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Classification: Niger-Congo, Atlantic, Northern. Wolof is closely related to Serer and less so to Fula.

Overview. Wolof is the paramount language in the African Atlantic coast and the principal medium of communication in Senegal. Like most Atlantic languages it lacks tones and has prenasalized consonants but in contrast with them it doesn't have implosive ones. As is characteristic in Niger-Congo languages, it has a system of noun-classes but unusually they are not marked on the noun but in determiners. Wolof has a very rich system of derivation, both in nouns and verbs which serve not only to create new words but also to add meaning to the verbal root. The main categories in the verb are aspect and focus, and in the sentence the habitual order is subject-verb-object.

Distribution. Wolof is spoken in the West African coast, mainly in northwestern Senegal (including Dakar) and parts of Gambia (along the north bank of the Gambia river and in the capital Banjul). There are a few Wolof  speakers in southwest Mauritania as well as some expatriates in France.

Speakers. It is spoken by about 80 % of all Senegalese. Native speakers in Senegal amount to more than 5 million and it is used there as a lingua franca by another 5-6 million. In Gambia there are about 200,000 Wolof speakers, in Mauritania 12,000 and 35,000 in France.

Status. Wolof is one of several national languages of Senegal though the official one is French. It is used as a lingua franca all over the country.


Varieties. In Senegal there are two dialects: Senegal Wolof and Dakar Wolof or Urban Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French, Arabic and English spoken in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The Wolof spoken in Gambia constitutes another dialect.


Vowels (15). Wolof has eight short and seven long vowels. The schwa (ə) has no long counterpart. They can be divided into two contrasting sets. The advanced tongue root vowels (ATR+) are pronounced by moving the base of the tongue forward (with expansion of  the pharyngeal cavity) being perceived as "tense" or "bright". In ATR- vowels the tongue remains in neutral position. The ATR+ vowels are i, e, ə, u, o; the ATR- vowels are ɛ, ɔ, a. Nominal and verbal stems as well as derivational suffixes harmonize for the ATR feature, i.e. vowels must be all ATR+ or ATR-.


Consonants (24). A distinctive feature of Wolof consonantal system is the absence of implosive consonants which are present in other Atlantic languages. On the other hand, it has preserved the prenasalized stops, exhibiting a three-way contrast, at four points of articulation, between them and voiceless and voiced ones. Many, but not all, consonants have long varieties (prenasalized stops, fricatives and r have no geminated form). Consonant length is phonemic.


Tones: like other Atlantic languages, but in contrast to most Niger-Congo ones, Wolof is non-tonal.

Stress: it falls on the first syllable of a word.

Script and Orthography.

The Latin alphabet of Wolof in Senegal was set by government decrees between 1971 and 1985. In this script, phonemes (shown between brackets) have a good correspondence to graphemes:

  1. The low vowels [ɛ] and [ɔ] are written e and o, respectively.

  1. The high vowels [e] and [o] are written é and ó, respectively.

  1. Long vowels and long consonants are doubled.

  1. The palatal consonant ɟ is written j.

  1. the prenasalized [mb] is written mb and the prenasalized [nd], [ɲɟ], [ŋg] are written nd, nj and ng, respectively.

  1. the nasal ɲ is written ñ.

Morphology. Wolof has a rich system of derivation for nouns and verbs by suffixation, reduplication, and alternation of the root consonant.

  1. Nominal. There are no articles and nouns are not inflected for case or gender. The most distinctive feature is the system of noun classes.

  1. noun class system: nouns are grouped, according to semantic and formal grounds, in noun classes. Some classes are reserved for singular nouns and others for plurals. There are eight singular and two plural noun classes. They are marked by a single consonant prefixed to determiners but not to the noun itself. Determiners are usually placed after the noun. The markers are: b-, g-, j-, k-, l-, m-, s-, w- for the singular classes; y-, ñ- for the plural ones. The b-class is by far the most common.

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

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

  1. Personal pronouns may be independent, verb-subject pronouns or verb-object pronouns. The independent pronouns are used for emphasis and to answer to questions (e.g. Who did it? He.). Verb-subject pronouns are an essential part of the verbal system and their form varies in particular conjugations. In contrast verb-object pronouns have less variable forms and may be used to replace a nominal direct object.


  1. Possessive pronouns distinguish person and number of the possessor as well as number of the possessed. They are placed before the noun except the 3rd person singular one which is suffixed to the noun. If the possessed are more than one the suffix i/y is attached to the possessive pronoun except in the 3rd singular when the particle ay is placed before the noun-pronoun complex.


  1. Demonstrative pronouns are made by adding the suffix -le to noun determiners whose initial consonant varies according to the noun class and whose vowel is i for ‘this’ or a for ‘that’ e.g. picc bile (‘bird this’), picc bale (‘bird that’).

  1. The interrogatives are kan (‘who?’ sg.), ñan (‘who?’ pl.), lan (‘what?’ sg.), yan (‘what?’ pl.), fan (‘where?’), kañ (‘when?’), nan (‘how?’).

  2. A second set of interrogatives function also as relative pronouns: ku (‘who?’ sg.), ñu (‘who?’ pl.), lu (‘what?’ sg.), yu (‘what?’ pl.), fu (‘where?’), bu (‘when?’), nu (‘how?’).

  1. The indefinite pronouns derive from the interrogative ones: kenn (‘somebody’), képp (‘anybody’), keneen (‘somebody else’); lenn (‘something’), lépp (‘anything’), leneen (‘something else’).

  1. Verbal. Aspect and focus, more than tense, are central in the verbal system which is able to express if an action has been completed or is still going on, or if it takes place regularly, and whether the emphasis falls on the subject, verb or object of the sentence. The verb complex consists of an invariable stem plus an inflectional element that encodes person and number, and a particle that indicates tense-aspect-mood (TAM) or focus (subject, object, and verbal). The inflectional element and the TAM or focus particles may be preposed or postposed to the verbal lexeme. Besides, there are about thirty verbal extensions or derivational affixes that encode reciprocal, applicative, causative, locative, and other meanings. Verbs can be converted into nouns by reduplication, suffixation and consonant mutation.

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

  1. tense-aspect-mood: perfect, presentative, future, minimum verb construction obligative, imperative.  The perfect indicates that an action has been completed, either in the past or present; it is more or less equivalent to the English present perfect tense. The presentative expresses an ongoing action and is equivalent to the present continuous of English; if it is used without a verb it has an existential meaning. The minimum verb construction (sometimes called aorist) lacks a TAM marker and is atemporal and neutral; tense-aspect is dictated by context. The obligative expresses a wish or polite request. As an example we show the conjugation of the verb dem  ('to go') with neutral focus:


  1. The subject pronoun that encodes person and number and the TAM marker (highlighted in blue) are not completely separable and they are usually written together; excepting the perfect and the imperative, they are placed before the stem. Additional TAM markers may be added; two of the most important are oon/woon, to express a simple past or past perfect, and the progressive marker di/y.  Several TAM have special negative conjugations.

  2. Some regions distinguish between nu (1st person plural) and ñu (3rd person plural). Other regions make no such distinction using ñu for both cases.

  1. focus: verb, subject, object. Wolof has special verb forms to emphasize the verb, the subject or the object in the sentence. They generally refer to a past action but if the progressive marker di/y is added the action may be happening in the present.

  1. voice: active, semi-active, passive. The passive and semi-active are formed by adding the suffix -u.


The neutral word order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) but if the object is in focus it changes to OSV. If there is an object pronoun, it is placed before the verbal stem and after the inflectional marker except in the perfect when it is placed after them. As we have seen, Wolof has an elaborate focus system which may emphasize the subject, the verb or the object:

  1. Verb focus

  2. Damay      dem

  3. 1s:VF-ing    go

  4. What I am doing is leaving.

  1. y: progressive marker

  1. Subject focus

  2. Maa   ko   ñaw

  3. 1s:SF   it     sew

  4. It is I who sewed it.

  1. Object focus

  2. Cin      laa      bëgg.

  3. cauldron  1s:OF   want

  4. It is a cauldron that I want.


Urban Wolof (especially that spoken in Dakar) has many loanwords from French. Wolof has ideophones (a special class of words with particular sound characteristics associated with vivid sensory or mental experiences) but they are used only with certain verbs.

Basic Vocabulary. Numbers 6-9 are based on 5.

one: benn

two: ñaar

three: ñett

four: ñeent

five: juróóm

six: juróóm-benn

seven:  juróóm-ñaar

eight:  juróóm-ñett

nine:  juróóm-ñeent

ten: fukk

hundred: tééméér

father: baay, paa, pappë

mother: ndey, yaay

older brother: mag bu góór

younger brother: rakk bu góór

older sister: mag bu jigéén

younger sister: rakk bu jigéén

son: doom bu góór

daughter: doom bu jigéén

head: bopp

face: kanam

eye: bët

hand: loxo

foot: tank

heart: xol

tongue: lammiñ

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati


Further Reading

  1. -'Wolof'. F. Mc Laughlin. In 'Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World', 1184-86. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  2. -'Wolof'. S. Robert. In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, vol. 4, 372-374. W. Frawley (ed). Oxford University Press (2003).

  3. -Grammaire du Wolof Contemporain. J-L. Diouf. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. (2001).

  4. -Wolof Phonology and Morphology. O. Ka. Lanham. University Press of America (1994).

  5. -Introductory Course in Dakar Wolof. W. A. Stewart et al. Washington, Center for Applied Linguistics (1966).

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