Songhay languages                                                                                   back to home page           

The languages of the Songhay family are the following. Indented names denote varieties that are, or could be considered to be, offshoots or dialects of the language above them. Chiini and Senni (and variants) mean ‘talk (n), language’. † = extinct.

                                                                                                                                                         Glottolog        ISO-636-3
a. western
         Koyra Chiini                                                                                                                   koyr1240      khq
                  Djenné Chiini

b. eastern
         Koyraboro Senni (or Koroboro Senni)                                                        koyr1242      ses
                  Fulankirya Senni
         Humburi Senni                                                                                                             humb1243    hmb
         Tondi Songway Kiini (TSK)                                                                                  tond1249       tst
         Zarma group, contains the following languages/dialects:               zarm1239      dje
                  Kaado (or Songhay-Kaado)
                  Dendi (riverine only, near Nigeria border)
         Dendi (urban), consists of                                                                                     dend1243      ddn
                  Dendi of Djougou city
                  Dendi of Kandi city

c. northern
         Tadaksahak                                                                                                                    tada1238        dsq
         Tasawaq                                                                                                                           tasa1240        twq
         Tagdal & Tabarog                                                                                                       tagd1238        tda
         Kwarandzyey (~ Korandje)                                                                                kora1291       kcy
          †Emghedesie                                                                                                                —                        —
Western and northern Songhay are S-infl-V-X (X includes objects). Eastern Songhay is generally a mix of S-infl-O-V-X (for canonical transitives (‘make’, ‘hit’, ‘cut’, etc.) alongside S-infl-V-X (X includes objects) for non-impact transitives (‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘have’, ‘obtain’, etc.). The exception is that TSK is strictly S-infl-O-V-X, so that the non-impact transitives have merged syntactically with the canonical transitive type (possibly under Dogon or Bozo influence). When S and O threaten to be adjacent (i.e. in S-infl-O-V-X when “infl” is the zero perfective positive indicative), a bidirectional case marker such as na is inserted between them.

The Songhay family is therefore remarkable in having both strict SVO (weatern/northern), strict SOV (TSK), and mixed SVO/SOV (most eastern) languages,. Yet all signs point to a relatively recent breakup (a few hundred years). Most basic vocabulary is cognate across western and eastern, and the cognates show only minor phonological divergences. The eastern mixed SVO/SOV type is likely archaic (Proto-Songhay), since neither its bidirectional case marker (in the SOV construction) nor its 3Sg/3Pl object suffixes (in the SVO construction) appear to be recent innovations.

Since S-(infl)-O-V-X is the standard pattern in Mande languages, it’s a good bet that Proto-Songhay reflects language shift from some form of Mande to an overlaid non-Mande language that brought its basic vocabulary with it. However, we do not know where this overlaid language came from. One view is that it was a stray Nilo-Saharan language, but a convincing demonstration of this has not yet been given.

Geographically, Koyra Chiini, Koyraboro Senni, and Zarma-Kaado (all varieties) are riverine or subriverine. Those in Mali are on or (like Timbuktu) very close to the Niger River. Those in Niger fan out somewhat in both directions from the river. Djenné Chiini, Fulankirya Senni, and urban Dendi are Songhay pockets or enclaves in towns or villages well south of the river. Humburi Senni and TSK are montane, in inselbergs well south of the river. Northern Songhay varieties are spoken in oases and mountainous areas well north of the river, in Mali, Niger, and in one case western Algeria. Fulankirya and some northern Songhay are partially nomadic. Northern Songhay languages are deeply imbued with Tuareg vocabulary and correlated phonotactics. Fulankirya are ethnically Fulbe. Some of the main riverine languages (Koyra Chiini, Koyraboro Senni, Zarma) have absorbed some populations of other ethnicities (Fulbe, Soninke, Bozo).

I have worked on Malian Songhay languages (western, eastern from Koyraboro Senni down to TSK, and briefly Tadaksahak in northern Songhay), plus brief work in Niger and Benin.

      @2015        Dictionary, Humburi Senni (Songhay of Hombori, Mali) - English - French. Language Description Heritage Library. Electronic publication.
                                    DOI: 10.17617/2.2249192
      @2014        A grammar of Humburi Senni (Songhay, Mali). Language Description Heritage Library. Electronic publication.
      2005a          Tondi Songway Kiini (montane Songhay, Mali): Reference grammar and TSK-English-French Dictionary. CSLI (distributed by University of Chicago Press).
                                    ISBN 157586505X
      1999            Grammar of Koyraboro (Koroboro) Senni (Songhay of Gao). Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
                                    ISBN 978-3-89645-106-4
      1998a          A Grammar of Koyra Chiini, the Songhay of Timbuktu. Mouton de Gruyter (Mouton Grammar Series). pp. xv, 453.
                                    ISBN 978-3-11-080485-0
      1998b         Texts in Koyra Chiini (Songhay of Timbuktu, Mali.) (Wortkunst und Dokumentartexte in afrikanischen Sprachen, 5.) Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. pp. viii, 389. [facing English translations; includes material from Timbuktu, Niafunké, and Djenné]
                                    ISBN 978-3-89645-260-3
      1998c          Texts in Koroboro Senni (Songhay of Gao, Mali). (Wortkunst und Dokumentartexte in afrikanischen Sprachen, 6.) Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. pp. viii, 283. [facing English translations; includes material from Gao and Bamba]
                                    ISBN 978-3-89645-261-0
      1998d-f       Dictionnaire Songhay-Anglais-Français – Songhay-English-French Dictionary.  Paris: l’Harmattan
                           vol 1: Koyra Chiini. Pp. 264
                                    ISBN 2-7384-6726-1
                           vol. 2: Djenné Chiini. Pp. 202
                                    ISBN 2-7384-6727-X
                           vol. 3: Koroboro Senni. Pp. 344
                                    ISBN 2-7384-6728-8

      *2007b        Bidirectional case-marking and linear adjacency. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 25:83-101.
      *2011a        Innovation of head-marking in Humburi Senni (Songhay, Mali). Diachronica 28(1):1-24.
      2011b         Le songhay. In: Emilio Bonvini, Joelle Busuttil & Alain Peyraube (eds.), Dictionnaire des langues, pp. 190-6. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

I have unpublished notes (mostly lexical) on Tadaksahak, Dendi, and dialects  of Songhay-Kaado spoken in Ayorou and Tilabéri upriver from Niamey. My work on Tadaksahak is largely superceded by the grammar by Regula Christiansen-Bolli. Important work on other northern Songhay varieties has been done by Lameen Souag, Maarten Kossmann, Alimata Sidibé, and Carlos Benitez-Torres.

[last update Oct 2017]

back to home page