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.


Pronouns in Songhay surface in subject position, object position, or in possessor position. These appear to pattern with the nominative-accusative-genitive paradigm across languages. Pronouns are not marked for gender. In particular, there is no he/she distinction in third person singular. The object pronouns look very much like the subject pronouns with the exception of the first person singular form ageɪ, which appears only in post-verbal objects. The possessive pronouns also look similar to the subject pronouns, with the exception of the third person pronouns, which add ŋg- .

Subject and Object Possessive
First person singular aɪ (ageɪ)
Second person singular ni ni
Third person singular a ŋga
First person plural ir ir
Second person plural war war
Third person plural i ŋgi

The following examples illustrate the use of the first person singular and plural pronouns in all three positions.

1.      seɪdu          beɪ ka     aɪ        su:mu
        Seydou         PLUPERF    1.SG.OBJ  kiss
       	“Seydou had kissed me.”
2.      aɪ             di:     fona         bi
        1.SG.SUBJ      see     monkey.INDEF yesterday
        “I saw a monkey yesterday.”
3.      boŋkan 	       di:     aɪ           fonà:      bi
        Lucky          see     1.PL.POS     monkey.DEF yesterday
        “Lucky saw my monkey yesterday.”
4.      boŋkan         di:     ni           bi
        Lucky          see     2.SG.OBJ     yesterday
        “Lucky saw you yesterday.”
5.      ni             di:     fona         bi
        1.SG.SUBJ      see     monkey.INDEF yesterday
        “You saw a monkey yesterday.”
6.      boŋkan         di:     ir           fonà:         bi
        Lucky          see     1.PL.POS    monkey.DEF    yesterday
        “Lucky saw our monkey yesterday.”

The ageɪ form occurs when the first singular pronoun is a post-verbal object.

7.      boŋkan          di:             ageɪ          	bi
        Lucky           see.PST         1.SG.OBJ  	yesterday
        “Lucky saw me yesterday.”

The reflexive is composed of the possessive pronoun and boŋ, the indefinite form of the word for head.

First person singular aɪ boŋ
Second person singular ni boŋ
Third person singular ŋga boŋ
First person plural ir boŋ
Second person plural war boŋ
Third person plural ŋgi boŋ

We see the reflexive pronoun occur in object position in (7) and (8).

7.      aɪ      di:     aɪ      boŋ     diɟòː      ɾa
        I       see     1.SG    HEAD    mirror.DEF in
        “I saw myself in the mirror”
8.      arò:    na      ŋga     boŋ     dumbu   nda    huɾia
        man.DEF PERF    3.SG    HEAD    cut     with   knife.INDEF
        "The man cut himself with a knife"

Additionally, the reflexive pronoun can be a possessor.

9.      bil     na      ŋga     boŋ     asu:ra  ɟiɕi    ta:balò:      boŋ		
        Bill    PERF    3.SG    HEAD    picture put     table.DEF     on
        “Bill put pictures of himself on the table.”
        Lit: "Bill put himself's pictures on the table."

Consonantal phoneme inventory

labial alveolar palatal velar glottal
stop (p) b t d c ɟ k g
fricative f s z ɕ ʑ h
nasal m n ɲ ŋ
liquid l r
glide w j

The voiceless palatal stop may be realized as an affricate, [tɕ]. The lateral liquid /l/ is always light even in coda position, and the rhotic liquid /r/ is a trill but also surfaces as an alveolar tap [ɾ]. The labial fricative [f] is labiodental and the glide [w] labiovelar.

The voiceless bilabial plosive /p/ is a marginal phoneme of Songhay. There are only a handful of words with /p/, which are provided below.

Word Gloss
pu `spitting sound’
pet `to be full’
lipton `black tea (French)’
pat ‘at all’

These p-containing words are atypical in that /pu/ is onomatopoetic and /lipton/ is a loanword. The words [lipton] and [pet] are also unusual in that they contain obstruent codas, which are otherwise not found in the language.

While the language lacks the voiceless labial plosive /p/, it has the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/. There were no words with the voiced counterpart /v/, however.

Vocalic phoneme inventory

Shonghay has five short vowels and five long vowels.

front central back front central back
high i u high i: u:
mid e o mid e: o:
low a low a:

Songhay also has five diphthongs.

front offglide

back offglide


eɪ  oɪ


Vowel length is contrastive in Songhay, as we can see in the following minimal pairs and near minimal pairs:

[i] bi “yesterday”
[i:] di: “to see”
[e] deɕi “fly”
[e:] de:ɕi “catfish.INDEF”
[a] kaba “arm.INDEF”
[a:] ka:ba “beard.INDEF”
[u] burò: “bread.DEF”
[u:] bu:ro “dying”
[o] ham:o “Hamed”
[o:] hamò: “meat.DEF”

Other consonants

Songhay also has geminate consonants, which appear to be phonemic. There is one minimal pair, given below, followed by other words that contain geminates. In general, geminates are somewhat rare.

Type Word Gloss
Minimal Pair ateɪ
`green tea’
Plosives subba:ho
Fricatives assa:fo
`night (prayer)’
Nasals mma
emphatic present marker

Prenasalized obstruents
Songhay has prenasalized obstruents, though they are infrequent and many of our examples are from function words that occur phrase medially. Below are a few examples of minimal pairs.

Place Plain Prenasal
Palatal caŋ
`be aroused’
Velar ga
imperfective marker
`to come’
emphatic past marker