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Written French and Wolof in Dakar

Updated on August 24, 2017

In Senegal a heady mixture of languages is spoken on the streets, heard over the airwaves, and manifested in the written word. The official language of this country is French, in which the work of education, government, and official business is conducted, while Arabic is used for religious purposes in a majority Muslim nation. Other foreign languages make their presence, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and English. But for the majority of the Senegalese people their everyday conversation does not reflect any of the above but rather employs one of the “national languages” of Senegal, the largest of which is Wolof, the lingua franca of Senegal, understood by upwards of 80% of the population. The existence of multiple languages allows for the intention to express and encode meanings beyond that which is written - - the very fact that it is written in a certain language can reveal characteristics of how languages are perceived and used in Senegal. In Senegal French represents the standard written public language and is used as an attempt to claim greater prestige and official legitimacy on the part of the user, while Wolof in its pure, non-urban format (but not its hybrid urban one) is an acceptable written media to attempt to gain affinity with readers, or for private discourses, but very rarely for public communication beyond that of slogans and mottos.

The dual relationship in Senegal of French as a high language and Wolof as the vernacular stands in contrast to the original imagined utility of French (according to its original Afrique Occidental Française progenitors) as a means to provide a common language to communicate between the tribes and ethnic groups of West Africa. This role is much more filled by Wolof instead of French, with both the need for and the role of Wolof seeming to emerge simultaneously with the entrance of Senegal to urbanization and the increasing development of national interconnectedness which has necessitated a national lingua franca. However, if French does not achieve its distinction from Wolof in Senegal by virtue of its universality within the country, it still occupies a different position of register and prestige, one which produces different ways that the two principal languages of Senegal are used. Thus, a diglossie emerges in Senegal that allows for the coexistence of two languages.

French, by virtue of its position as the official language of Senegal, tends to dominate the official public written word of Dakar and other cities in Senegal. A tour shows mainly French signs and proclamations, with much the same existing for university paperwork and most printed material. However, Wolof does exist in written form, and by examining the principal areas where it appears in public - public advertising, and to a lesser extent graffiti - one can understand the dynamics which drives the Franco-Wolof relationship in Senegal, as well as the way in which the two languages encapsulate different meanings. The same holds true in private situations, where individual usage can define the content. Graffiti represents a fascinating combination of the two, at once outré, subterfuge, and un-sanctioned, and yet also done for a public audience in a visible place, providing an entirely different register.

This study principally relates to information gathered in Dakar, significantly less time existed to conduct studies in the Senegalese countryside. My position is that of a foreign American observer in Senegal with an extremely limited understanding of Wolof and no understanding of other Senegalese languages, but a fluent comprehension of French.

Administrative and Educational Usage:

If there is one area in Senegal where French would dominate in written form, it would be in the official capacity of the government. Here, there is essentially no usage of Wolof present - - everything is written in French. As the official language of Senegal, this is to be expected and hence requires little additional analysis, the motivation and reasons for French possessing such a role being behind the scope of analysis of this paper.

Furthermore, public outreach programs are generally conducted in French. Only a few Wolof examples exist, such as an occasional health pamphlet intended for rural regions : one analyzed below is Tegtal gu jëfu ci wàllu set ak setal mu jëm ci jaaykatu lekk yi, produced by ENDA Graf Sahel. These Wolof counter-examples have been so small in numbers that it almost makes them the indication of the exception that proves the rule. However, it might also point to a growing trend in the use of national languages for communication with the common Senegalese population, providing a way to communicate with the masses outside of Dakar, who unlike their cosmopolitan counterparts might have less ability to understand French than their native language, thus providing significant implications for social justice (joining in-class and in-NGO discussed examples of usage of national languages to communicate to rural populations). This health document’s writing points to a lack of French-Wolof mixing - - there is not one French word present throughout it, other than partie to divide it into sections. As a document presumably intended for the rural regions, far away from Dakar, writing in the “pure” Wolof of the countryside as compared to the melange present in the urban areas makes sense for communicative purposes. This, however, demonstrates another tendency demonstrated when Wolof is used in a written form for official use - - a purity of writing that makes it substantially different than the heavily creolized spoken urban Wolof. Creolized in this sense refers to the significant amount of external terminology which has come into “Urban Wolof”, most famously from French, but also from other Senegalese national languages and English, and has been inserted into the structure of the Wolof language. Writing universally tends to be more conservative than oral speech, but it might not be excessive to label the written form of Wolof a quasi-different language than the Urban Wolof practiced in Dakar. Thus, the form of writing utilized in these education projects, while simultaneously being geared towards rural speakers, is an exclusion of urban speakers and their own form of Wolof, highlighting the divergences between rural and urban Wolof. Linguistic politics might come into play here, consciously avoiding French as part of a project for the revalorization of Wolof, which has been at times undertaken in university and news settings (strengthened in this case by that this document was written in the officially sanctioned but rarely used official Wolof orthography). For example, Sakhir Thiam, intellect and former Minister of Higher Education, taught high-level mathematics courses purely in Wolof at the University of Dakar, and Bachir Kounta, conducted news broadcasts which were done only in Wolof : similarly ENDA Graf Sahel which purposefully seeks to find an alternative to development, a model heavily promoted by the French, might see such a pamphlet as a valorization of Wolof and its utility as a written language. Government and NGO backed programs would be much more likely to have such ideological aspects, as compared to advertisements which modulate themselves principally for monetary concerns.

In messages intended for the population of Dakar itself, the only usage of Wolof that has been visible has been on a trash can, which was shortly thereafter covered up by an election poster written in French. The site of the trash can did not appear to conform to a general trend of using Wolof for slogans concerning public hygiene in Dakar. Any signs I have seen encouraging keeping things clean were at the beach and written in French.

According to an University Cheikh Anta Diop professor who is involved in their translation, sometimes direct information documents are rendered in Wolof but this is rare, again reinforcing that mostly when information is to be transferred, it is done in French. However, ENDA Graf Sahel has made note that in the rural regions there are populations who are only literate in the national languages, rather than French : thus it might be that the rural regions have a higher degree of such private usage of Wolof for non-personal usage.

Public Advertising

Public advertising in Dakar is principally done in French, as an examination of Senegalese billboards, flyers, and signs quickly demonstrates. However, exceptions do exist, and French text is at times joined by writing in English, or sometimes in Wolof. Wolof is not very common in print advertisement, but it represents an excellent window into seeing the dynamics which structure the relationship between national languages in Senegal and French.

Examples of the texts found in Wolof are located along the Route de l’Aeroport, Dakar Autoroute, and signs positioned at University Cheikh Anta Diop and include the following:

Translation (English/French)
Route de l'Aéroport
Yonné mieux xaalis
Send everyone/anyone money! Envoyez tout le monde/n’importe qui de l’argent!
Nestle Gloria
Route de l'Aéroport
Kooru Jam ak Amoul Morom, Bene Lafi
It is the best! C’est le meilleur Bon Ramadan
Autoroute Yoff-UCAD
Bonus Bou Bari Ak Rak Tak
A too big bonus on Rak Tak ! Un benefit trop bonus sur Rak Tak
Senegalese Legislative Elections 2017/Benno bokk yakaar
Benno Liguéey nguir Sénégal
Working together for Senegal L’ensemble pour travailler le Sénégal
Togg Bou Neekh Té Sell Nguir Gneup Begg
Togg is very good and fitting for everyone Togg est très bien et propre pour tout le monde
Bisko Truck
Route de l'Aéroport
Lou Nééx dou doy
Something that does good Quelque chose de bien
African Renaissance Monument
Ndogou Bou Néékh Saf sell te woor
Ndogu is very good, with a clean and proper taste Ndogou est très bien, avec du gout propre et sûr
Dakar Central City
Moy sunu kalpé mon rek la !
Our wallet is it alone! Notre portefeuille c’est lui seul !

What Role Do These Texts Support in These Advertisements?

Firstly, it is key to note the persistent existence of French even after the emergence of Wolof. Utilizing written Wolof in texts, even when it has greater length in these examples than the French writing which is upon the sign, supports different objectives. While written French conveys a more official business format, Wolof provides more customer appeal, especially through more localized slogans. Secondly, there is not a hybridization of Wolof-French as is often found in actual spoken Wolof in Dakar. Urban Wolof places extensive amounts of French vocabulary into Wolof grammatical structures, while print advertising conversely keeps Wolof and French separated. The writing style of Wolof in these posters is also particular, as they do not use the formally condoned and official Wolof writing style, but instead transcription. For these advertisements, spelling mistake and not looking like official university Wolof, would represent another way to attempt to gain a rapport with their common customers.

Furthermore, it is important to note which companies utilize Wolof-French. The most vigorous user is Orange, a French phone company. Orange has a problematic relationship with the Senegalese people due to being viewed as overpriced, even after local boycotts and protests. Because its market share is firmly established in Senegal, it continues to dominate, making it difficult for users to opt out of using its services. For a foreign European company like Orange, the usage of Wolof provides an important counterpoint in its attempt at relations with the Senegalese. In an attempt to strike at the idea of being an intruder, it portrays itself as localized and Senegalese, part of the socio-economic fabric, communicating in the local language of Wolof instead of only French. If one however, buys Orange products, one will note that all of the informational writing is in French. One can only speculate about the relationship of Orange with other national languages in their concentrated regions, due to a lack of study in the regions.

While Orange might be the company which employs Wolof text the most, a general advertising trend does exist. Economic and educational organizations almost never use Wolof. However, food, and consumer goods companies utilize Wolof more prevalently. Hypothetically, this might be a way of re-assuring customers and selectively coding relationships with them. For example, for a food firm like Maggi or an electronics company like Orange to communicate in Wolof conveys a message of an understanding of the problems of everyday people, however, for a banking firm or educational establishment to do so would indicate provincialism and lack of world connections. This is not only with their official information directions : it stretches as far as simple mottos or slogans.

Similarly, election posters sometimes use Wolof, and parties sometimes use names derived from Wolof. For these, a similar process as that of advertisements - attempting to emphasize their connection and understandings of the problems of Senegalese people in their everyday concerns - presumably forms the motivation. There might also be advantages in using Wolof as it seems to be a more condensed written language than French, enabling slogans, mottos, and names to convey more information in the same space. This however, is purely hypothetical.

The clear absence of an increased amount of Wolof advertising or official writing in community neighborhoods is a vital element in understanding Wolof-French writing distribution. In Dakar, while large advertising billboards include the occasional Wolof sign, there is no such trend in small shops and stalls. Here, all writing is in French. Once again, the emphasis for the usage of written Wolof is not to convey information itself to customers (some of whom might even be illiterate), but rather to serve as a way to broadcast values to customers. These are also trends which continue to exist in the Senegalese countryside as well, which although it has greater amounts of Wolof writing in informal form (see the next section), also uses French in official publications at the same rate as in Dakar.


Street graffiti is by its very nature something which is not backed by the power of the state, and conversely most often repressed ( the occasional examples of state support for murals excepted). This makes it a form of popular expression, one which represents people whose capability to publicly express themselves in writing is otherwise limited. One would assume therefore that in Senegal, where French dominates in public text, Wolof would represent the dominating medium in graffiti, while French, the official high language, would be effaced. Conversely, both Wolof and French continue to exist, with French claiming a dominant share.

Some of the small number of Wolof examples found:

Dakar, near the Dakar Artisan Village: “Sunu Diwaan Propre Partout”

Near the Auberge de Sud, at the Pont Faidherbe: “Sinedone Dey Dem Ak P.Laroumpr”

The relatively limited amount of Wolof graffiti is surprising. Surely in this relatively egalitarian median, with low barriers to entry, Wolof would be more present than in official business announcements? And yet, the amount of Wolof scrawled upon the walls and the buildings of Senegal is still small. Of course, French is the language instructed in schools, but still one would presume some writing in Wolof, especially for a medium dominated by those without formal education. Wolof is often the language spoken in texting among friends, as interviews have indicated, so technical barriers for the utilization of Wolof in graffiti form are probably limited, as presumably much of the population will be able to write in Wolof, even if it isn’t the formal literary Wolof promoted by universities. Instead, reasons behind this must stem from social factors.

Graffiti demonstrates that the French language is more than simply a high language in Dakar, but rather one which has attained a widespread usage among the population and which finds legitimacy in such a usage. A dead language, or one perceived as alien, is not one which would be written by the youth of a population. Although French does not have in its spoken form a vernacular form in Senegal, in written form it carries strong popular appeal, or at least it has been ingrained and systematically supported to make its usage desirable. Using French might give graffiti writers a higher form of legitimacy and prestige, as well as a larger audience through higher literacy in French in Dakar. It is easier to dismiss graffiti written in Wolof as coming from the uneducated and the poor than in French, the language of prestige in Senegal. The fact that graffiti in French tends to be most often exigences to vote or political slogans would only emphasize this. While large campaigns receive the benefits of using Wolof - such as Benno Bokk Yakaar, the coalition supporting President Macky Sall - for the small writers on the street, using French means their message is credible in a way that it would not be if it was in Wolof. In Dakar itself, it seems that there was greater distribution of Wolof graffiti in some districts, such as near the Zoo d’Hann, although unfortunately there was little time to conduct a detailed observation there. This region includes aspects with higher economic status than Yoff, and it might again be evidence for an irony in Senegal of the poor and marginalized using French in public writing to attempt to gain greater legitimacy in the eyes of the elite, while the wealthy use Wolof in public writing to claim their authenticity.

While there is little quantitative evidence upon short notice concerning the differing employment of language in the countryside outside of Dakar, it appears that the utilization of Wolof writing in informal writing does increase - as opposed to commercial and official writing which is dominated by French. The total level of graffiti is less in the countryside than the city, displaying a lower level of literacy in the countryside, and less utility for it due to lower population densities and opportunities for message engagement. Saint-Louis seems to have a higher level of Wolof graffiti as well, in contrast to Dakar. An assumption which might be made is that education in Dakar, which has a higher literacy rate than in the rest of the country, has created a French-writing literate population, while outside of Dakar, writing in Wolof has fulfilled this need : much of the Senegalese population continues to be illiterate, but mention has been made by NGOs such as ENDA Graf Sahel of increasingly large populations literate only in the national languages of Senegal.

Graffiti, more than anything else, is a representation of “culture” - an always loose, and polysemous term, with significant historical changes in how it is used, which in the sense used above refers to those values possessed and transmitted within a distinct population. Thus, it might be viewed in the freest sense of how the Senegalese use their written language in public outside of an official setting. Further research by those fluent in both French and Wolof into this matter would provide for a better understanding. In addition, knowing who is responsible for the graffiti, and whether it includes gender aspects that go beyond that of simply young men, could open up valuable elements for gender analysis.

Personal Usage by Senegal
This aspect of the written language has proven the most difficult to study. It has been drawn mostly from interviews rather than direct observation and thusly, probably would warrant more attention. This unfortunately has been an approach which in the past has stumbled upon Senegalese conceptions of their own language, which sometimes fails to see the very language that its users are speaking. The inability to observe personal writing of the Senegalese people to friends and associates, principally online, thus leads to potential problems as related to accuracy, although it also invaluably contributes to understanding what the Senegalese themselves think of

their alternative usage of their languages.

Wolof does tend to be, for texting and online, the principal agent for personal communications. According to Ahmed (whose last name is not mentioned for reasons of anonymity), a student at University Cheikh Anta Diop, he texts his friends primarily in Wolof. This Wolof tends to be written with French-style rules and spelling rather than with “proper” Wolof rules, and also makes extensive usage of French for appropriate concepts, especially technical ones. When posting onto public places, such as discussion forums, the main language of communication tends to be French rather than Wolof. Thus, although Wolof may be acceptable among friends and family, to use it as the main medium of written communication risks limiting one’s accessibility to the world, (to non-wolofophones) or to break codes of communication and conduct. French does continue to be the prestige language as well. For example, according to Ahmed, greater usage of French might be used for impressing others, such as female counterparts.

Other languages are also used, and according to Boku (whose last name is also not shared), his principal language, rather than Wolof, is Pulaar. Although Wolof may be the most extensively spread language in Senegal, other national languages thus continue to maintain a presence in written form to match. Sometimes French is used as the principal agent of texting as well : according to one member of my family, he uses only French due to believing that his written Wolof is not sufficiently good enough.


Certain results can be drawn from the way in which French and Wolof exist in written form in public space. Firstly, both serve fundamentally different roles. Wolof exists as a way to encode a meaning of connection with the popular classes of Senegal (or very rarely as a form of communication with rural regions), while French is a way to transfer information in written form. Of course, French is not a “neutral language”, and just as written Wolof is an identity marker - indicating understanding and connection, be it real or a ploy in advertising, with the common Senegalese people - so too French indicates professionalism, modernity, and connections to the wider world, seen exclusively in French advertising for education or banking projects. But this is a role which is more obscured with French, since French serves a dominating role in all forms of written communication.

Secondly, Wolof in its official written form is dramatically different from the Urban Wolof which is actually spoken by the majority of the people of Dakar. Urban Wolof makes extensive usage of blending of French and other words into the Wolof grammatical structure, while official written Wolof is cleansed of such foreign influence. Even in private written communication, written Wolof seems to be thought of as more conservative than its spoken equivalents. However, this may also be due to the Senegalese tendency to sometimes misinterpret how much language creolization Wolof in particular has undergone. While it is a generally well known fact that French - and other languages - have had significant impacts upon “Urban Wolof”, sometimes this is not seen by wolofophones, so used they are to the utilization of loan words in their vocabulary that they fail to recognize them. Urban Wolof has not attained the status of a literary language yet, while Wolof itself - as limited as its usage in public written from may be at times - has surpassed being simply an “oral language.” The literary valorization of Wolof, best represented by projects such as Tegtal gu jëfu ci wàllu set ak setal mu jëm ci jaaykatu lekk yi, the aforementioned health information package, represents in its own way an exclusion and marginalization of the Wolof spoken in Dakar, as the process of nation-building begins its process of linguistic purification.

As a contrast to official spaces (which do still continue to be dominated by French), private space, with its lower register, Wolof finds much more use in writing. While there are those who write principally in French when texting or talking online, it seems that a majority prefer one of Senegal’s national languages. Thus, the dividing line between French and Wolof online continues to be principally a distinction between private and public usage of the two languages. In private, Wolof is used to write - - in public, even online, French takes a predominant position.

A suggestion for further research would be to extend the focus of public usage of written Wolof to direct observation of private usage. For example, in private text conversations, what composite of Wolof or French exists? Does it reflect the same dynamics as present in spoken “Urban Wolof”, with substantial usage of French-Wolof mixing, or instead the more carefully defined, less heterogeneous Wolof-French present in official writing? Additional research into this matter could play a key role in helping to further our understanding of the development of written vernaculars and high languages in Senegal and in the broader world. Interviews in such regards are not enough, as they run the risk of personal error and confusion. Other avenues of research can include if there is any substantial usage of Arabic, which is important for religious functions in Senegal (and which has even seen increasing use in political campaigns, with billboards written in Arabic) and which has also at times given its script system to Wolof users, so much so that much of what is written in Wolof may be in the Arabic script. All of these would much improve our understanding of Senegal’s languages, as well as the continuing influence of French colonialism and the status of the French language in the country, part of both everyday Senegalese life and the enduring legacy of colonialism. The relationship between French and the national languages of Senegal is always in flux, both spoken and written, and these evolving borders do much to define Senegal’s state of existence.


Swigart, Leigh. “Cultural Creolisation and Language Use in Post-Colonial Africa: the Case of

Senegal.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 64, no. 2 (1994): 175-189.

McLaughlin, Fiona. “Dakar Wolof and the Configuration of an Urban Identity.” Journal of

African Cultural Studies, 14, no. 2 (December, 2001): 153-172.


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