Wolof Language Profile

Language Identification: ISO 639-3 wol (Wolof), ISO 639-3 wof (Gambian Wolof)

Other Names: Surwa (in Mandinka) and Jolfeh (in Fula).

Local name: Wolof

Pronunciation: [wᴐlof]

Region: Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Mauritania

Ethnic Population: Wolof

Wolof users: more than 10 million people

Language family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Atlantic, Senegambian, Fula-Wolof.

Early forms: Ouolof, Gambian Wollof, Jolof, Jollof.

Language Status: Wolof is one of the country’s national languages in Senegal (along with, Jóola-Fonyi, Mandinka, Pulaar, Serer-Sine and Soninke). Wolof is also the language of the third largest ethnic group in The Gambia.

Dialects: There are two major geographical varieties of Wolof mutually intelligible with some differences: one spoken in Senegal, and the other spoken in The Gambia. Within Senegal there are five dialects: Baol, Kajoor, Jolof, Lebu and Jandeer. In addition, there are differences between the Wolof spoken in urban areas as compared to that spoken in rural regions. 

Typology: The basic word order of Wolof is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object). If the direct object constitutes the topic of a sentence, it precedes all other sentence constituents.

Writing system: Latin (Wolof alphabet) or Arabic (Wolofal).



The Wolof Empire was a state on the coast of West Africa, located between the Senegal and Gambia rivers, which thrived from the mid-14th to mid-16th century CE. The empire prospered on trade thanks to the two rivers providing access to the resources of the African interior and coastal traffic commerce that was often carried out with European merchants, notably the Portuguese and then the French. Following the break-up of the Wolof Empire in the 16th century CE, a smaller state persisted, the Wolof Kingdom, into the 19th century CE.

Geographical distribution:

Wolof is spoken by more than 10 million people; about 40 percent (approximately 5 million people) of Senegal’s population speaks Wolof as first language. Increased mobility, and especially the growth of the capital Dakar, created the need for a common language; furthermore, the raising of popularity of the Muridiyya brotherhood in the ‘80s, which used Wolof since the beginning as language for propaganda, gave a definitive contribution to the diffusion of this language. Today, an additional 40 percent of the population speaks Wolof as a second or acquired language. In the whole region from Dakar to Saint-Louis, and also west and southwest of Kaolack, Wolof is spoken by the vast majority of the people. Typically when various ethnic groups in Senegal come together in cities and towns, they speak Wolof. It is therefore spoken in almost every regional and departmental capital in Senegal.

In The Gambia, although about 20–25 percent of the population speaks Wolof as a first language, it has a disproportionate influence because of its prevalence in Banjul, the Gambian capital, where 75 percent of the population uses it as a first language. In Serekunda, The Gambia’s largest town, approximately 70 percent of the population speaks or understands Wolof.

In Mauritania, about seven percent of the population (approximately 185,000 people) speaks Wolof. Most live near or along the Senegal River that Mauritania shares with Senegal.

The Wolof alphabet:

Before the colonization of Senegal, efforts were made to write the language using the Arabic script called Wolofal. A big part of the literature has been written in Wolofal. Some segments of the population, particularly older people in Senegal, still use the Arabic script today.

The Latin script started being used in the 15th century to record literary works and the oral traditions of the Wolof people. Wolof orthography uses the Latin alphabet which was standardized between 1971 and 1985. The Wolof alphabet counts 28 basic graphemes (vowels with acute stress and umlaut are generally considered as separate letters):

A A a  À à  B b  C c  D d  E e  É é
Ë  ë F f G g I i J j K k L l
M m N n Ñ ñ Ŋ ŋ O o Ó ó P p
R r S s T t U u W w X x Y y



Wolof has 9 vowel phonemes. Vowels can be long or short and the length makes a difference in word meaning. Length is represented by double vowel letters in writing. Orthographic representation of the vowels is given in parentheses.

Front Central Back
Close i (i) u (u)
Close-mid e (é) ə (ë) o (ó)
Mid ε (e) ɔ (o)
Open a (a) xxɑ (a)
  • /ε/ = e in bet;
  • /ə/ = a in about;
  • /ɔ/ = o in bog;
  • /ɑ/ = a in bra.


Bilabial Labio-dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular
Stops voiceless
p (p) xx t (t) k (k) q (q)


ᵐp (mp) xx ⁿt (nt) ᵑk (nk) ᵑq (nq)
voiced plain b (b) x d (d) g (g) x
ᵐb (mb) xx ⁿd (nd) ᵑg (ng) xxx
Fricatives voiceless f (f) s (s) x (x) x
Affricates voiceless plain x x x c (c) x x
voiceless prenasalized x x ⁿc (nc) xx xx
voiced plain x x x ɟ (j) x x


x x x ⁿɟ (nj) x x
Nasals xx m (m) n (n) ɲ (ñ) ŋ (ŋ) xx
Laterals xx l (l) xx xx xx
Flap x xx xx r (r) xx xxx xxx
Semivowels xx w (w) xx xx j (y) xx

Wolof has 29 consonant phonemes, sounds that distinguish word meaning. Most Wolof consonants can be doubled. In the table of Wolof consonant phonemes below, the letters in parentheses represent their spelling. Wolof syllables end in a vowel or in a nasal or lateral consonant.

  • /ᵐp, ᵐb, ⁿt, ⁿd, ᵑk, ᵑg, ᵑq, ⁿc, ⁿɟ/ are prenasalized consonants consisting of a nasal plus a stop which are produced together as a single phonological unit;
  • /q/ has no equivalent in English. It is normally pronounced like the Arabic consonant qāf, that is similar to a k sound that is made putting the tongue in contact with the uvula; an alternate pronunciation is as for the Wolof letter x (see below), but in its geminate version.
  • /x/ = ch in Scottish loch;
  • /c/ = like the t in two;
  • /ɟ/ = the voiced counterpart of c, pronounced like the second d in the expression did you;
  • /ɲ/ = second n in canyon; like the Spanish ñ
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song;
  • /j/ = y in yet.



Unlike many other Niger-Congo languages, Wolof does not have tones. Stress by itself does not differentiate word meaning. Nevertheless, Wolof syllables differ in intensity.

Wolof Numbers

Cardinal numbers

The Wolof numeral system is based on the numbers “5” and “10”. It is extremely regular in formation, comparable to Chinese.

0     tus / neen / sero  (from French)/ dara [“nothing”]
1 benn
2 ñaar
3 ñett
4 ñent
5 juróom
6 juróom-benn
7 juróom-ñaar
8 juróom-ñett
9 juróom-ñent
10 fukk
11 fukk ak benn
12 fukk ak ñaar
13 fukk ak ñett
14 fukk ak ñent
15 fukk ak juróom
16 fukk ak juróom-benn
17 fukk ak juróom-ñaar
18 fukk ak juróom-ñett
19 fukk ak juróom-ñent
20 ñaar-fukk

The numeral “one” takes as initial consonant that of the class of the name to which it refers: tree: garab g- → one tree: genn garab; horse: fas w- → one horse: wenn fas.

The others are invariable, including those where “one” appears as a component. For example: “six” is juróom-benn, literally “five (juróom) and one (benn)” and remains so for each class of names.

If the numbers (except one) precede a noun they take a final -i:

two “ñaar” → two horses “ñaari fas”.

In the numbers where the conjunction “ak” appears, the -i and the noun follow the first part of the numeral:

twenty-two: ñaar-fukk ak ñaar → twenty-two horses: ñaar-fukki fas ak ñaar (lit. twenty horses and two).


Wolof is characterized by consonant mutation. It has a considerably simplified system of nominal classes. The verb is very simple and is conjugated employing a number of lexical words, (generally called “temporal pronouns”), which can precede or follow the verb stem. The position of the other elements of the verbal syntagma (object pronouns, aspect markers, etc.) is related to that of the temporal pronoun.

Wolof has many suffixes (mostly derivational) and prefixes. Noun count eight singular classes (each one represented by a consonant that is employed to form all the class-related morphemes: b, g, j, k, l, m, w, s) and two plural ones (y and ñ classes). Nouns do not usually undergo morphological change in plural form, but shift their agreement to a plural class. The construction of the genitive is direct (AB) but reinforced by determinants. The numbering system is quinary.


The singular and plural of nouns in a sentence is identified with the articles, the demonstrative and indefinite pronouns or the question words referring to them. each of these particles has a specific position either before or after the noun. Hence, the noun is invariable but the article instead is polymorphic.


There are six types of pronouns: demonstrative pronouns, possessive pronouns, indefinite pronouns, interrogative pronouns, relative pronouns, personal pronouns.


There is no specific grammatical category for adjectives: at their place verbs are used, that describe qualities or states. For example, the so-called adjective baax “good” is actually a verb which means “to be good”.

Adjectives in attributive positions, therefore, are translated employing these verbs in relative clauses: téere bu baax, “a good book”, is literally “a book that is good” (in this expression bu is the relative pronoun of class b-).


Verbs are unchangeable stems that cannot be conjugated. To express different tenses or aspects of an action, personal pronouns are conjugated at their place. In Wolof, tenses like present tense, past tense, and future tense are just of secondary importance. 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 finished, or 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.

Wolof has two main verb classes: dynamic and stative (which includes also adjectives).

Verbs are divided into three voices: active verbs, transitive verbs and passive verbs.

In Wolof there are five auxiliary verbs which are essential for communicating and each has a specific use.

The simple negation of the verb to be is formed by adding the suffix -u(l) to the verbal root or to the flexional elements, depending on the tense.

Adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions

Adverbs are generally formed by using an adjectival verb together with a relative pronoun fixed in class b- or l-: for example, bu bare could mean either “good” (referred to a noun of class b) or “well”.

Simple prepositions are really few. Ci/ca “in, at; to” is the most used one, indicating location in any sense; the variant ci is used for objects close to the speaker, while ca refers to far elements.

Several other particles work both as prepositions and conjunctions: the most important one is ak, that, besides being a conjunction meaning “and, also”, is used as preposition with the value of “with, by”. Another particle that can be used both as preposition and conjunction is ngir “because, because of; for, in order to”.

Among the particles that are exclusively conjunctions one can mention waaye “but”, au, am “or” and te “and, then”; differently from ak, te connects with each other verbs (including those with the meaning of adjectives) and clauses, but not nouns.

See, for example, the sentence Omar ak Sàmba dañu xiif te mar “Omar and Sàmba are hungry and thirsty”, where ak connects the two proper nouns Omar and Sàmba, while te links together the two verbs xiif “to be hungry” and mar “to be thirsty”.