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Wolof Language, Its Structure and Use Research Paper

Africa is a continent that is not only considered to be the second-largest in the world, but also one that has a variety of languages and cultures that are unique and quite distinct from one another. Of particular interest is the Wolof language widely spoken in The Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal (Campbell 41). This particular language also happens to be the native language of the Wolof people and belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo language family (Gittens 13). What makes it rather distinct from other Sub-Saharan African languages is that Wolof language is not considered to be a tonal language. There are generally two types of Wolof, that is, Gambian Wolof spoken mainly by the Gambian people and the Senegal Wolof, which is the standard form of the language (Newman & Ratliff 100).

Spoken by about 4.6 million individuals as the native language, Wolof language is also the national language for Senegal nation. The Wolof individuals tend to consist of more than one-third of Senegal’s population, where they have also been the dominant group in the region for many years (McLaughlin 52). Their rich culture is mainly marked by their hospitality as well as the willingness to welcome those considered outsiders. In the 21st Century, the Wolof culture has also welcomed Muslim religion, and it is surprising to learn that a century of Christian mission effort has borne little fruit, as there are only a few Wolof Christians (Finegan 75).


Majority of Westerners tend to be equal in terms of language and politeness or how they relate to one another, male and female. In Senegal and particularly the Wolof people, how males and females relate is quite different. Phonetic differences, according to language experts, are seen as the most obvious measures of sexual identity (Adegbija 60). Also, education has been identified as one of the key factors that tend to influence the distinction in Wolof language in Senegal. Where equal educational opportunities have been provided, it has been observed that Wolof women tend to be more sensitive as compared to those in the status norms of the language (Campbell 42).

Further observations regarding the distinction between the way Wolof males and females communicate were restricted to grammatical characteristics, for instance, the distinction found existing between masculine and feminine morphology in various languages (Gittens 17). An important grammatical characteristic that has been identified in the Wolof language is politeness. It is not surprising to realize that Wolof women are said to be more polite in their speeches as compared to their Wolof men counterparts.

Women in this particular community also utilize more polite speech, usually characterized by a high frequency of honorific (Newman & Ratliff 102). The use of honorific consists of words such as ‘could’ and ‘would’ as an indication of respect to the individuals they are communicating with. It is common to witness the majority of American women, particularly of the African American community, using strong expletives such as shit or damn (McLaughlin 54). However, this is not witnessed with Wolof women as it would not only be considered inappropriate, but also impolite. Politeness in Wolof language usually goes hand in hand with rhetorical devices, where words are utilized in a particular manner to convey meaning or to try and persuade an individual (Finegan 79). This technique also evokes certain emotion on the part of the individual being communicated to.

Similar to other African languages and cultures, it is a proven fact that the Wolof love proverbs (Adegbija 62). Today’s generations can learn a lot from the Wolof language, particularly in the areas of community and relationships. In Wolof, proverbs are considered the most effective tools for teaching as well as resolving numerous issues in relationships (Campbell 43). It is also easier to communicate in Wolof through proverbs than addressing an issue directly, as one can easily recall the advice contained in the former than in the latter. An example of commonly used proverbs includes, ‘A man is measured by what he does, not what he says,’ meaning that actions tend to speak much louder than words (Gittens 19).

Another common proverb usually directed at those who are proud is, ‘Someone with a tongue will not get lost,’ meaning that one should always ask when they do not possess the knowledge (Newman & Ratliff 104). Proverbs as well as saying are an important part of the Wolof language and tend to encourage people to pay more attention so that they can learn not to repeat the same mistakes their ancestors made.

The Wolof language is strikingly similar to the Chinese language in several ways, for instance, the fact that both happen to be widely spoken by the natives as well as several other neighboring nations (McLaughlin 56). Both also possess two distinct dialects; Wolof can either be Senegal Wolof or The Gambian Wolof while Chinese can either be Mandarin or Cantonese (Finegan 83). It is a fact that more individuals tend to speak a variety of Chinese as a native language as compared to any other language around the world. Similarly, Wolof language is also widely spoken in various countries such as France, Mauritania, Mali, and Guinea-Bissau (Adegbija 64).

Another similarity that can be observed in the Chinese and Wolof languages is the fact that unlike Western languages, these two languages are simple because they lack any form of verb conjugation (Campbell 44). This means that the verb does not change and thus, any difference in mood and tense are normally indicated using grammatical marker words (Gittens 21). Also, both Chinese and Wolof languages end in consonants, where the majority of them can also be doubled. Despite these few similarities that exist between the Wolof language and the Chinese language, there are several differences that also exist between these two. The differences can be seen in the characteristics that these two distinct languages possess.

As it had been earlier mentioned, one major difference that can be found between Chinese language and Wolof language is the fact that the former is tonal while the latter is non-tonal (Newman & Ratliff 106). This means that in the Chinese language, the meaning of a particular sound is capable of transforming depending on its intonation. An example is found in Mandrin which has four tones and an extra one considered to be rather neutral, whereby the sound ‘ma’ can possess different meanings depending on the kind of tone used to pronounce it (McLaughlin 58). On the other hand, Wolof language does not contain tones, and therefore, stress by itself tends not to distinguish word meaning. However, Wolof syllables are different in terms of intensity; for example, long vowels are usually pronounced with more intensity as compared to short ones (Finegan 87).

Another key difference between the Chinese language and the Wolof language can be found in their writing. Long before Senegal became colonized, efforts were being made to record the language while utilizing the Arabic script referred to, at that time, as Wolofal (Adegbija 66). Even though the Latin script came into use from the 15th Century particularly in recorded literary works and oral traditions of the Wolof people, some parts of the population, especially the elderly in Senegal, still use Arabic scripts today (Campbell 45). Wolof orthography tends to use the Roman alphabet, standardized in the year 1974 (Gittens 23).

On the other hand, nearly all languages in the Chinese language are written using similar characters. There are also two distinct systems for writing Chinese characters, that is, traditional characters and simplified characters (Newman & Ratliff 108). Traditional characters happen to be an older version of characters that have existed for many years and are still utilized in everyday life in Taiwan and Hong Kong (McLaughlin 60). Simplified characters are a contemporary reconstruction of the Chinese writing system that makes such characters less complicated and commonly used in mainland China (Finegan 91).


Numerous other similarities, as well as differences, can be observed between the Wolof language and other languages around the world. The fact that Wolof language is not a tonal language as compared to the majority of other Sub-Saharan African languages is perhaps what makes it rather unique and interesting. The origins of the Wolof language have not yet been established, though some linguistics tends to believe that the name itself originated from an area where the Jolof Empire was founded in the 14th Century. The onset of urbanization, inter-ethnic marriages as well as socio-economic integration contributed to the spread of Wolof language in the 20th Century.

Works Cited

Adegbija, Efurosibina E. Language Attitudes in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Sociolinguistic Overview. Multilingual Matters. 1994. Print.

Campbell, George. Compendum of the world’s languages. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge. 2000. Print.

Finegan, Edward. Language: Its Structure and Use. New York: Cengage Learning. 2008. Print.

Gittens, Angela D. Hands, Eyes, Butts and Thighs: Women’s Labor, Sexuality, and Movement Technique from Senegal through the Diaspora. New York: ProQuest. 2008. Print.

McLaughlin, Fiona. The Languages of Urban Africa. New York: Continuum. 2009. Print.

Newman, Paul and Ratliff, Martha. Linguistic Fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Print.

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"Wolof Language, Its Structure and Use." IvyPanda, 12 May 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/wolof-language-its-structure-and-use/.

1. IvyPanda. "Wolof Language, Its Structure and Use." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/wolof-language-its-structure-and-use/.


IvyPanda. "Wolof Language, Its Structure and Use." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/wolof-language-its-structure-and-use/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Wolof Language, Its Structure and Use." May 12, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/wolof-language-its-structure-and-use/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Wolof Language, Its Structure and Use'. 12 May.

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