southern: spoken in the regions along the Niger River and the waterways that feed into it from Mopti in Mali to Gaya in Niger.

  1. 1)Western Songhay includes Koyra Chiini spoken in Mali along the Niger River, from Djenné to east of Timbuktu, by about 250,000 speakers, and the related Djenné Chiini, spoken in the city of Djenné.

  1. 2)Central Songhay or Humburi Senni around the city of Hombori in southern Mali as well as in northern Burkina Faso. Around 25,000 speakers. Kaado is a related dialect.

  1. 3)Eastern Songhay or Koyraboro Senni. This is the standard Songhay in Mali. Along Niger River from east of Timbuktu, through Bourem and Gao, up to the Mali-Niger border. About 470,000 speakers.

  1. 4)Zarma spoken in southwestern Niger by 2.7 million people and by a further 100,000 in northwest Nigeria.

  1. 5)Dendi with  30,000 speakers in northern Benin and 2,000 in Nigeria.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Tadaksahak, Koyra Chiini, Humburi Senni and Zarma have five vowel qualities (i, e, a, o, u), short and long. This is typical of Songhay, though seven-vowel systems exist in some languages (Djenné Chiini, Dendi).

  1. -Some Southern Songhay languages such as Humburi Senni and Zarma are tonal, but other such as Koyra Chiini and Koyraboro Senni appear to be non-tonal. Humburi Senni has high and low tones as well as a contour falling tone (high+low). Zarma has four tones: low, high, falling, and rising. Within Northern languages, Tadaksahak has a simple tonal accent system.

  1. -Songhay languages lack, like some other North African languages, a native p-sound; it only appears in loanwords.

  1. Morphology

  1. Nominal

  2. -Compounding, reduplication and affixation are highly productive, serving to form new words. Cliticization of morphemes is highly common.

  1. -Nouns may be inflected for number and definiteness but not for gender.

  1. -There is a single demonstrative pronoun (singular and plural) used for near and distant referents alike. The use of a one-term deictic marker appears to be an areal phenomenon being also attested in neighboring Mande languages.

  1. Verbal

  2. -The Songhay verb is invariable. Mood, aspect and polarity (MAN) are marked in preverbal auxiliaries. Preceding this preverbal marker is the pronoun or nominal holding the function of subject.

  1. -The possible moods are indicative or subjunctive, the aspects are perfective or imperfective, and polarity may be positive or negative. For each of these categories there is an unmarked and a marked value. The marked values are subjunctive, imperfective, and negative. Thus, a zero slot is interpreted as indicative, perfective, positive.

  1. Syntax

  2. -In Western Songhay varieties (Koyra Chiini, Djenné Chiini) the predominant word order is: Subject-MAN (markers for mood, aspect, negation)-Verb-Object-Complements. Northern Songhay is also SVO. In Central and Eastern Songhay varieties (Humburi Senni, Koyraboro Senni), as well as in Zarma, the order is Subject-MAN-Object-Verb. Nominal modifiers, like adjectives, demonstratives and numerals, follow the head-noun but possessors precede it. All Songhay languages use postpositions.

  1. -Songhay languages use logophoric marking in reported speech. It serves to indicate without ambiguity that the subject of a dependent clause is identical to the subject of the main clause.

Numerals. Humburi Senni numerals are shown first (with tones), followed by those of Koyra Chiini (which lacks tones):

one: fóo/foo

two: híŋká/hiŋka

three: hínzâ/hinja

four: táačí/taači

five: gúu/guu

six: íddû/iddu

seven: íiyê/iiye

eight: yáahâ/yaaha

nine: yággâ/yagga

ten: wóy/woy

hundred: zàŋgù/jaŋgu

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -A Grammar of Koyra Chiini: the Songhay of Timbuktu. J. Heath. Mouton de Gruyter (1998).

  2. -A Grammar of Koyraboro (Koroboro) Senni: the Songhay of Gao, Mali. J. Heath  Rüdiger Köppe (1999).

  3. -Essential Elements of Songhai Grammar. D. R. Stauffer. University of Texas (1997).

  4. -Les Dialectes du Songhay. R. Nicolaï. SELAF (1981).

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