Wolof or Wollof may refer to:

  • The Wolof or Jolof Empire, a medieval West African successor of the Mali Empire from the 14th to 16th centuries in present-day Senegal
  • The Wolof or Jolof Kingdom, a rump survival of the earlier empire in the same area from the 16th to the 19th centuries
  • Wolof language, a language spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania
  • Wolof people, an ethnic group found in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania

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Wolof language

Wolof is a language of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania, and the native language of the Wolof people. Like the neighbouring languages Serer and Fula, it belongs to the Senegambian branch of the Niger–Congo language family. Unlike most other languages of the Niger-Congo family, Wolof is not a tonal language.

Contrary to popular belief, Wolof did not originate as the language of the Lebu people because the Lebu people are Wolof and speak a Wolof regional dialect. It is the most widely spoken language in Senegal, spoken natively by the Wolof people but also by most other Senegalese as a second language.

Wolof dialects vary geographically and between rural and urban areas. “Dakar-Wolof”, for instance, is an urban mixture of Wolof, French, and Arabic.

“Wolof” is the standard spelling and may refer to the Wolof people or to Wolof culture. Variants include the older French Ouolof and the principally Gambian Wollof, Jolof, jollof, etc., which now typically refers either to the Jolof Empire or to jollof rice, a common West African rice dish. Now-archaic forms include Volof and Olof.

The English language is believed to have adopted some Wolof words, such as banana, via Spanish or Portuguese, and nyam in several Caribbean English Creoles meaning “to eat” (compare Seychellois Creole nyanmnyanm, also meaning “to eat”).

Wolof people

The Wolof people are a West African ethnic group found in northwestern Senegal, the Gambia, and southwestern coastal Mauritania. In Senegal, the Wolof are the largest ethnic group, while elsewhere they are a minority. They refer to themselves as Wolof and speak the Wolof language, in the West Atlantic branch of the Niger–Congo family of languages.

Their early history is unclear and based on oral traditions that link the Wolof to the Almoravids. The earliest documented mention of the Wolof is found in the records of 15th-century, Portuguese-financed Italian traveller Alvise Cadamosto, who mentioned well-established Islamic Wolof chiefs advised by Muslim counselors. The Wolof belonged to the medieval-era Wolof Empire of the Senegambia region.

Details of the pre-Islamic religious traditions of the Wolof are unknown, and their oral traditions state them to have been adherents of Islam since the founding king of Jolof. However, historical evidence left by Islamic scholars and European travelers suggest that Wolof warriors and rulers did not initially convert to Islam, although accepting and relying on Muslim clerics as counselors and administrators. In and after the 18th century, the Wolofs were impacted by the violent jihads in West Africa, which triggered internal disagreements about Islam among the Wolof. In the 19th century, as the colonial French forces launched a war against the Wolof kingdoms, the Wolof people resisted the French and converted to Islam. Contemporary Wolofs are predominantly Sufi Muslims belonging to Mouride and Tijaniyyah Islamic brotherhoods.

The Wolof people, like other West African ethnic groups, historically maintained a rigid, endogamous social stratification that included nobility, clerics, castes, and slaves. The Wolof were close to the French colonial rulers, became integrated into the colonial administration, and have dominated the culture and economy of Senegal since the country’s independence.

They are also referred to as the Wollof, Jolof, Iolof, Whalof, Ialof, Olof, and Volof, among other spellings.

Wolof culture

The Senegambia region has a rich culture including joking relationships between patrilineal clans and ethnic groups. This joking relationship ensures peaceful coexistence where one ethnic group can criticize or even insult another without the recipient taking offence. This bond of cousinage is called maasir or kalir in Serer (shorten to kal by the Wolof), kallengooraxu in Soninke, sanaawyaa in western Mandinka, and agelor in Joola (Fogny)

The griot caste are found extensively in the Senegambia region. They preserve genealogy, history and culture of the people. There is also a mutual exchange of cuisines among the inhabitants of this region. For example Jollof rice (or Benachin as it is called in The Gambia), which is an international export, named after the Kingdom of Jolof in present-day Senegal, originated from this region. Thieboudienne, a Senegalese national dish also originated from this region. Tigadèguèna, called domoda in Gambia and maafe in Senegal originated from Mali.

Youssou N’Dour, Africa’s most famous singer, according to Rolling Stone magazine (2014), and who held the title as Africa’s most powerful and biggest music export before Akon (who incidentally is also from this region) for several decades is from this region. The African Renaissance Monument built in 2010 in Dakar, standing at 49 m (161 feet) is the tallest statue in Africa.

From the old and sacred music genre of njuup, to the modern mbalax beats (derived from the Serer njuup tradition), the region has a rich and old music and dance tradition. Traditional Senegambian wrestling called njom in Serer, laamb in Wolof and siɲɛta in Bambara is a favourite past time and national sport in some parts of the region especially in Senegal.

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