Songhay languages

Songhay languages
middle Niger River (Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria); scattered oases (Niger, Mali, Algeria)
Linguistic classification: Nilo-Saharan?
  • Songhay
Koyra Chiini
Humburi Senni
Tondi Songway Kiini
Koyraboro Senni
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: son

The Songhay, Songhai, or Songai languages (pronounced [soŋaj], or [soŋoj] in the dialects of the cities of Timbuktu and Gao; the term Sonrai is also sometimes used) are a group of closely related languages/dialects centered on the middle stretches of the Niger River in the west African states of Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. They have been widely used as a lingua franca in that region ever since the era of the Songhay 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.[1]

As regards interintelligibility of Songhay languages, the dialect of Koyraboro Senni spoken in Gao is unintelligible to speakers of the Zarma dialect of Niger, according to at least one report.[2]

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, following Greenberg 1963, but this classification remains controversial, with little evidence to support it. Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family.[3]

The name Songhay is historically neither an ethnic nor a linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhay Empire. Under the influence of French language usage, speakers in Mali have increasingly been adopting it as an ethnic self-designation;[4] however, other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves with other ethnic terms, such as Zarma (Djerma) or Isawaghen.

A few precolonial poems and letters composed in Songhay and written in the Arabic alphabet are extant in Timbuktu.[5] However, in modern times Songhay is written in the Latin alphabet.


Dialect groupings and geographical distribution

Researchers classify the Songhay languages into two main branches, Southern and Northern.[6]

  • Southern Songhay is centered on the Niger River. The subclassification of this branch is problematic. Some researchers have provisionally classified it into Eastern and Western. But Heath 2005 described shortcomings of this model, and Nicolaï 1981 cautiously refrained from proposing to classify Southern Songhay into two or three divisions. The proposed western division contains Djenné Chiini and–most prominently–Koyra Chiini (KCh) (meaning "town language"[7]), which is the local language of the historically eminent university town of Timbuktu in Mali ('Tombouctou' in French). Koyra Chiini has about 200,000 speakers.[8] The proposed Eastern division contains the remaining Southern languages and dialects. Zarma (Djerma), the most widely spoken Songhay language with two million speakers as of 1998,[9] is a major language of southwestern Niger (downriver from and south of Mali) including in the capital city, Niamey. (As of 2009, an official Malian government population estimate for the Djerma people residing in Mali is 3,300,000.) Downriver from Zarma in the country of Benin is Dendi, heavily influenced by the neighboring Bariba language of the Niger–Congo family. Upriver from Zarma is Kaado, spoken northwards up to the border with Mali.[10] In Mali, Koyraboro Senni or Koroboro Senni (KS) (meaning "town dweller language"), with 400,000 speakers,[11] is the language of the town of Gao, the seat of the old Songhay Empire. Koyra Chiini is spoken to its west. Humburi Senni, classified by Nicolaï 1981 as "Central Southern Songhay", is spoken in a Songhay language enclave around Hombori, south of the Niger River's great bend. Another Eastern Southern dialect was discovered in 1998 in several villages about 120 km west of Hombori: its speakers call it Tondi Songway Kiini (TSK) (meaning "mountain Songhay language"). Among the Malian Songhay languages, TSK is the only one with lexical tones, and in several ways it seems to be the most conservatively evolved member.[1]
  • The much smaller Northern Songhay is a group of heavily Berber-influenced dialects spoken in the Sahara. The nomadic varieties include Tihishit in central Niger around Mazababou (with two sub-dialects, Tagdal and Tabarog) and Tadaksahak spoken around Ménaka northeast of Gao.[12] The sedentary varieties include Tasawaq in northern Niger (with two dialects, Ingelsi in In-Gall and the extinct Emghedeshie of Agadez) and Korandje far to the north, 150 km east of the AlgeriaMorocco border at Tabelbala. The main outside influence on all of these except on Korandje is the Tamasheq language cluster. Korandje appears to be influenced more by Northern Berber. Since the Berber influence extends beyond the lexicon into the inflectional morphology, the Northern Songhay languages are sometimes viewed as mixed languages (cf. Alidou & Wolff 2001).

Proposals on the genetic affiliation of Songhay

Westermann hesitated between assigning it to Gur or considering it an isolate, and 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.[citation needed] This proposal has been developed further by, in particular, Lionel Bender and Christopher Ehret; Bender sees it as an independent subfamily of Nilo-Saharan, while Ehret, based on 565 claimed cognates, regards it as most closely related to the Maban languages of western Sudan and eastern Chad.[citation needed] Roger Blench notes that Songhay shares the defining singulative–plurative morphology typical of Nilo-Saharan languages, though it is difficult to show that any of the branches of Nilo-Saharan are actually related. As of 2011, he believes that Songhay is closest to the Saharan languages, and not divergent.

However, a Nilo-Saharan classification is not uncontroversial. 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 neighboring Saharan languages, thus leading one to suspect them of being loanwords.[13] 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.[citation needed] 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 Ehret and Bender's proposed etymologies.[citation needed]

Greenberg's morphological similarities with Nilo-Saharan include the personal pronouns ai (cf. Zaghawa ai), 'I', ni (cf. Kanuri nyi), 'you (sg.)', yer (eg Kanuri -ye), 'we', wor (cf. Kanuri -wi), 'you (pl.)'; relative and adjective formants -ma (eg 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).[citation needed]

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...)[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Heath 2005
  2. ^ Ethnologue report for Niger
  3. ^ Dimmendaal 2008: __
  4. ^ Heath 1999:2
  5. ^ Hunwick and Boye 2008: ____
  6. ^ A map of the varieties is provided by Ethnologue at its Web site. See the list of External Links.
  7. ^ Heath 1999:1
  8. ^ Songhay, Koyra Chiini at Ethnologue
  9. ^ Ethnologue, Languages of Niger
  10. ^ Charles & Ducroz 1976
  11. ^ Songhay, Koyraboro Senni at Ethnologue
  12. ^ Heath 1999:xv
  13. ^ Lacroix 1969: 91–92

External links


Publisher and publication abbreviations:

  • Charles, M. C. & J. M. Ducroz. 1976. Lexique songay-français, parler kaado du Gorouol. Paris: Leroux.
  • 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.
  • Heath, Jeffrey. 1999. A grammar of Koyra Chiini: the Songhay of Timbuktu. Mouton de Gruyter. 453 pp
  • Heath, Jeffrey. 1999. A grammar of Koyraboro (Koroboro) Senni: the Songhay of Gao. Köln: Köppe. 402 pp
  • Heath, Jeffrey. 2005. Tondi Songway Kiini (Songhay, Mali): reference grammar and TSK-English-French dictionary. Stanford: CSLI. 440 pp
  • 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
  • Alidou, Husseina & Ekkehardt Wolff. 2001. "On the Non-Linear Ancestry of Tasawaq (Niger), or: How “Mixed” Can a Language Be?" in ed. Derek Nurse, Historical Language Contact in Africa, Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.

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",[1] 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.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 2001. A Historical-Comparative Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan. SUGIA - Supplement 12. Köln: Köppe. 663 pp
  • 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

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