Wolof in Senegal

Historical Background
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Senegal, now an independent republic of over sixteen million inhabitants, was once considered the crown jewel of France’s “scramble for Africa,” and the most assimilated region of French West Africa [Wooten, n.d.]. The widespread use of the French language, entrenched into Senegalese culture through French linguistic imperialism, was a key factor in this perception. Though Senegal attained independence in 1960, the linguistic battle between French and local languages—predominately Wolof—is still ongoing and can be characterized as a global/colonial v. local language conflict. French is the official language while Wolof is relegated to the language of “home” [O’Brien, 1998]. This discrepancy has created a cultural identity struggle along with disparities in education, opportunity, and experience [Naida, 2016]. Wolof and Urban Wolof, a hybrid language that incorporates aspects of French, continue to grow in use, but Senegal’s ties to France and the French language remain a continual hindrance to a cohesive national identity. 

Historical Background

Before European contact, the Jolof Empire, also referred to as the Wolof or Djolof Empire, functioned as a West African state [Cartwright, 2019]. The Wolof rose to power as the largest group of the many ancient Senegambian tribal communities and have since remained Senegal’s largest ethnic group. Though the empire was largely defunct before the arrival of Europeans, its religious and cultural influence persisted [Cartwright, 2019]. European presence in Senegal began in the 1440s, with the arrival of Portuguese traders [BBC, 2018]. These were followed by the Dutch, who, in 1588, established a slave port on the island of Gorée that would become the “largest slave trading center on the African coast” for four centuries [UNESCO, 2021]. In 1638, France established its first comptoir, or commercial outpost, on the Senegal River, and by 1654 had established Saint-Louis as its integral base for exploration and colonization in West Africa [McLaughlin, 2008b]. By the eighteenth century, France had practically eliminated all English and Dutch influence in the region, and in 1848, inhabitants of the four major regions of Senegal - Gorée, Saint-Louis, Dakar, and Rufisque - were proclaimed to be French citizens [McLaughlin, 2008b]. France formally “won” Senegal in the Treaties of Paris and Vienna (1814-15) and, in 1895, it officially became part of French West Africa [BBC, 2018].  

Language was a critical part of the French assimilation of Senegal from the outset. In 1817, France introduced an education system based around the French language, and from 1920 until Senegal’s independence in 1960 education was fully controlled by the French colonial administration [Naida, 2016]. Independence did not separate the country from its ties to the French language, however. French remains Senegal’s only official language, and as such it retains its position as the language of state, although over 75 percent of the population speaks Wolof either natively or as an acquired second language [Davies & Dubinsky, 2018]. Thus, while Wolof remains an important oral medium spoken in unofficial settings [O’Brien 1998], it is French that functions as a “passport to occupational and geographical mobility” for those that speak it and stands as a barrier to entry for those that do not [O’Brien 1998]. This has complicated the process of “Wolofisation” — the expansion of the Wolof language and culture leading to a more cohesive sociolinguistic national identity — and is a core reason for the continued prevalence of French in Senegal [O’Brien 1998]. The status of French as the only official language stands firmly in the way of national progress and national cohesion for Senegal. Depending on who is counting, and how, French is spoken (mostly non-natively) by anywhere from 9% to 26% of the population. Regardless of the actual number of French speakers, the paucity of native speakers of the language and the fact that a relatively small minority know it at any level of fluency, meaning that a vast majority of Senegalese do not have competence in their nation’s only official language. Further complicating the situation is the gender imbalance of Francophone fluency, wherein 15-20% of Senegalese men are fluent in the language, compared with only 1-2% of Senegalese women. This means, in a country already afflicted with gender inequities, 98% of women have no linguistic “passport to occupational and geographical mobility.” [O’Brien 1998]. 

Wolof, while a “shared medium for the great majority,” is not the only indigenous language spoken in Senegal [O’Brien 1998]. The first six languages to be deemed “national languages” in 1971 by President Léopold Senghor also included Pulaar, Joola, Malinke, Seereer, and Soninke [McLaughlin, 2008b]. A hesitation to show favoritism to any one of, or any combination of, these groups may contribute to the Senegalese government’s continued reluctance to officially position Wolof above French [Davies & Dubinsky 2018]. One might further speculate, somewhat cynically, that this reluctance is further motivated by an inclination to keep women out of power. Nevertheless, the use of Wolof as a preferred lingua franca over French has increased in the first decades of the 21st century, and with the growth in speakers and use, so has its influence been enhanced. This has been driven, in part, by the growth of Urban Wolof, “a variety of Wolof characterized by significant lexical borrowing from French” [McLaughlin, 2008a]. Urban Wolof has developed as a means for Senegalese speakers to combine their identity as both “inheritors of a colonial legacy and [...] creators of a new urban culture and language” [O’Brien 1998]. 

The Casamance

Though French dominates sociolinguistic power struggles in West Africa, intra-ethnic conflicts exist as well in places like Casamance, a region in southern Senegal [Fall, 2010]. The French forced Portuguese influence out of Casamance in the nineteenth century, incorporating it into Senegal [Fall, 2010]. From 1854 until 1939, however, the two were administered separately, as France faced resistance in the region [Naida, 2016; Fall, 2010], and the province still thinks of itself as “alienated, different, and distant,” compared to the northern regions of Senegal [McLaughlin, 2008b]. One factor in this separation could be that Casamance is almost entirely comprised of ethnic Diolas, or Joolas, as compared to the prevalence of Wolof elsewhere [McLaughlin, 2008b], and the struggle has become known as the “Affaire Diola” within Senegal [Fall, 2010]. These speakers of Jola (see above) comprise 4.5% of the population, but are concentrated in this particular region  

These disparities culminated in the development of the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance) political group in 1982 [Fall, 2010]. This group claimed to be oppressed by Senegal, seeking recognition for its “regional particularism and [...] autonomy” [Fall, 2010]. Though the situation is not as hostile as it was in the 1980s and 90s, there remains a “permanent situation of fear” particularly in relation to landmines, which have devastated Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia [Fall, 2010]. The Casamance conflict has had far reaching effects in Senegal and beyond, compromising security, breeding violence, stigmatizing the province, and destabilizing the entire West African region [Fall, 2010]. 

The Mouride Brotherhood

The Mouride Brotherhood, an Islamic sect founded in the Sufi tradition, remains a significant part of the “elevation” of Wolof among the indigenous languages in sub-Saharan Africa [Swigart, 2000]. Amadu Bamba, the founder of the Brotherhood, was a nineteenth-century “Wolof folk hero,” and contemporary Mouride leaders have remained faithful to Wolof as a nearly exclusive medium of communication, ensuring their followers also speak Wolof [O’Brien, 1998]. This has even extended to literacy, with the use of the Wolofal alphabet, which was “specially adapted” from Arabic [Swigart, 2000]. Thus, any Muslim seeking to join the Mouride Brotherhood—which wields “tremendous power” in Senegal—must embrace the Wolof language, whether they ethnically identify as Wolof or not [Swigart, 2000]. In this way, religious practices are an important marker of linguistic association in Senegal, and an effective method of both encouraging the adoption of the Wolof language and boosting its “cultural and international relevance” [Swigart, 2000]. 

Cheikh Anta Diop, 1960s

Cheikh Anta Diop, a Pan-African historian and revolutionary advocate for Wolofisation, is one of the most celebrated figures in contemporary Senegalese history [Micklin, 2008]. Arguably the national figure “most determined [...] to take Wolof out of the shadows,” Diop was known for his tireless pursuit of Wolof education, literacy, and political recognition [O’Brien, 1998]. Born in 1933 in Diourbel, Senegal, he grew up a member of the Mouride Brotherhood, an African Islamic sect [Micklin, 2008]. He attended the Sorbonne in Paris, France, where his dissertation on Egyptian influences on European culture was rejected [Micklin, 2008]. This thesis would eventually become a “glorious trophy of the Wolofisation cause” in its rejection of European cultural superiority [O’Brien, 1998], and was indicative of Diop’s later work, such as translating scientific principles and the works of Shakespeare into Wolof [Naida, 2016]. Diop was a key figurehead during the 1960s movement towards Wolofisation, having “his own political parties” in the Bloc des Masses Senegalaises and the Rassemblement National Democratique [O’Brien, 1998]. His influence as a scholar, politician, historian, and sociolinguist cannot be overstated, and his legacy remains in the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, renamed in 1987 in his honor [Naida, 2016]. 

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Linguistic Background


  1. Genealogy/ Relatedness  


There are around twenty-five languages spoken in Senegal, many of which belong to the Niger-Congo language family [McLaughlin, 2008b]. Wolof is the most widely spoken language and is a member of the Northern Senegambian branch of the West Atlantic subcategory of Niger-Congo languages [“An Annotated Guide,” n.d.]. Unlike most other languages of the Niger-Congo family, Wolof is not a tonal language1. Other non-tonal languages of Africa include Amharic, Swahili and Fula [Ka, 1994]. 

Senegal Wolof is a standard form of the language, but Gambian Wolof is spoken by nearly two hundred thousand people in Gambia, which is surrounded by Senegal on three sides [Britannica, 2013].  

French is the official language of Senegal. It is a Romance language within the Indo-European family that originated in Latin with the Roman conquest of Gaul. French is not genealogically related to Wolof at all [Rickard, 2003]. Presently, French is spoken in France, in some other European countries, the Caribbean, parts of Canada, and Northern Africa [“Countries and Languages,” n.d.]. Meanwhile, Wolof is a language and ethnicity that can be traced back to the earliest known inhabitants of the Gambia River that migrated from Central or Eastern Africa [Cartwright, 2019].  


2. Phonetics/Phonology  

In Wolof there are 15 vowels, which include long and short distinction [Unseth, 2009]. Vowels fall into two harmonizing sets depending on whether the body of the tongue is moved forward or retracted. Advanced tongue root (ATR) vowels are /i, u, é, ó, ë/ and non-ATR vowels are /e, o, a/ [Torrence, 2013]. Wolof has 25 consonants [Ka, 1994]. One notable phonological distinction in Wolof is that nearly all consonants (i.e., simple nasals, oral stops apart from /q/ and glottal, and the sonorants /l, r, y, w/) may be geminated (doubled) [Gaye, 1980]. Wolof, as other Senegambian languages, is notable for its consonant mutation, a phenomenon in which consonants change according to morphological or syntactic influences [Seck, 2009]. 

The standard French language consists of 21 consonants and 16 vowels, of which 12 are oral and four are nasal. Notable features of the French language include nasal vowels, elision, and its uvular r [Fougeron & Smith, 1993].   


3. Morphology and Grammar 

French and Wolof follow the same basic word orders of subject-verb-object, but Wolof verb conjugation differs greatly as tenses are marked only by variously attached or unattached suffixes [Seck, 2009]. In addition, grammatical gender for nouns, necessary in French, does not exist in Wolof [McLaughlin, 2001]. 

Wolof noun structure is quite complex, with nouns being only inflected for number and exhibiting an inflectional class marker which replicates the stem-initial consonant [McLaughlin, 2008b]. French, on the other hand, requires agreement across gender and number for almost all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs [Polinsky, 2003].  


4. Lexicon and Vocabulary 

In contemporary Wolof, lexical borrowings from French, Arabic and English are common. Borrowings from French are motivated by the fact that Senegal occupied a central place in the colonization of West Africa. Many lexical items were borrowed from French to account for constructs that were introduced with the French culture, political system, and religion in Senegal, or for purely prestige reasons [Ngom, 2000].  

The Arabic influence in Senegal, and on the vocabulary of Wolof, dates back to the Islamization of West Africa between the 11th and the 16th centuries. By the 14th century, Islamic schools were established in Senegal, and most Senegalese Muslims were already able to use classical Arabic scripts to write their own languages by the first half of the twentieth century, especially Wolof [Diop, 1989].  

The English influence is conveyed through American youth culture, the media, TV, and the American movie industry [Ngom, 2000].  

Additionally, borrowings from Pulaar (the only local language in competition with Wolof) are mainly found among the youth. These borrowings are due to the rising prestige of Pulaar in the 1990s, and are the result of the cultural movement for the revitalization of Pulaar culture, language, and customs in Senegal (especially in the region of Saint-Louis) [Ngom, 2000].

5. Orthography/Writing System 

There are three scripts for Wolof. One is an Arabic-based transcription called Wolofal, which dates back to the pre-colonial period and is still used by many people. Another one is Garay, an alphabetic script invented by Assane Faye in 1961, which has been adopted by a small number of Wolof-speakers [Everson, 2012; Ager, n.d.]. A third one is a Latin-based alphabet created by the Senegalese government between 1971 and 1985, possibly due to French colonial influence [Ager, n.d.]. The Latin orthography consists of twenty-nine letters: three letters are excluded from Wolof (H, V, and Z), but six other letters are added (À, É, Ë, Ñ, Ŋ, and Ó) [“Orthographe et pronunciation,” n.d.]. This orthography, based in Latin, is the most commonly used for written Wolof [“Orthographe et pronunciation,” n.d.]. Phonetically, however, these similar French and Wolof orthographies are vastly different, and not mutually comprehensible [McLaughlin, 2008b].  






6. Discourse/Sociolinguistic Factors/ Influences on Development/History 

While the two languages share the same Latin alphabet and written form, they are vastly different in phonology, comprehension, and origins. Due to the immense influence the French language continues to have in Senegal, however, French has made various inroads into Wolof. Many French words have been incorporated into the language, particularly in Dakar Wolof, or Urban Wolof, which has characterized itself by substantial borrowing from French and “de-ethnicizing urban identity” [McLaughlin, 2001]. 




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Posted:  Sept 2021 

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Contributing Analysts:   Anna Dowling, Reilly Leaver

Editors: Gareth Rees-White, Elena Galkina