Search for resources by:

Definitions of materials Definitions of levels
Exclude Websites
Advanced Search
Please note: Due to project funding termination in summer 2014, this database is no longer actively being maintained. We cannot guarantee the accuracy of the listings.


Wolof Citations   Wolof Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: Approximately 7,000,000

Key Dialects: Baol, Cayor, Dyolof (Djolof, Jolof), Lebou (Lebu), Jander

Geographical Center: Senegal

Wolof is spoken by 3,170,200 people in Senegal (1998) and 10,000 in Mauritania. There are about 3,215,000 or more first language speakers (1998) and the number increases to 7,000,000 speakers including those that speak it as a second language. Gambian Wolof with 146,650 speakers and Senegalese Wolof are mutally intelligible. Wolof is almost the exclusive language of the center and north-central-west part of Senegal, the western and central, left bank of Senegal River to Cape Vert. It is also spoken in Bas-Senegal, Saint Louis, Rosso, Podor, etc. In Gambia, it is spoken in the Western Division, on the south bank of the Gambia River and in the central area. People on the north bank of the river speak Senegalese Wolof. It is claimed to also be spoken in Mali. Finally, it is also spoken by groups in France, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Mauritania.

Wolof is most closely related to Fula and Seereer. These three languages form the “Senegambian” branch of the Northern subgroup of the (West) Atlantic branch of Atlantic-Congo itself ultimately a member of the Niger-Congo Family of 1419 languages mostly spoken in South-Central Africa.

Despite the considerable geographic spread of Wolof speakers, a certain discontinuity in the geographic area, and the growing number and dispersion of its speakers, the language is relatively unmarked by dialectal differences (compared to, for example, Seereer or Jola).

Some variations in Wolof are evident, in comparing the Wolof of urban inhabitants to the more conservative dialects spoken in the country-side. Furthermore, certain dialects of the language can be seen as forming three large dialect regions. These are the dialects of the center-north, the west and the south, while a further distinction can be made between the “central” dialects and the “peripheral” dialects. The Wolof spoken in Dakar, Senegal's capital, is particularly noted for its high level of French loans or derivative words and is readily distinguishable from the Wolof spoken in other parts of Senegal. The influence of English on the Wolof of the Gambia, a former English colony, has also been studied.

Wolof orthography uses the Roman alphabet. The letters: b, d, f, g, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, and w are pronounced very similarly to the way they are in English. The following consonants are exceptions: c: like ch in charge; or like k in kit. g: like g in garb, q: like k in kit, x: like ch in the Scottish loch, y: like y in yale. Double consonants are geminates and are pronounced for a period that roughly corresponds to double the time. The vowels are a, aa, e, ee, i, ii, o, oo, u, uu. The diphthongs are aay, aw, ey, uy, ow, and oy. Again double vowels are long vowels and their pronunciation lasts longer than that of single vowels.

In earlier stages an Arabic script was used to write the language. A big part of the literature has been written in these Arabic characters (Wolofal). Some segments of the population still use the Arabic script.

The basic word order of Wolof is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). When the direct object of the verb is focused then it precedes the other constituents followed by the particle ‘la’. There is an indefinite article, but it is not often used (especially in urban areas). Instead, the numeral ‘1’, benn, is substituted. Pronouns form a complicated part of Wolof speech, having numerous forms, including independent pronouns, subject and object clitic pronouns, possessives, demonstratives, modifiers, and wh/indefinite pronouns.

Wolof, together with other languages of the same group (i.e. Fula and Seereer-Siin) has a series of noun classes in which different qualities are indicated by the noun ending. The lack of class markers on the noun proper is one characteristic distinguishing Wolof from other North Atlantic Languages. Exceptions to this include cases of initial consonant mutation and the diminutive form (Mc Laughlin 1997). Instead, the class affiliation of a noun is typically on some element dependent on the noun, such as definite and indefinite articles, demonstratives, and relative and interrogative pronouns. Unlike some of the more familiar noun class languages, subject agreement on verbs does not vary according to the class of the noun. The Wolof system includes eight singular class markers (marked with, b, g, j, k, l, m, s, and w) and two plurals (marked with n, and y). There are also numerous types of particles in the language. Many emphatic particles occur following either the noun phrase or at the end of the sentence. Evidential particles occur clause-initially and generally reflect the speaker’s evaluation of the following sentence.

Wolof does not have adjectives and has only few adverbs of manner. Instead verbs and verb phrases are used to modify nouns and verbs. Adjectival verbs are members of the larger class of stative verbs, which are distinguished from non-stative or active verbs by allowing present reference in the na perfective form. Transitive verbs must always occur either with a full NP or a pronominal object but there are also specific constructions where transitive verbs can be used intransitively. Beyond the standard transitive verbs there are also classes of prepositional verbs, locative transitives, and complement transitives. Also common to West Atlantic languages are derivative verbal suffixes, used in Wolof to indicate various adverbial, locati distinctions. There are three voices in Wolof: active; semi-active; passive. The passive and semi-active are formed by adding the suffix -u. Questions can be indicated by using different intonation or by using question particles like ‘ndax’ which roughly means ‘is it the case that?’.

The official language of Senegal is French a language that is related to the country’s colonial history. The interaction between French and Wolof has been such that a great number of borrowings have entered the Wolof vocabulary. The relative dominance in the number of speakers in Senegal has led to attributing the status of “national languages” to Wolof, Sereer, Pulaar, Joola, Manding, and Soninke. However, none of these languages is taught in primary schools in the country. The Wolof language is the only true “vehicular language”, rapidly becoming the national vernacular of Senegal as more than 80% of the population use it. (Nelson et al. 1974: 81). Members of other ethnic groups are increasingly learning Wolof as a second language, especially in the urban areas.

It is not clear what exactly the origins of Wolof are. Some theories link the Wolof language to the Lebu, one of the main ethnic groups living in the banks of the Senegal River until the 11th century. The word Wolof may come from the area called ‘Lof’ in which the Jolof empire was established in the 14th century (waa Lof: literally ‘the people of Lof”). The original Jolof Empire was succeeded by several states, including Waalo, Jolof, Kajoor, and Saalum. Socioeconomic integration, urbanization, and interethnic marriages helped rapidly expand the language in the 20th century. During the period before the colonalization of Senegal, there were specific efforts to record the language using the Arabic script. From the 15th century the Latin script started being used in recording literary works and the oral traditions of the Wolof people.

Campbell, George (2000) Compendum of the World’s Languages, Second edition, Vol., II, London & New York: Routledge.

Comrie, B. (ed.) (1987) The World's Major Languages, New York: Oxford University Press.

Gamble, David (1991) Elementary Gambian Wolof Grammar, Gambian Studies 25, Brisbane, CA

Garry, Jane & Carl Rubino (eds.) (2001) Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present, New York & Dublin: The H. W. Wilson Company.

Grimes, B. F., (ed.) (1992) Ethnologue, Languages of the World, Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Munro, Pamela & Dieynaba Gaye (1997) Ay Baati Wolof: A Wolof Dictionary, Revised Edition, UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics, 19, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles.

Nelson, Harold D. (1974) Area handbook for Senegal, 2nd edition, Washington, D. C., U. S. Government Printing Office.

Ruhlen, M. (1987) A Guide to the World's Languages, London: Edward Arnold.

UCLA Wolof Web Site, Created by Joy Rowe, ttp://

Return to the list of language portals


 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

  • You may use and modify the material for any non-commercial purpose.
  • You must credit the UCLA Language Materials Project as the source.
  • If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

Creative Commons License