Notes on Orthography


What’s orthography? It is basically a spelling system. defines it as:

  1. The art or study of correct spelling according to established usage.
  2. The aspect of language study concerned with letters and their sequences in words.
  3. A method of representing a language or the sounds of language by written symbols; spelling.

There are groups such as the IPA (International Phonetic Association) and CLAD (Center of Applied Linguistics of Dakar) that have developed Latin based spelling systems for historically non-written languages such as Wolof. The IPA uses a system with the same acronym as their association called the International Phonetic Alphabet. And although I have repeatedly stated that there is no universal standardized system for the spelling of Wolof words, the system devised by CLAD is probably the most widely used (or at least very close variations of it) and in my opinion the easiest to follow. Below are some examples of the same Wolof word for ‘thank you’ using different orthographies:

jërëjëf (Standardized CLAD spelling)

djeredieuf (Common Francophone spelling)

jayraijayf (Used by Nyima Kantorek in her dictionary)

I have also seen it spelled; jai-rruh-jef, jere-jeff & je-re-jef among a variety of other renditions.

There is also a writing system that was developed for Wolof using the Arabic alphabet. This system is called Wolofal.


  1. Thanks for the contribution. This was caught by my spam filter but I de-spammed it. I have about a dozen other comments caught by the filter but this was the only one it allowed me to view and moderate. Hopefully none of the others were legitimate comments. If you or anyone else happens to be reading this please let me know if your comments are not being posted and feel free to email your comments to me at daaralaaka “at” and I will manually post them for you. Thanks!


  2. At some point one has to get with a standard and stay with it. The CLAD orthography as I understand it is the result of a decree in the 1970s – it has been around and used to the degree that there is some familiarity with it. It may not be ideal but one can always find a way to improve any orthography and even a totally inconsistent orthography such as English has or a really complicated one like Chinese can work successfully if you just stay with it.

    There have been other cases of scholars proposing revised orthographies in their works (Igbo is another example – a dictionary 10 years ago made all kinds of changes but drew criticism). It seems to me that continually revising orthographies or discussing ways of improving them does nothing to increase the level of writing in a language. It is like continually pulling a plant up to examine the roots to figure out why it isn’t growing. What the plant needs is to be tended in one place with ample sun, water, and nutrients.

    Arguably the key to success and use of any writing system is its being taught in schools and given active policy and resource support by the relevant authorities.


  3. I have heard that the Senegalese govt. were recently trying to institute a standard orthography to be used in their school system. In one way it is not so important for written Wolof to be standardized because it still remains largely a spoken language while French is used more for writing and for official uses. Also when Wolof is written native speakers seem to have very little trouble understanding what is written no matter how it is spelled since everything is more or less phonetic (and also within the context it is used). It seems to be more of a problem with non-native speakers and those trying to learn the language such as myself. In that sense it is not so important but on the other hand I believe that a standardized system is important for the preservation and advancement of the language to a more prominent role in schools, government and in other official capacities.


  4. […] Janga wolof writes about Wolof orthography. That set me off searching for other material on Wolof orthography. Don Osborn writes: […]


  5. Originally: Jar nga jëf.
    Loosely: You are equal to the task.
    Spoken to encourage a hard-working field hand.
    Now shorteded to a slur like the American “angs” for Thanks.
    Linguists fall all over themselves trying to transcribe slop.


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