Examples of Wolof sentence structure:
Xále (boy) bi (the) Wolof (wolof). The boy is Wolof.
Jigéen (woman) ji (the) déf (be) féébar (sick). The woman is sick.
Xále (noun) bi (article) Wolof (noun). The boy is Wolof.
Jigéen (noun) ji (article) déf (verb) féébar (adjective). The woman is sick.
Xále bi (subject) Wolof (object). The boy is Wolof.
Jigéen ji (subject) déf (verb) féébar (object). The woman is sick.
More on Wolof sentence structure here.
The articles in English grammar are the and a/an, and in certain contexts some. “An” and “a” are modern forms of the Old English “an”, which in Anglian dialects was the number “one” with “one” used as the number and “an” (“a”, before nouns that begin with a consonant sound) as an indefinite article.
In languages that employ articles, every common noun, with some exceptions, is expressed with a certain definiteness, definite or indefinite, as an attribute (similar to the way many languages express every noun with a certain grammatical number—singular or plural—or a grammatical gender). Articles are among the most common words in many languages; in English, for example, the most frequent word is the.
Articles are usually categorized as either definite or indefinite. A few languages with well-developed systems of articles may distinguish additional subtypes. Within each type, languages may have various forms of each article, due to conforming to grammatical attributes such as gender, number, or case. Articles may also be modified as influenced by adjacent sounds or words as in elision (e.g., French “le” becoming “l’” before a vowel), or epenthesis (e.g., English “a” becoming “an” before a vowel).
An indefinite article indicates that its noun is not a particular one identifiable to the listener. It may be something that the speaker is mentioning for the first time, or the speaker may be making a general statement about any such thing. a/an are the indefinite articles used in English.
The definite article is used to refer to a particular member of a group or class. It may be something that the speaker has already mentioned or it may be something uniquely specified. There is one definite article in English, for both singular and plural nouns: the.
In Wolof, the initial letter of the definite article varies:
bunta bi – the door
ganaar gi – the fowl
jigeen ji – the woman
nit ki – the person
nda li – the water pot
muus mi – the cat
suuf si – the earth
ween wi – the breast
Note that the definite article always follows the noun rather than precede it as in English. (The indefinite article still precedes the noun in Wolof as in English).
The plural form of each definite article is yi, with the exception of ki which is ñi.
xale yi – the children
nit ñi – the people
Other than the plural form, there are three forms of the definite article, –i indicates nearness to the speaker, –a indicates distance from the speaker and –u is a relative form.
xale bi – the child (right here)
xale ba – the child (over there)
xale bu bon – the bad child (the child who is bad)
The –i form is also commonly the default form. Use this form when unsure which form to use. Also, bi, is the most common definite article. (In fact it’s almost used exclusively in major urban areas such as Dakar). Use this one when the definite article is unknown. You can also often get by with using the definite article whose first letter matches the first letter of the noun if there is one, for example, gennax gi – the sea wave.
These rules generally apply to all dialects but some regions, or even some individual speakers, may switch them around. As noted above bi/ba/bu is quickly replacing the other definite articles, especially in the urban areas, such as Dakar, where a modern form of Wolof has emerged called “Dakar-Wolof” which is primarily a mixture of Wolof & French but also Arabic & English.
The following list is a description of each definite article and when they are used. The list is ordered in frequency of use from the most common to the least common:
- found with nearly all nouns beginning with b, except for the names of trees, which use g-.
- most nouns relating to persons, except for nit ki and terms of relationship which use j-.
- most words borrowed from French, English and Mandinka, etc.
- the names of fruits.
- many parts of the body.
- where a verbal root and a noun have the same form the article is most commonly bi.
- used with many words beginning with g and k and all tree names.
- if a word ends in ŋ there is a tendency to follow it with g-.
- used with many words beginning with j.
- most words borrowed from Arabic.
- many words involving kinship.
- found with some words beginning with m and some beginning with p. The latter were probably nasalized mp in old Wolof.
- used primarily where the initial consonant is nasalized, mb, etc.
- a number of liquids have the article m-.
- found with words beginning with a vowel, y, w and x.
- most insects have the w– article.
- used with only a few words beginning with l but commonly with words beginning with nd, ng and c.
- used with fewer words beginning with s than might be expected.
- powdery substances usually have the article s-.
- s– is also a diminutive form, the initial consonant of the noun being changed – nd, ng, etc.
- rarely used except for nit ki.
In some cases the article changes the definition of the word:
ndaw si – the girlfriend
ndaw li – the messenger
doom ji – the child
doom bi – the fruit
Each definite article has its own corresponding indefinite article:
bi – ab
gi – ag
mi – am
si – as
wi – aw
yi – ay
More on Wolof definite & indefinite articles here.
The following links will open in a new tab:
17 Wolof Quantifiers by Khady Tamba, Harold Torrence, Malte Zimmermann
In Wolof, verbs are unchangeable stems that cannot be conjugated. To express different tenses or aspects of an action, personal pronouns are conjugated – not the verbs. Therefore, the term temporal pronoun has become established for this part of speech. It is also referred to as a focus form.
Example: The verb dem means “to go” and cannot be changed; the temporal pronoun maa ngi means “I / me, here and now“; the temporal pronoun dinaa means “I am soon / I will soon / I will be soon“. With that, the following sentences can be built now: Maa ngi dem. “I am going (here and now).” – Dinaa dem. “I will go (soon).“
In Wolof, tenses like present tense, past tense, and future tense are just of secondary importance, they play almost no role. Of crucial importance is the aspect of an action from the speaker’s point of view. The most important distinction is whether an action is perfective, i.e., finished, or imperfective, i.e., still going on, from the speaker’s point of view, regardless whether the action itself takes place in the past, present, or future. Other aspects indicate whether an action takes place regularly, whether an action will take place for sure, and whether an action wants to emphasize the role of the subject, predicate, or object of the sentence. As a result, conjugation is not done by tenses, but by aspects.
Example: The verb dem means “to go“; the temporal pronoun naa means “I already / definitely“, the temporal pronoun dinaa means “I am soon / I will soon / I will be soon“; the temporal pronoun damay means “I (am) regularly / usually“. Now the following sentences can be constructed: Dem naa. “I go already / I have already gone.” – Dinaa dem. “I will go soon / I am just going to go.” – Damay dem. “I usually / regularly / normally / am about to go.“
A speaker may absolutely express that an action took place in the past by adding the suffix -(w)oon to the verb (in a sentence, the temporal pronoun is still used in a conjugated form along with the past marker).
Example: Demoon naa Ndakaaru. “I already went to Dakar.“
More on Wolof verb conjugation here.
Examples of Conjugation
(with the verb dem ‘to go’)
|damay dem (I go)|
|dangay dem (you go) singular|
|dafay dem (he/she goes)|
|dañuy dem (we go)|
|dangeen dem (you go) plural|
|deñuy dem (they go)|
|dama doon dem (I went)|
|danga doon dem (you went) singular|
|dafa doon dem (he/she went)|
|dañu doon dem (we went)|
|dangeen doon dem (you went) plural|
|deñu doon dem (they went)|
|demoon naa (I had gone)|
|demoon nga (you had gone) singular|
|demoon na (he/she had gone)|
|demoon nañu (we had gone)|
|demoon ngeen (you had gone) plural|
|demoon nañu (they had gone)|
|dinaa dem (I will go)|
|dinga dem (you will go) singular|
|dina dem (he/she will go)|
|dinañu dem (we will go)|
|dingeen dem (you will go) plural|
|dinañu dem (they will go)|
|demal (go!) singular|
|demleen (go!) plural|
Negations of dem (to go):
demumaa (I didn’t go)
demul (he/she didn’t go)
demunu (we didn’t go)
demuleen (you didn’t go)
demuñu (they didn’t go)
More examples of Wolof verb conjugation here.
The following link will open in a new tab:
Prefixes & Suffixes
—a ending for the definite article, etc. which indicates distance from the speaker: ba, ga, wa, ya, etc. [fas wa – the horse over there]
—aale a suffix indicating ‘somewhat’ [soreyaale – somewhat far]; with colors ‘…ish’ [weexaale – to be whitish]; a suffix indicating ‘with’ [yobbuwaale – to take with one]
—aan a suffix indicating habitual or professional action [woyaan – to sing (as a profession)]
—aat a suffix indicating ‘again’ [ñowaat – to come again]
—aay a suffix indicating abstraction [rafetaay – beauty]
—al used with verb ending in a consonant to form imperative singular [demal – go away]; suffix indicating ‘doing for someone’ [defal – to do for]; suffix which turns verb into an active form (causative suffix) [jeexal – to finish off]
—ande a suffix indicating a quality [reewande – impoliteness]
—andi a suffix implying the idea of waiting [toogandil be… – sit and wait until…]
—andoo a suffix indicating ‘together’ [lekkandoo – to eat together]
—anga, —ange, —angi indicator of present tense [mangi ni – here I am]
—ante a suffix indicating reciprocity [saagante – to insult one another]
—anti reverse causative suffix. e.g. lijjanti
—antu a suffix indicating ‘spend the time at’, generally implying a lack of seriousness [foantu – to amuse oneself]
—arñi a suffix indicating inversion, often indicating sudden or violent action as in ‘snatching away’ [fattarñi – to unstop]
—at a suffix indicating intensity [dogat – to cut into pieces]
b— form of the definite article. occurs with nouns ending in —kat, —ukāy, etc., fruits, nouns borrowed from French and English
—ee suffix, added to verb following ‘su…’ (if…), ba, bi, bu… (when), u + ee becomes ‘oo’
—ef suffix forming an impersonal passive [mënef na ko – one can do it, it can be done]
—gum a suffix = already have [dugg-gum – already have entered]
—i (yi, ji) suffix indicating to ‘go to’ (do) [indiji – to go to bring]; (plus lengthening of consonant) an inversive suffix [daajji – to pull out a nail]
—in a suffix, indicating manner of doing [doxin – manner of walking]
—it a suffix, indicating the result of an action — added to verbal root [dammit – pieces]; suffix indicating ‘again’
k— prefix added to certain verbs beginning with a vowel to form a noun [kañaan – jealousy]
—kaay locative suffix; instrumental suffix
—kat suffix = —er [beykat – farmer]
—l final ‘l’ in negative often becomes ’t’ in Saalum speech. e.g. ‘baxul‘ becomes ‘baxut’
—le a verbal suffix, indicating simultaneous action, reciprocity, helping in, etc. [liggeeyle – to help in working]; to indicate that the person speaking experiences something happening to the object [reerle na paaka – he has a lost knife, i.e. he has lost a knife]; used to form demonstrative pronouns [fas wile – this horse here]
—oo a verbal suffix [delloo – to give back]
—oon, —woon indicator of past tense
—si suffix = come to do [jelsi – to come to take]
—te suffix — repetition of action [laajte – to question]
—tul negative suffix = no longer [soppatul – (he) no longer loves]
—ukaay suffix indicating an instrument or place
—ul, —ut suffix indicating the negative
—woon suffix indicating past [liwoon – what used to be]
—wu verbal suffix, indicating negative
—yi suffix indicating ‘go to…’, ‘go and…’
—ati a suffix indicating ‘again’, ‘still’ [jiwati – to show again]
—atu, —atul suffix indicating ‘no longer’ [ñowatul – it will notcome any more]
y— plural marker
—y indicator of incomplete action
—won, —woon suffix indicating completed action in the past
—lu reduplication + lu indicates ‘pretence’; make someone do for one [liggeeylu – make…work for oneself]
—adi a suffix implying diminution [lekkadi – to eat only a little]
—agul a suffix indicating ‘not yet’ [ñowagul – he has not yetcome]
g— form of the definite article (used with names of trees, etc.) e.g. garab gi
—loo a verbal suffix [baxloo – to make good]
—el, —eel suffix used to form ordinal numbers [nyaarel – second]; suffix used to form abstract nouns [nobel – to love]
—en, —enn core of the numeral ‘one’ [ken nit – one person]
—enen another [kenen – another (person)]
—ep, —ëp core of the word ‘all’ [yëp – all]
In Wolof, noun classes are indicated by circumfix.
More on Wolof affixes (prefixes & suffixes) here.
The following links will open in a new tab:
A Fixed Hierarchy for Wolof Verbal Affixes by Leston Buell and Mariame Sy (University of California)
For more on Wolof grammar click here.
Wolof Grammar (discussion board)
Subscribe to get access to downloads
A one-time donation gets you access to free downloads for this page. Suggested donation is $5 but you can donate as little or as much as you like. Currently only PDF versions of sections of this website are available with more content to be added soon.