Senufo languages

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The Senufo or Senufic languages (Senoufo in Francophone usage) comprise ca. 15 languages spoken by the Senufo in the north of Côte d'Ivoire, the south of Mali and the southwest of Burkina Faso. An isolated language, Nafaanra, is also spoken in the west of Ghana. The Senufo languages are generally considered a branch of the Gur sub-family of Niger-Congo languages. Garber (1987) estimates the total number of Senufos at some 1.5 million; the Ethnologue, based on various population estimates, counts 2.7 million. The Senufo languages are bounded to the west by Mande languages, to the south by Kwa languages, and to the north and east by Central Gur languages.

The Senufo languages are like Gur languages in that they have a suffixal noun class system and that verbs are marked for aspect. Most Gur languages to the north of Senufo have a two tone downstep system, but the tonal system of the Senufo languages is mostly analysed as a three level tone system (High, Mid, Low).

The Senufo languages have been influenced by the neighbouring Mande languages in numerous ways. Many words have been borrowed from the Mande languages Bambara and Jula. Carlson (1994:2) notes that ‘it is probable that several grammatical constructions are calques on the corresponding Bambara constructions’. Like Mande languages, the Senufo languages have a Subject Object Verb (SOV) constituent order, rather than the Subject Verb Object (SVO) order which is more common in Gur and in Niger-Congo as a whole.



Delafosse (1904:192–217) was the first linguist to write on the Senufo languages. He noted that the Senufo were often confused with the Mande, partly because use of Mande languages by the Senufo was widespread:

In the influential classifications of Westermann (1927, 1970[1952]) and Bendor-Samuel (1971), the Senufo languages were classified as Gur languages. Starting with Manessy (1975) however, this classification was called into doubt. In 1989, John Naden, in his overview of the Gur family, stated that ‘[t]he remaining languages, especially Senufo, may well be no more closely related to Central Gur than to Guang or Togo Remnant, or than these to Central Gur or Volta-Comoe’ (1989:143).


Early Senufo classifications (e.g. Bendor-Samuel 1971) were mainly geographically motivated, dividing the Senufo languages into Northern, Central, and Southern Senufo. In subsequent years, this terminology was adopted by several linguists working on Senufo languages (Garber 1987; Carlson 1983, 1994). Mensah (1983) and Mills (1984) avoided this geographical terms but used mainly the same grouping, according to Garber 1987. SIL International in its Ethnologue subdivides the Senufo languages in six groups. Combining the two classifications results in the grouping below.

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