This site contains a description of the basic properties of the Songhay (Koyraboro Senni) language, spoken around the city of Gao in eastern Mali. The information on this site was collected from a single native speaker consultant by the students in a linguistic field methods course at New York University in the spring of 2013.

Verb phrase word order

The basic word order of Gao verb phrases is SOV. If there is an aspect marker in the sentence, it shows up between the subject and the object. There are many different aspect markers, common ones being ga (imperfective aspect), na (perfective aspect), and goːma (progressive aspect).

(1) aɪ       na       hari               haŋ
1sg     PFV    water.INDEF  drink
‘I drank water.’
(2) haɪla             goːma  ncaŋo            ŋa
cat.DEF         PROG    mouse.DEF    eat
‘The cat is eating the mouse.’

A small number of verbs, like diː ‘see’, baː ‘like/want/love’, and ma ‘perceive’, always show an SVO word order.

(3) aɪ       diː        bari     beːri              bi
1sg     see      horse   big               yesterday
‘I saw a big horse yesterday.’
(4) sara    ga       baː    ibrahim
Sara    IMPF  like     Ibrahim
‘Sara likes Ibrahim.’

When there is no overt aspect marker, all verbs show an SVO word order. The zero aspect marker is perfective, like na, and the two correspond to SVO and SOV order, respectively. Compare (1) and (5).

(5) aɪ       haŋ     hari
1sg     drink   water.INDEF
‘I drank water.’
(6) aɪ       baː      ga
1sg     love    3sg
‘I loved her/him.’

However, some of these verbs have SOV homophones. For example, SVO diː ‘see’, has an SOV homophone in diː ‘catch’.

(7) aɪ       ga       bari     beːri              diː       suba
1sg     IMPF  horse   big.INDEF     catch   tomorrow
‘I will catch a big horse tomorrow.’

In ditransitive sentences, the indirect object takes the position between the aspect marker and the main verb. In simple transitives, this position is occupied by the direct object, which takes a post-verbal position in ditransitive sentences.

(8) aɪ       na      ni       cebe    tiːra
1sg     PERF  2sg     show   book.INDEF
‘I showed you a book.’

Indirect objects can also be seen in postpositional phrases following the verb, in which case the direct object takes its usual position between the aspect marker and the verb.

(9)  aɪ       na     tiːra              cebe   i       ɕe
1sg     PERF  book.INDEF  show  3pl   P
‘I showed a book to them.’

Temporal adverbials and locatives commonly appear at the end of a clause.

(10) ncirŋo          kaŋ     bi
rain.DEF       fall      yesterday
‘It was raining yesterday.’
(11) ncirŋo           ga    kaŋ     haŋ     kul
rain.DEF       IMPF  fall      day      all
‘It rains every day.’
(12) aɪ       na       tiɾaː     ɟiɕi      taːbalo       cire
1sg     IMPF  book   put      table.DEF      under
‘I put a book under the table.’
(13) hanso          goːma  dira     fondaː        ra
dog.DEF       PROG    walk   street.DEF   in
‘The dog is walking in the street.’

Any element of the sentence can be focused, in which case it is moved to the sentence-initial position and followed by the focus particle no. The word order of the remaining elements is unaffected by this.

(14) haŋ     kul      no      ncirŋo      ga      kaŋ
day     all       FOC   rain.DEF     PERF  fall
‘It rains EVERY DAY’
(15) haɪla             no      aɪ       diː       bi
cat.INDEF     FOC   1sg     see      yesterday
‘I saw A CAT          yesterday.’

Causatives and Passives

Songhay has a causative suffix /-(a)ndi/, which attaches to intransitive verbs, making them transitive. The causer of the event becomes the subject of the sentence:

(1) ɟiò:             go:ma  menne
butter.DEF  PROG   melt
‘The butter is melting.’
(2) nu:nà:     go:ma    ɟiò:              menn-andi
fire.DEF    PROG    butter.DEF   melt-CAUS
‘The fire is melting the butter (= causing the butter to melt).’

It also attaches to transitive verbs making them doubly transitive; the word order follows the pattern for double object verbs with the former subject in object position before the causative verb and the former object after the causative verb:

(3) zaŋ­kà:     na    bu:rò:        ­ŋa
child.DEF  PFV  bread.DEF  eat
‘The child ate the bread.’
(4) aɪ     na   zaŋ­kà:     ŋa-ndi      bu:rò:
1sg  PFV child.DEF  eat-CAUS  bread.DEF
‘I fed the child the bread (=cause the child to eat the bread).’

The causative suffix can also attach to an adjective X making a verb that means ‘cause to have property X’:

(5) zaŋ­kà:     ga    sa:ma
child.DEF  IMP  stupid
‘The child is stupid.’
(6) ir     na   zaŋ­kà:     sa:m-andi
1pl  PFV  child.DEF  stupid-CAUS
‘We made the child stupid.’

A small number of verbs (e.g., fe:ri ‘open’, keɪri ‘break’) have the same form when they are transitive (causative) and intransitive (inchoative):

(7) hugò:         miɲò:         fe:ri
house.DEF mouth.DEF open
‘The door opened.’
(8) aɪ     na    hugò:         miɲò:         fe:ri
1sg  PFV  house.DEF  mouth.DEF open
‘I opened the door.’

The passive in Songhay uses a suffix which is homophonous with the causative suffix /-(a)ndi/:

(9) zaŋ­kà:     na    barijò:        kar
child.DEF  PFV  horse.DEF  hit
‘The child hit the horse.’
(10) barijò:        kar-andi
horse.DEF  hit-PASS
‘The horse was hit.’

Unlike in English, it is not possible to express the agent in a passive sentence; in other words, while it is possible to say ‘the horse was hit’ it is not possible to say ‘the horse was hit by the boy’.

Subordinate Clauses

Subordinate clauses are marked in Songhay by the word kaŋ. Note that kaŋ is also used to mark relative clauses (see ).

       (1) aɪ ga   tam:aha kaŋ  arò:    ɕi  ne
           I  IMPV think   that man.DEF NEG here
           "I think that the man is not here."

       (2) aɪ ga   beɪ  kaŋ  arò:    go: ne
           I  IMPV know that man.DEF ASP here
           "I know that the man is here."

       (3) bimmo   ne  seɪdu  ɕe  kaŋ  a   koɪ bitiɟò:   ra
           Ibrahim say Seydou DAT that 3SG go  store.DEF to
           "Ibrahim told Seydou that s/he went to the store."

If the embedded clause is subjunctive, the marker ma is used. In these situations, kaŋ is not used.

       (4) aɪ ga   ba   (*kaŋ) aɪ ma   takulà:  ŋa
           I  IMPV want  that  I  SBJV cake.DEF eat
           "I want to eat the cake (I want that I eat cake)."

       (5) sara ga  ba   (*kaŋ) bimmo    ma   koɪ bitiɟò:   ra
           Sara ASP want  that  Ibrahim  SBJV go  store.DEF to

Embedded yes-no questions are marked by the usual question marker wala, which occurs on the left edge of the embedded clause. This is in contrast with matrix questions such as (5), in which the question marker wala occurs at the right edge of the clause.

       (6) n   di: haɪlà:  bi        wala?
           you see cat.DEF yesterday Q
           "Did you see a cat yesterday?"

       (7) bimmo   na  seɪdu  ha  wala ŋɡa ma   koɪ bitiɟò:   ra 
           Ibrahim PRF Seydou ask Q    he  SUBJ go  store.DEF to
           "Ibrahim asked Seydou if he (Ibrahim) should go to the store."

Songhay also allows embedded Wh-questions.

       (8) aɪ ga    beɪ  meɪ no  ka  ɟeɪson wi
           I  IMPRV know who FOC PRF Jason  kill
           "I know who killed Jason."

Tense, aspect, mood and negation markers

In Songhay, tense, aspect and mood markers (TAM markers) fuse with the negation marker, yielding idiosyncratic negated forms. The following table shows the affirmative and negative form of the basic markers, which occur after the subject and before the object in SOV transitive structures or before the verb in intransitive and SVO transitive structures:

affirmative negative role
ga ɕi imperfective
goːma ɕiːma progressive
na mana perfective
mma n/a emphatic imperfective
ŋka n/a emphatic perfective
ma maɕi subjunctive/optative
ma ɕi narrative

The imperfective marker appears in general statements and is used for the future with auxiliaries that are linked to the main verb with ka:

      1. sara       ga     hamisa    ŋa
         Sarah      IMPF   fish      eat
         “Sarah eats fish (in general).”
      2. sara       ɕi        hamisa    ŋa
         sara       IMPF.NEG  fish   eat
         “Sarah doesn't eat fish (in general).”
      3. aɪ      ga      kaː    ka      haːru
         1.SG    IMPF    come   LINK    laugh
         “I will laugh. (nearer future)”
      4. aɪ      ga      haʊ      ka      haːru
         1.SG    IMPF    FUT.AUX  LINK    laugh    
         “I will laugh. (farther future)”

The progressive marker largely corresponds to the English progressive. It cannot be combined with the perfective marker, so for the past and future perfective either some kind of periphrasis with different TAM markers or auxiliaries is used (7) or the tense is not marked and the general progressive is used (8). The marker itself is made up from the existential copula goː and the subjunctive TAM marker ma. Its composition is also similar to the progressive in Zarma, where it is formed with the indicative marker (Gao Songhay goːma/ɕiːma ~ Zarma goːga/siːga).

      5. aɪ     goːma      zuru    soŋhoːda
         1.SG   PROG       run     now
         “I'm running right now.”
      6. ɲcirŋòː      ɕiːma        kaŋ
         rain.DEF     PROG.NEG     fall
         “It isn't raining.”
      7. waːtòː    kalla  ɲ     ceːra   no     saːra   cindi    ka      diɟòː       keɪri
         time.DEF  when   2.SG  call    FOC    Sarah   leave    LINK    mirror.DEF  break
         “By the time you called, Sarah was breaking the mirror.”
      8. kalla     aɪ     goːma  ceː   saːra  goːma  diɟòː         keɪri
         when      1.SG   PROG   call  Sarah  PROG   mirror.DEFI   break
         “When I was calling, Sarah was breaking the mirror.”

The perfective is marked either with na or with the absence of a marker. For SVO verbs, na is not used (9,10), while for SOV verbs the use of na is preferred (11) but can be omitted, which is coupled in a change to an SVO word order (12). The negative is always mana, no matter what the affirmative marker was (13).

      9. aɪ     toː     hugeɪ-do
         1.SG   arrive  home.PL-POSTP
         “I arrived home.”
     10. aɪ     diː     haila      bi
         1.SG   see     cat        yesterday
         “I saw a cat yesterday.”
     11. haɪlàː     na         ɲcaŋòː       ŋa
         cat.DEF    PERF.NEG   mouse.DEF    eat
         “The cat ate the mouse.” (preferred)
     12. haɪlàː     ŋa         ɲcaŋòː       
         cat.DEF    eat        mouse.DEF
         “The cat ate the mouse.” (infrequent)
     13. haɪlàː    mana           ɲcaŋòː       ŋa
         cat.DEF    PERF.NEG   mouse.DEF    eat
         “The cat didn't eat the mouse.”

Songhay has a subjunctive marker, ma, which appears in certain subordinate clauses, questions and conditionals/optatives. The negation of this subjunctive is maɕi. This marker is also used narratively (17), when its negation is simply ɕi.

     14. aɪ    ga     baː     zaŋkàː     ma        koɪ    coʊ-dogòː-ra
         1.SG  IMPF   want    boy.DEF    SUBJ      go     learn-place.DEF-POSTP
         “I want the boy to go to school.”
     15. aɪ    ga     baː     zaŋkaː     maɕi      koɪ    coʊ-dogòː-ra
         1.SG  IMPF   want    boy.DEF    SUBJ.NEG  go     learn-place.DEF-POSTP
         “I want the boy not to go to school.”
     16. maɪ   noː   ma      kaː     ka    ɟeɪson    haːbu  ŋga    gandòː-ra
         who   FOC   SUBJ    come    LINK  Jason     sweep  3.SG   chest.DEF-POSTP 
         “Who will hug Jason?”
     17. zejòː      no    ma     baː           ka     ɟeɪson    gar
         thief.DEF  FOC   NARR   is.about.to   LINK   Jason     stab
         “The thief is about to stab Jason.”

Besides indicative and subjunctive, Gao Songhay has an emphatic mood (called strong by Heath 1999, §7.2.6-§7.2.7) which functions as a focus on the verb or on the subject. The imperfective/present form of this mood is mma, and the perfective form is ŋka. These forms cannot be negated, rather the subject is focused and the verb is negated in indicative (19). The subjunctive, the negated perfective and both emphatic markers trigger the ai~ja ‘1.SG’ alternation.

     18. Sorajja  mma        kaː   ka    ɟeɪson  haːbu   ŋga    gandòː-ra
         Soraya   EMPH.IMPF  come  LINK  Jason   chest   3.SG   chest.DEF-POSTP
         “Soraya will hug Jason.”
     19. Sorajja  ka    ɕi        kaː   ka    ɟeɪson  haːbu   ŋga    gandòː-ra
         Soraya   FOC   NEG.IMPF  come  LINK  Jason   chest   3.SG   chest.DEF-POSTP
         “Soraya will not hug Jason.”
     20. ja       ŋka         baː     zaŋkàː     ma     coʊ
         1.SG     EMPH.PERF   want    boy.DEF    SUBJ   learn
         “I wanted the boy to study. (emphatic)”
     21. a        ŋka         fara
         3.SG     EMPH.PERF   tired
         “He got tired. (emphatic)”

The emphatic forms frequently occur in conditionals:

     22. n̩da iri   mma        hiŋ  ka    haɪla deɪ  kul    a     ga    ɲcaŋeɪ     ŋa
         if  1.PL  EMPH.IMPF  can  LINK  cat   buy  than   3.SG  IMPF  mouse.PL   eat 
         “If we were to buy a cat, it would eat the mice.”
     23. n̩da ja    ŋka        haɪla deɪ  kul    a     ga    ɲcaŋeɪ     ŋa
         if  1.PL  EMPH.PERF  cat   buy  than   3.SG  IMPF  mouse.PL   eat 
         “If I had bought a cat, it would have eaten the mice.”

The emphatic can be combined with the progressive in conditionals:

     24. n̩da ɲcirŋoː    ŋka        ɕiːma     kan   kul    aɪ    ga    zur   tareɪ
         if  rain.DEF   EMPH.PERF  PROG.NEG  fall  then   1.SG  IMPF  run   outside
         “If it weren't raining, I would run outside.”

Noun phrase word order

The order of elements in the Songhay noun phrase is: possessor-noun-adjective-numeral-demonstrative.

(1) aɪ   haɪla be:ri ta:cà:   weɪ
    1.SG cat   big   four.DEF DEM
   'These four big cats of mine' lit. 'My these four big cats'

Number and definiteness is marked on the rightmost element that is not the demonstrative (see ).

A possessor always precedes the possessum, and requires the possessum to be definite. The possessor itself may be a noun phrase with modifiers:

(2) haɪla hennà:     boŋò:
    cat   pretty.DEF head.DEF
   'The pretty cat's head'


Demonstratives in Songhay alternate based upon presence and proximity to the speaker. They are divided into proximal, distal 1, which is used for far objects that are currently present, and distal 2, which is used to denote far objects that are not present. The proximal demonstrative [wo] has a separate plural form [weɪ], while the other demonstratives do not. The following is a listing of the Songhay demonstratives:

Singular Plural
Proximal wo weɪ
Distal 1 hetti hetti
Distal 2 din din

The following examples show the two proximal demonstratives, with the singular shown in (1), marked with /wo/, and the plural shown in (2), marked with /weɪ/. Plurality is also marked with the suffix -eƒɪ on the noun tureƒɪ ‘tree’.

(1) aƒɪ     zigi       turò:     wo      boŋ
    1.SG   climb.PAST tree.DEF  DEMPROX head
   ‘I climbed this tree.’

(2) aƒɪ     zigi       tureƒɪ       weƒɪ      boŋ
    1.SG   climb.PAST tree.PL.DEF DEMPROX  head
   ‘I climbed these trees.’

Sentences (3) and (4), provide examples for the first distal demonstrative /hetti/, which denotes those objects which are far from the speaker but still present. As is shown, the same demonstrative is used for both singular in (3) and plural in (4). Plurality is instead marked only on the noun.

(3) aƒɪ    zigi       turò:      hetti    boŋ
    1.SG  climb.PAST tree.DEF   DEMDIST1 head
   ‘I climbed that tree.’ (tree is present)

(4) aƒɪ    zigi       tureɪ        hetti    boŋ
    1.SG  climb.PAST tree.PL.DEF  DEMDIST1 head
   ‘I climbed those trees.’ (trees are present)

The next two sentences provide the same information for the second distal demonstrative, which is used to denote those objects which are not only far away from the speaker, but also not present. As with the first distal demonstrative, there are no separate forms for singular and plural. Plurality is again marked only on the noun.

(5) aƒɪ    zigi       turò:    din      boŋ
    1.SG  climb.PAST tree.DEF DEMDIST2 head
   ‘I climbed that tree.’ (tree is not present)

(6) aƒɪ   zigi       tureɪ       din      boŋ
    1.SG climb.PAST tree.PL.DEF DEMDIST1 head
   ‘I climbed those trees.’ (trees are not present)