Category Archives: noun phrases

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)

Definiteness and plurality

Definiteness is marked in Songhay with the suffix –ò:, a vowel carrying a low tone. Consonant-final nouns add the suffix, while vowel-final nouns replace their final vowel with [ò:]. There are two systematic exceptions to this rule:

  • Nouns ending in [a] mark definiteness by lengthening the final vowel and adding a low tone, [a] ~ [à:].
  • Nouns ending in [o] mark definiteness by replacing the final vowel with [à:], [o] ~ [à:].

There are also at least two other exceptions to this rule: the definite form of the noun [ɟe:ɟa] `load’ is [ɟe:ɟè], and the definite form of the number [ta:ci] `four’ is [ta:cà:].

Plurality is marked by use of the suffix –.

  • Nouns ending in [a] add the glide [w] between their final vowel and the plural suffix, [a] < [aweɪ].
[a] haɪla
[e] cere
`young brother’
[i] diɟi
[o] boro
[u] hugu
[m] ham hamò: hameɪ `meat’
[l] busal

In nouns that end in a diphthong definiteness and plurality are not marked by replacing the final vowel like all other nouns but rather by attaching the markers at the end of the word, as shown below. This pattern is also found for at least one noun that ends in the high vowel [i]. An analysis of diphthongs as vowel-glide sequences may explain this pattern.

Final segment Indefinite Definite Plural Gloss
[ʊ] or [w] ciraʊ
[ɪ] or [j] izaweɪ
[i] bari barijò: barijeɪ ‘horse’

Definiteness and plurality are marked on the noun, but if the noun is modified by an adjective they are marked on the adjective.

Definiteness in adjectives:

(1) a.  ciraʊ  bula
        bird   blue.INDEF
        `a blue bird'

    b.  ciraʊ  bulà:
        bird   blue.DEF
        `the blue bird'

(2) a.  ciraʊ cireɪ
        bird  red.INDEF
        `a red bird'

    b.  ciraʊ cirà:
        bird red.DEF
        `the red bird'

(3) a.  aɪ   na    ham   ka:na        ŋa   bi
        1SG  PFV  meat  tasty.INDEF  eat  yesterday
        `I ate tasty meat yesterday'

    b.  aɪ   na    ham   kanà:      ŋa   bi
        1SG  PFV  meat  tasty.DEF  eat  yesterday
        `I ate the tasty meat yesterday'

(4) a.  hugu   me     da:ba-nta
        house  mouth  close-PTCP.INDEF
        `a closed door'

    b.  hugu   me     da:ba-ntà:
        house  mouth  close-PTCP.DEF
        `the closed door'

Plurality is also marked on the adjective. Example (5) shows the definite form while examples (6)-(7) show the plural form. Plural forms are definite.

(5) a.  ciraʊ  bibi
        bird   black.INDEF
        `a black bird'

    b.  ciraʊ  bibò:
        bird   black.DEF
        `the black bird'

(6) ciraʊ  bibeɪ
    bird   black.PL
    `the black birds'

(7) aɪ   di:  bari         ba:rijeɪ  bi
    1SG  see  horse  big.PL   yesterday
    `I saw the big horses yesterday'

Relative Clauses

Relative clauses follow the noun they modify in Songhay. They are introduced with the complementizer kaŋ. Their internal structure depends on the type of relativization that obtains. As (1) shows, subject relativization — meaning that the modified noun is interpreted as the subject of the relative clause — requires a gap (indicated by an underscore).

(1) aròː          kaŋ       ___     diː     hanɕi  bi
man.DEF  COMP            see   dog     yesterday
‘the man that ___ saw a dog yesterday’

Some transitive verbs, like diː ‘see’, precede their direct object (2). When relativizing this type of verb’s object, either a gap (3) or a resumptive pronoun (4) is possible.

(2) aɪ      diː   aròː           bi
1SG  see  man.DEF   yesterday
‘I saw the man yesterday.’
(3) aròː          kaŋ       aɪ     diː     ___   bi
man.DEF  COMP  1SG  see           yesterday
‘the man that I saw ___ yesterday’
(4) aròː          kaŋ       aɪ     diː     a      bi
man.DEF  COMP  1SG  see  3SG  yesterday
Literally: ‘the man that I saw him yesterday’

Other verbs, like kar ‘hit’, follow their direct objects. Resumption is the only possible strategy for object relativization from this type of verb. (This fact is only apparent when the relativized noun is plural: the resumptive for a singular noun would be a ‘he/she/it’, but this pronoun may become contracted into the TAM particles, which all happen to end in /a/)

(5) aròː          na     hanseɪ  kar
man.DEF  PERF  dog.PL  hit
‘The man hit the dogs’
(6) hanseɪ  kaŋ       aròː          n-i              kar
dog.PL   COMP  man.DEF  PERF-3PL  hit
‘the dogs that the man hit [them]’
(7) *hanseɪ  kaŋ      aròː           na     ___    kar
dog.PL     COMP  man.DEF  PERF          hit
Attempted: ‘the dogs that the man hit ___’

For postpositional relativization, either a resumptive pronoun or a gap may occur — but the two strategies differ in word order. Resumption leaves the postpositional phrase where it would appear in an unmarked declarative context (8), but gapping requires that the stranded postposition appear immediately after kaŋ.

(8) zaŋkeɪ   goma  goro  turòː       cire
child.PL  PROG  sit       tree.DEF  under
‘the children are sitting under the tree’
(9) turòː        kaŋ      zaŋkeɪ    goma   goro a       cire
tree.DEF  COMP  child.PL  PROG   sit      3SG  under
‘the tree that the children are sitting under [it]’
(10) turòː        kaŋ      ___   cire      zaŋkeɪ   goma   goro
tree.DEF  COMP          under  child.PL  PROG   sit
‘the tree under which the children are sitting’

Possessor relativization patterns like postpositional relativization. The possessor may be expressed with a resumptive pronoun in situ (12), or with a gap, in which case the possessed element appears between kaŋ and the focus particle no.

(11) Fanta  na      wojòː          buròː          ŋa
Fanta  PERF  woman.DEF  bread.DEF  eat
‘Fanta ate the woman’s bread’
(9) wojòː            kaŋ     Fanta  na     ŋga          buròː           ŋa
woman.DEF  COMP  Fanta  PERF  3SG.POSS  bread.DEF  eat
Literally: ‘the woman that Fanta ate her bread
(10) wojòː              kaŋ      ___    buròː   no    Fanta   na    ŋa
woman.DEF  COMP           bread   FOC  Fanta  PERF  eat
‘the woman whose bread Fanta ate’

Cardinal numbers

ifo: one     id:u six
ihiŋka two     ij:e seven
ihinza three     ijaha eight
ita:ci four     ijaga nine
igu five     iweɪ ten

The numerals 1-10 appear with the prefix /i/ in isolation, as seen above. The prefix is dropped when these numerals appear non-initially in longer numbers.

iwei cindi fo: eleven     waraŋka twenty
iwei cindi hiŋka twelve     waranza thirty
iwei cindi hinza thirteen     wei ta:ci forty
iwei cindi ta:ci fourteen     wei gu fifty
iwei cindi gu fifteen     wei: d:u sixty
iwei cindi: d:u sixteen     wei: j:e seventy
iwei cindi: j:e seventeen     wei jaha eighty
iwei cindi jaha eighteen     wei jaga ninety
iwei cindi jaga nineteen        

cindi means ‘to leave behind’ so iweɪ cindi fo: is literally ‘ten leave one’. Numeral formation up to 100 is regular.

zaŋgu hundred     zaŋgu hiŋka two hundred
zaŋgu fo: one hundred     zaŋgu hiŋka nda fo: two hundred and one
zaŋgu nda fo: hundred and one    

nda means ‘and’, so zaŋɡu nda fo: is literally ‘hundred and one’.  Without nda the numeral is modifying how many hundreds there are.  Numeral formation in the hundreds is regular, following the same pattern as before with cindi  for the tens digit.