Songhay languages

The Songhay or Songhai languages ([soŋaj] or [soŋoj]) are a group of closely related languages/dialects centred on the middle stretches of the Niger River in the West African countries of Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. In particular, they are spoken in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao. They have been widely used as a lingua franca in that region ever since the era of the Songhai Empire. In Mali, the government has officially adopted the dialect of Gao (east of Timbuktu) as the dialect to be used as a medium of primary education.[3]

Niger River valley
(Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria); scattered oases (Niger, Mali, Algeria)
Linguistic classificationNilo-Saharan?
  • Songhay–Saharan?[1]
    • Songhay
ISO 639-2 / 5son
Location of Songhay languages[2]

Northwest Songhay:


Eastern Songhay:


Some Songhay languages have little to no mutual intelligibility between each other. For example, Koyraboro Senni, spoken in Gao, is unintelligible to speakers of Zarma in Niger, according to Ethnologue. However, Songhay, Zarma, and Dendi have high mutual intelligibility within Niger.[4]

For linguists, a major point of interest in the Songhay languages has been the difficulty of determining their genetic affiliation; they are commonly taken to be Nilo-Saharan, as defined by Joseph Greenberg in 1963, but this classification remains controversial. Linguist Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family.[5] Roger Blench argues that the Songhay and Saharan languages form a Songhay-Saharan branch with each other within the wider Nilo-Saharan linguistic phylum.[1]

Historically, the name Songhay was neither an ethnic nor a linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhai Empire. Under the influence of French language usage, speakers in Mali have increasingly been adopting it as an ethnic self-designation;[6] however, other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves with other ethnic terms, such as Zarma (Djerma) or Isawaghen (Sawaq).

A few precolonial poems and letters composed in Songhay and written in the Arabic script exist in Timbuktu.[7] However, Songhay is currently written in the Latin script.


Percentage of Songhay speakers by population

  Zarma (77.3%)
  Koyraboro Senni (9.3%)
  Dendi (5.5%)
  Koyra Chiini (4.3%)
  Tadaksahak (2.2%)
  Others (1.4%)

Researchers classify the Songhay languages into two main branches; Southern and Northern.[8] Southern Songhay is centered on the Niger River. Zarma (Djerma), the most widely spoken Songhay language with two or three million speakers, is a major language of southwestern Niger (downriver from and south of Mali) including in the capital city, Niamey. Koyraboro Senni, with 400,000 speakers, is the language of the town of Gao, the seat of the old Songhai Empire. Koyra Chiini is spoken to its west. The much smaller Northern Songhay is a group of heavily Berber-influenced dialects spoken in the Sahara. Since the Berber influence extends beyond the lexicon into the inflectional morphology, the Northern Songhay languages are sometimes viewed as mixed languages.[9]

Genetic affiliation

Diedrich Hermann Westermann, a missionary and linguist, hesitated between assigning it to Gur or considering it an isolate, and Maurice Delafosse grouped it with Mande. At present, Songhay is normally considered to be Nilo-Saharan, following Joseph Greenberg's 1963 reclassification of African languages; Greenberg's argument is based on about 70 claimed cognates, including pronouns. This proposal has been developed further by, in particular, Lionel Bender, who sees it as an independent subfamily of Nilo-Saharan. Roger Blench notes that Songhay shares the defining singulative–plurative morphology typical of Nilo-Saharan languages. As of 2011, he believes that Songhay is closest to the neighboring Saharan languages and is not divergent.

However, a Nilo-Saharan classification is controversial. Greenberg's argument was subjected to serious criticism by Lacroix, who deemed only about 30 of Greenberg's claimed cognates acceptable, and moreover argued that these held mainly between Zarma and the Saharan languages, thus leading one to suspect them of being loanwords.[10] Certain Songhay–Mande similarities have long been observed (at least since Westermann), and Mukarovsky (1966), Denis Creissels (1981) and Nicolaï (1977, 1984) investigated the possibility of a Mande relationship; Creissels made some 50 comparisons, including many body parts and morphological suffixes (such as the causative in -endi), while Nicolaï claimed some 450 similar words as well as some conspicuous typological traits. However, Nicolaï eventually concluded that this approach was not adequate, and in 1990 proposed a distinctly novel hypothesis: that Songhay is a Berber-based creole language, restructured under Mande influence. In support of this he proposed 412 similarities, ranging all the way from basic vocabulary (tasa "liver") to obvious borrowings (anzad "violin", alkaadi "qadi".) Others, such as Gerrit Dimmendaal, were not convinced, and Nicolaï (2003) appears to consider the question of Songhay's origins still open, while arguing against Bender's proposed etymologies.

Greenberg's morphological similarities with Nilo-Saharan include the personal pronouns ai (cf. Zaghawa ai), 'I', ni (cf. Kanuri nyi), 'you (sg.)', yer (e.g. Kanuri -ye), 'we', wor (cf. Kanuri -wi), 'you (pl.)'; relative and adjective formants -ma (e.g. Kanuri -ma) and -ko (cf. Maba -ko), a plural suffix -an (?), a hypothetical plural suffix -r (cf. Teso -r) which he takes to appear in the pronouns yer and wor, intransitive/passive -a (cf. Teso -o).

The most striking of the Mande similarities listed by Creissels are the third person pronouns a sg. (pan-Mande a), i pl. (pan-Mande i or e), the demonstratives wo "this" (cf. Manding o, wo) and no "there" (cf. Soninke no, other Mande na), the negative na (found in a couple of Manding dialects) and negative perfect mana (cf. Manding , máŋ), the subjunctive ma (cf. Manding máa), the copula ti (cf. Bisa ti, Manding de/le), the verbal connective ka (cf. Manding ), the suffixes -ri (resultative - cf. Mandinka -ri, Bambara -li process nouns), -ncè (ethnonymic, cf. Soninke -nke, Mandinka -nka), -anta (ordinal, cf. Soninke -ndi, Mandinka -njaŋ...), -anta (resultative participle, cf. Soninke -nte), -endi (causative, cf. Soninke, Mandinka -ndi), and the postposition ra "in" (cf. Manding , Soso ra...)

The Songhay languages are considered to be an independent family by Dimmendaal (2011), although he classifies Saharan as part of Nilo-Saharan.[11]


Songhay is mostly a tonal, SOV group of languages, an exception being the divergent Koyra Chiini of Timbuktu, which is non-tonal and uses SVO order.

Songhay has a morpheme -ndi which marks either the causative or the agentless passive. Verbs can even take two instances of the morpheme, one for each meaning. Thus ŋa-ndi-ndi figuratively translates to "[the rice] was made to be eaten [by someone: causee] [by someone: causer]".[12]

Reconstruction of Proto-Songhay

Reconstruction ofSonghay languages

Here are some Proto-Songhay reconstructions:[1]

scorpion, mosquito*(n)děŋ
stone, mountain*tóndì
year*gí:rí; *mán(n)à

Some Proto-Eastern Songhay reconstructions are:[1]

GlossProto-Eastern Songhay
thatch hut*bùgù
armpit, wing*fátá
mason wasp*bímbín(í)


Comparison of numerals in individual languages:[13]

Tadaksahaka-ˈfːo / a-ˈfːoo-dahiŋˈkakaːˈrˤad < Tamasheqaˈkːoːz < Tamasheqʃaˈmːuʃ < Tamasheqʃaːˈdˤiʃ < Tamasheqiˈʃːa < Tamasheqiˈtˤːam < Tamasheqtˤaːˈsˤa < Tamasheqmaːˈrˤa < Tamasheq
Tasawaqfó / a-fːóhínká / à-hínkáhínzà / à-hínzàtáásì / à-tːáásìxámsà < Arabicsítːà < Arabicsábàɣà < Arabictàmáníyà < Arabictísàɣà < Arabicɣàsárà < Arabic
Dendiafɔhayinka / ahinkaahinzaatakiaɡuayiduayiye / ahiyeayiyakuayiɡaaweyi
Koyraboro Senniaffooihinkaihinzaitaatʃiiɡɡuuidduuiyyeiyaahaiyaɡɡaiwoy
Koyra Chiinifoo / a-foohiŋkahindʒataatʃiɡuuidduiiyeyaahayaɡɡawoy / wey


  • Dimmendaal, Gerrit. 2008. Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent. Language and Linguistics Compass 2(5): 843ff.
  • Dupuis-Yakouba, Auguste. 1917. Essai pratique de méthode pour l'étude de la langue songoï ou songaï [...]. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
  • Hunwick, John O.; Alida Jay Boye. 2008. The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu. Thames & Hudson.
  • Nicolaï, Robert. 1981. Les dialectes du songhay: contribution à l'étude des changements linguistiques. Paris: SELAF. 302 pp.
  • Nicolaï, Robert & Petr Zima. 1997. Songhay. LINCOM-Europa. 52 pp.
  • Prost, R.P.A. [André]. 1956. La langue sonay et ses dialectes. Dakar: IFAN. Series: Mémoires de l'Institut Français d'Afrique Noire; 47. 627 pp.

Publisher and publication abbreviations:

On genetic affiliation

  • Bender, M. Lionel. 1996. The Nilo-Saharan Languages: A Comparative Essay. München: LINCOM-Europa. 253 pp
  • Roger Blench and Colleen Ahland, "The Classification of Gumuz and Koman Languages", presented at the Language Isolates in Africa workshop, Lyons, December 4, 2010
  • D. Creissels. 1981. "De la possibilité de rapprochements entre le songhay et les langues Niger–Congo (en particulier Mandé)." In Th. Schadeberg, M. L. Bender, eds., Nilo-Saharan : Proceedings of the First Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium, Leiden, September 8–10, pp. 185–199. Foris Publications.
  • Greenberg, Joseph, 1963. The Languages of Africa (International Journal of American Linguistics 29.1). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Lacroix, Pierre-Francis. 1971. "L'ensemble songhay-jerma: problèmes et thèmes de travail". In Acte du 8ème Congrès de la SLAO (Société Linguistique de l’Afrique Occidentale), Série H, Fasicule hors série, 87–100. Abidjan: Annales de l’Université d’Abidjan.
  • Mukarovsky, H. G. 1966. "Zur Stellung der Mandesprachen". Anthropos, 61:679-88.
  • Nicolaï, Robert. 1977. "Sur l'appartenance du songhay". Annales de la faculté des lettres de Nice, 28:129-145.
  • Nicolaï, Robert. 1984. Préliminaires à une étude sur l'origine du songhay: matériaux, problématique et hypothèses, Berlin: D. Reimer. Series: Marburger Studien zur Afrika- und Asienkunde. Serie A, Afrika; 37. 163 pp
  • Nicolaï, Robert. 1990. Parentés linguistiques (à propos du songhay). Paris: CNRS. 209 pp
  • Nicolaï, Robert. 2003. La force des choses ou l'épreuve 'nilo-saharienne': questions sur les reconstructions archéologiques et l'évolution des langues. SUGIA - Supplement 13. Köln: Köppe. 577 pp


  1. Blench, Roger & Lameen Souag. m.s. Saharan and Songhay form a branch of Nilo-Saharan.
  2. This map is based on classification from Glottolog and data from Ethnologue.
  3. Heath 2005
  4. Ethnologue report for Niger
  5. Dimmendaal, Gerrit (18 September 2008). "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent". Language and Linguistics Compass 2/5: 840–858. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00085.x.
  6. Heath 1999:2
  7. Hunwick and Boye 2008: ____
  8. A map of the varieties is provided by Ethnologue at its Web site. See the list of External Links.
  9. SIL Working Papers on Songhay
  10. Lacroix 1969: 91–92
  11. Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. (2011). Historical Linguistics and the Comparative Study of African Languages. John Benjamins. ISBN 978-90-272-8722-9.
  12. Shopen, T. & Konaré, M. 1970. "Sonrai Causatives and Passives: Transformational versus Lexical Derivations for Propositional Heads", Studies in African Linguistics 1.211–54. Cited in Dixon, R.M.W. (2000). "A Typology of Causatives: Form, Syntax, and Meaning". In Dixon, R.M.W. & Aikhenvald, Alexendra Y. Changing Valency: Case Studies in Transitivity. Cambridge University Press. pp. 31.
  13. Chan, Eugene (2019). "The Nilo-Saharan Language Phylum". Numeral Systems of the World's Languages.
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