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Number of Speakers: 12 to 15 million

Key Dialects: Western, Eastern

Geographical Center: West Africa, between the 7° and 17° North from Senegal to Chad

Fula represents a dialect continuum whose speakers are spread over large areas of West Africa. However, most Fula speakers are concentrated in northern and eastern Nigeria.

Fula is a member of the West Atlantic subgroup of the Niger-Congo group of the Niger Kordofanian family. The languages most closely related to Fula are Wolof and Sereer.

Given the vast area over which it is spoken, there are many dialects of Fula. However, all dialects are mutually intelligible, with most differences being lexical.

In accordance with the 1966 Bamako conference on orthographic standardization in West Africa, Fula is officially written in a Latin script with the addition of five special characters. For the most part, the correspondence between symbols and sounds is predictable on the basis of a working knowledge of English orthography. However, as in the writing system of any language, certain idiosyncrasies obtain. Geminate consonants and long vowels are written with doubled symbols as in many languages.

The Arabic writing system known as Ajami was historically used to write Fula and is still used in certain Fula speaking regions such as Guinea.

Fula has a seven-vowel system, with vowel harmony operative. Unlike most languages of the Niger-Congo group, Fula is not a tone language.

Fula has an elaborate noun class system. Although it varies across dialects, Fula has approximately 25 noun classes. Each noun class marker may appear in four distinct forms called “grades”. The Grade A is a shortened form. In Grade B, the class marker is a continuant (i.e. a consonant produced with an incomplete closure of the vocal tract). In Grade C, the class marker is a non-continuant, while in Grade D, the marker is prenasalized (provided that the class consonant is one which can be nasalized). Adjectives agree with the nouns they modify and use the same Grade as the head noun.

The initial consonants of nouns, verbs, and adjectives may undergo alternations sometimes referred to as consonant mutations. These changes are predictable according to the item’s morpho-syntactic environment. A common consonant mutation process causes initial consonants to become stops. A second typical process induces the prenasalization of a consonant.

The basic word order of Fula is SVO, but this can be altered by emphasis and focus. Fula has an aspectual system based on perfective and imperfective verbs. Both subject pronouns and personal pronouns occur in two forms; a short form used in perfective clauses and a long form is found in imperfective clauses. There are three voices in Fula: active, middle, and passive. There are three negative suffixes that vary with voice.

Fula is recognized as an official language in nine countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Gambia. In these countries, some degree of Fula language and literacy education is instituted at the primary school level. In many of the countries where Fula has official status, it is used as a trade language, as well as in local administration, religious services, and mass media (i.e. radio broadcast).

It is believed that the Fula migrated in waves from west to east Africa over a period of the last 1000 years. Over the course of the 19th century, the Fula established a centralized empire over a wide expanse of northern and central Africa. In 1903, however, this empire was broken up by European colonizers. The original Fula homeland is located in what is now eastern Senegal or western Mali.

Arnott, D.W. 1970. On the Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula. London: Oxford Unversity Press.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Paradis, Carole. 1992. Lexical Phonology and Morphology: The Nominal Classes in Fula. New York: Garland Publishing.

Sylla, Yero. 1982. Grammaire moderne du Pulaar. Dakar: Les novelles editions africaines.

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