Just what the heck is Wolof anyway?


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Wolof is a language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, and it is the native language of the ethnic group of the Wolof people. Like the neighboring language Fula, it belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Unlike many other African languages, Wolof is not a tonal language.

Wolof is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, spoken not only by members of the Wolof ethnic group (approximately 40 percent of the population) but also by most other Senegalese. Wolof dialects may vary between countries (Senegal and the Gambia) and the rural and urban areas. “Dakar-Wolof”, for instance, is an urban mixture of Wolof, French, Arabic, and even a little English spoken in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

“Wolof” is the standard spelling, and is a term that may also refer to the Wolof ethnic group or to things originating from Wolof culture or tradition. As an aid to pronunciation, some older French publications use the spelling “Ouolof“; for the same reason, some English publications adopt the spelling “Wollof“, predominantly referring to Gambian Wolof. Prior to the 20th Century, the forms “Volof”, and “Olof” were used.

Compared to other African languages, Wolof has had a relatively large influence on Western European languages; banana is a Wolof word in English, and the English word yam is believed to be derived from Wolof/Fula nyami, “to eat food.”


  1. As anyone who knows anything about Wikipedia knows that it can change over night…here is an updated version of the last paragraph…

    “Compared to other African languages, Wolof has had a relatively large influence on Western European languages. Banana is a Wolof word in English, and the English word yam is believed to be derived from Wolof/Fula nyami, “to eat food.” Hip or hep (e.g., jazz musicians’ now cliched “hip cat”) is believed by many etymologists to derive from the Wolof hepicat, “one who has his eyes open”. Some etymologists reject this, however, and in late 2007 adopted the pun “to cry Wolof” as a general dismissal or belittlement of etymologies they believe to be based on “superficial similarities” rather than documented attribution.”

    I think I have heard the term “to cry Wolof” previous to late 2007. It is true that the etymology of English words thought by some to be of Wolof origin is shaky. The common belief is that these words made it into American English during slavery although there is no record (as far as I’m aware) that these words were in common use at the time…most (if not all) of these words first appeared in American vernacular much later…although IMHO it does not mean that these words could not have survived among African descendants even if used rarely and have been able to have a resurgence of usage as they were picked up by later generations of African Americans…especially as black culture began to spread across America as whites became more interested. Point being, lack of slave era records does not mean anything more than a lack of white interest in what blacks were doing. I am not saying that these words are definitely of Wolof (or other African) origin, because I simply do not know, but I can see the possibility. I am curious as to what others think?


  2. I’m a former linguist who has always been skeptical of blanket assertions of African origins of common words. When I asked “how” I always got vague answers.

    So I’m suspicious of claims that the American word yam harks back to Wolof. I’d want evidence of Wolof slaves or influence among African Americans.

    Here’s an example of the evidence I”m talking about: records from South Carolina plantations contained numerous instances of slaves named Binta, Coumba, etc. The names would suggest specific ethnic origins. Find enough of those kinds of records, and you can theorize that certain words, phrases and practices might have come here with the slaves.


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