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.
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.’
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.’
‘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 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."
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:
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.”
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'
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:
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 -eɪ on the noun tureɪ ‘tree’.
(1) aɪ zigi turò: wo boŋ 1.SG climb.PAST tree.DEF DEMPROX head ‘I climbed this tree.’ (2) aɪ zigi tureɪ weɪ 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) aɪ zigi turò: hetti boŋ 1.SG climb.PAST tree.DEF DEMDIST1 head ‘I climbed that tree.’ (tree is present) (4) aɪ 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) aɪ zigi turò: din boŋ 1.SG climb.PAST tree.DEF DEMDIST2 head ‘I climbed that tree.’ (tree is not present) (6) aɪ zigi tureɪ din boŋ 1.SG climb.PAST tree.PL.DEF DEMDIST1 head ‘I climbed those trees.’ (trees are not present)