Wolof Grammar: Definite Article

An article (abbreviated art.) is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are ‘the’ and ‘a/an’, and (in some contexts) ‘some’. – Wikipedia

In this post we will be dealing with the definite article. In English the definite article is ‘the’. In Wolof the definite article changes depending on the word type as well as the relation of the noun to the speaker. Definite articles indicate something specific or familiar to the listener. For example, if I was to say “the dog”, you would understand that I was talking about a particular dog. If I was to say “a dog” it could mean any dog.

In Wolof, the initial letter of the definite article varies:

bunta bi  –  the door
ganaar gi  –  the fowl
jigeen ji  –  the woman
nit ki  –  the person
nda li  –  the water pot
muus mi  –  the cat
suuf si  –  the earth
ween wi  –  the breast

Also note that the def. art. always follows the noun rather than precede it as in English.

The plural form of each def. art. is yi, with the exception of ki which is ñi.

xale yi  –  the children

Other than the plural form, there are three forms of the def. art. -i indicates nearness to the speaker, -a indicates distance from the speaker and -u is a relative form.

xale bi  –  the child (right here)
xale ba  –  the child (over there)

xale bu bon  –  the bad child (the child who is bad)

The -i form is also sort of the default form. Use this form when unsure which form to use. Also, bi, is the most common def. art. Use this one when the def. art. is not known. You can also sometimes get away with using the def. art. whose first letter matches the first letter of the noun if there is one, for example, gennax gi.

These rules generally apply across the board but some regions, or even some individual speakers, may switch them around.

The following list is a description of each definite article and when they are used. The list is ordered in frequency of use from the most common to the least common.

b-

  • found with nearly all nouns beginning with b, except for the names of trees, which use g-.
  • most nouns relating to persons, except for nit ki and terms of relationship which use j-.
  • most words borrowed from French, English and Mandinka, etc.
  • the names of fruits.
  • many parts of the body.
  • where a verbal root and a noun have the same form the article is most commonly bi.

g-

  • used with many words beginning with g and k and all tree names.
  • if a word ends in ŋ there is a tendency to follow it with g-.

j-

  • used with many words beginning with j.
  • most words borrowed from Arabic.
  • many words involving kinship.

m-

  • found with some words beginning with m and some beginning with p. The latter were probably nasalized mp in old Wolof.
  • used primarily where the initial consonant is nasalized, mb, etc.
  • a number of liquids have the article m-.

w-

  • found with words beginning with a vowel, y, w and x.
  • most insects have the w- article.

l-

  • used with only a few words beginning with l but commonly with words beginning with nd, ng and c.

s-

  • used with fewer words beginning with s than might be expected.
  • powdery substances usually have the article s-.
  • s- is also a diminutive form, the initial consonant of the noun being changed – nd, ng, etc.

k-

  • rarely used except for nit ki.

In some cases the article changes the definition of the word.

ndaw si  –  the girlfriend
ndaw li  –  the messenger

doom ji  –  the child
doom bi  –  the fruit

The contents of this post is from my personal notes as well as a considerable portion from the research of anthropologist David P. Gamble.

 

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4 responses to “Wolof Grammar: Definite Article

    • Glad to be back! I finally have some time and motivation to get back to my Wolof studies as well as finishing up projects that I started years ago that hopefully I will be able to share soon, inch’Allah. By the way, I liked your post about translating the children’s books, I have it in my queue to be reblogged in the next few days, I hope you don’t mind.

  1. I am senegalese living in dakar and actually we do not use all these article, currently we use ” bi” for nearly every word (jiguen bi, muus bi). In dakar our wolof is pretty much simpler than in the villages.

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