How Wolof became the dominant language in Sénégal.

In Language by Abeera Shahid

Disclaimer: This article is based on a combination of personal experience and academic literature. I acknowledge that I am not Sénégalese and hence, can only provide an outsider’s perspective to the story of wolofization. I take responsibility for any errors and omissions although I have sought to minimize them. 

As I walked through the streets of Dakar in Sénégal, I heard the whispers of Wolof all around me: Na nga def, mangi fi rekk, toubab. The words all blended together to my untrained ears. As a foreigner, I’d wrongfully expected to hear French, since Sénégal is a former colony of France. I later appreciated that the local language of the Wolof people was thriving here, unerased by the forces of colonization. 

Standing on the Western edge of the African continent facing the pacific waters, I wondered about the tongues that made up the country I was soon to call home. My teachers and friends represented a diversity of ethnicities, and yet they all spoke Wolof. Upon further research, I learned that over 90% of Sénégalese people speak Wolof although only 40% identify as such ethnically. In case you were wondering, a mere 20% speak French and there are around 25 local languages. So why and how did Wolof become the most spoken language by Sénégalese people? The “Wolofization” or spread of the Wolof language in Sénégal is an intriguing process. I place no value judgement on if it is good or bad. Rather, I aim to trace the history that brought me to a bustling Wolof-speaking Dakar. 

Classic Era

The Wolof language has been present as the primary language in the northern part of Sénégal since at least the 16th century as part of the Wolof kingdoms. Historical records suggest that Wolof was used in communication with the neighbouring Kingdom of Seereer. From its earliest time, Wolof appears to be a language used to connect different groups; that tradition continues today. 

Colonial era: 

The first interaction between the French and what is now Sénégal occurred in the north with the Wolof people early in the 17th century. During the trading with the French, an urban coastal culture was created on the islands of Saint-Louis and Gorée. Here is where Wolof began to become an urban or modern language. 18th Century records by the French highlight the importance of learning Wolof for traders for fair negotiations. More often, French traders relied on interpreters called laptots who travelled with them. It’s thought that these interpreters facilitated the uptake of Wolof in the corridor along the Sénégalese river route to Saint Louis, where the pulaar-speaking people lived. When people travel, language moves and transforms with them. 

As Wolof became embedded in the urban fabric of Saint-Louis in the 19th century, it found itself hybridizing with French. Perhaps this adaptability of Wolof has contributed to the sustainability of the dialect. At the same time, one must acknowledge the power of the urban elite who were bilingual and often of mixed race, subtly promoting the vernacular tied to their identity. 

As power moved from Saint Louis to Dakar in 1857, the urban Wolof followed. The status of Wolof as a commercial language expanded in the 20th century as Wolof merchants travelled around the region, even all the way south to Ziguinchor in Casamance. Religious leaders known as the murid marabouts also contributed to the proliferation of Wolof. 

Modern Senegal

As Sénégal gained independence from the French in 1960, Dakar was already a major centre of commerce, attracting people from all ethnic and language identities in the region. It has always been a mosaic city. The new immigrants to the city quickly learned the urban Wolof due to the social environment. Their future generations spoke almost exclusively Wolof, further solidifying the relationship between urbanization and the uptake of Wolof. In Dakar, the prevalence of Wolof speakers is around 96%, which is higher than the country as a whole. Even for Sénégalese folks who have moved abroad, speaking Wolof gives them access to the diaspora communities. 

By tracing the history of wolofization, we learn the complex interplay over time between different actors, including Wolof Kingdoms, merchants, French influence, and migration to urban centres that have shaped the sounds I heard in Dakar. The story of Wolofization is far from over as Sénégalese people continue to talk about their relationship with the local languages. 

Wolof and Ethnicities  

Speaking Wolof is a part of the urban identity in Sénégal today. It has blurred the lines between what it means to be ethnically Wolof as young people are starting to identify as being “Dakaroise”, or being from Dakar. Some even just identify as Wolof since it may be the only local language they speak having grown up in the city. Others find themselves being Wolof in Dakar, and another ethnicity while visiting their home town. Funny enough, I can relate to this as an immigrant in Canada, in some places I am Pakistani while in other spaces, I am from Brampton. When we look a little closer, we see that people and places have multiple identities. You can be Dakaroise Wolof and Pulaar from Fatick. 

Wolof and politics 

Languages are not separate from politics. In the case of Wolofization, it has been an informal process with minimal intervention from the state. The first President of Sénégal, Léopold Sédar Senghor (1960-1980) promoted French in Sénégalese life against opposition by an intellectual class that preferred Wolof. As a result, Sénégal adopted 6 official languages including Wolof in 1971. French is the official language used in the formal domains of politics, business, and education. However, the increased use of Wolof in the public sphere has made speakers of minority languages cautious. When Abdoulaye Wade, President of Sénégal, proposed in 2000 that public servants be required to know Wolof, it was not implemented due to the significant backlash from primarily Pulaar-speakers. Some linguistic groups in Sénégal do not want Wolof to be given official recognition above other languages. 

Wolof and minority languages

As Wolof continues to spread, speakers of minority languages remain vigilant. It has been noted that minority languages are maintained in urban contexts where their domain of use is different from that of wolof. For example, families emphasizing their language at home or living in certain neighbourhoods. As urban Wolof evolved to include French words, minority languages are also being transformed as they interact with Wolof. 

There is always more to a simple sound when we listen closely. The story of Wolof is one I’ve come to appreciate as being tied to the beautiful multilingual and multi-ethnic image of Sénégal. It may be seen as Francophone on the world stage, but it is a nation whose identity is tied to increased urbanization and speaking a common language. Languages can unite and divide us, and when we understand their histories, we find a reflection of our social ties. Next time I walk in the streets of Dakar, I’ll embrace the whispers of Wolof, shedding my preconceived perception of what I expected to hear.