|middle Niger River (Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria); scattered oases (Niger, Mali, Algeria)|
|ISO 639-2 / 5||son|
The Songhay or Songhai languages ([soŋaj] or [soŋoj]) are a group of closely related languages/dialects centred on the middle stretches of the Niger River in the West African countries of Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. In particular, they are spoken in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao. They have been widely used as a lingua franca in that region ever since the era of the Songhai Empire. In Mali, the government has officially adopted the dialect of Gao (east of Timbuktu) as the dialect to be used as a medium of primary education.
Some Songhay languages have little to no mutual intelligibility between each other. For example, Koyraboro Senni, spoken in Gao, is unintelligible to speakers of Zarma in Niger, according to Ethnologue. However, Songhay, Zarma and Dendi have high mutual intelligibility within Niger.
For linguists, a major point of interest in the Songhay languages has been the difficulty of determining their genetic affiliation; they are commonly taken to be Nilo-Saharan, as defined by Greenberg in 1963, but this classification remains controversial. Linguist Gerrit Dimmendaal (2008) believes that for now it is best considered an independent language family. Roger Blench argues that the Songhay and Saharan languages form a Songhay-Saharan branch with each other within the wider Nilo-Saharan linguistic phylum.
Historically, the name Songhay was neither an ethnic nor a linguistic designation, but a name for the ruling caste of the Songhai Empire. Under the influence of French language usage, speakers in Mali have increasingly been adopting it as an ethnic self-designation; however, other Songhay-speaking groups identify themselves with other ethnic terms, such as Zarma (Djerma) or Isawaghen.
Researchers classify the Songhay languages into two main branches; Southern and Northern. Southern Songhay is centered on the Niger River. Zarma (Djerma), the most widely spoken Songhay language with two or three million speakers, is a major language of southwestern Niger (downriver from and south of Mali) including in the capital city, Niamey. Koyraboro Senni, with 400,000 speakers, is the language of the town of Gao, the seat of the old Songhai Empire. Koyra Chiini is spoken to its west. The much smaller Northern Songhay is a group of heavily Berber-influenced dialects spoken in the Sahara. Since the Berber influence extends beyond the lexicon into the inflectional morphology, the Northern Songhay languages are sometimes viewed as mixed languages.
Diedrich Hermann Westermann, a missionary and linguist, hesitated between assigning it to Gur or considering it an isolate, and Maurice Delafosse grouped it with Mande. At present, Songhay is normally considered to be Nilo-Saharan, following Joseph Greenberg's 1963 reclassification of African languages; Greenberg's argument is based on about 70 claimed cognates, including pronouns. This proposal has been developed further by, in particular, Lionel Bender, who sees it as an independent subfamily of Nilo-Saharan. Roger Blench notes that Songhay shares the defining singulative–plurative morphology typical of Nilo-Saharan languages, though it is difficult to show that any of the branches of Nilo-Saharan are actually related. As of 2011, he believes that Songhay is closest to the neighboring Saharan languages, and not divergent.
However, a Nilo-Saharan classification is controversial. Greenberg's argument was subjected to serious criticism by Lacroix, who deemed only about 30 of Greenberg's claimed cognates acceptable, and moreover argued that these held mainly between Zarma and the Saharan languages,[What about Tagdal, which neighbors Saharan?] thus leading one to suspect them of being loanwords. Certain Songhay–Mande similarities have long been observed (at least since Westermann), and Mukarovsky (1966), Denis Creissels (1981) and Nicolaï (1977, 1984) investigated the possibility of a Mande relationship; Creissels made some 50 comparisons, including many body parts and morphological suffixes (such as the causative in -endi), while Nicolaï claimed some 450 similar words as well as some conspicuous typological traits. However, Nicolaï eventually concluded that this approach was not adequate, and in 1990 proposed a distinctly novel hypothesis: that Songhay is a Berber-based creole language, restructured under Mande influence. In support of this he proposed 412 similarities, ranging all the way from basic vocabulary (tasa "liver") to obvious borrowings (anzad "violin", alkaadi "qadi".) Others, such as Gerrit Dimmendaal, were not convinced, and Nicolaï (2003) appears to consider the question of Songhay's origins still open, while arguing against Bender's proposed etymologies.
Greenberg's morphological similarities with Nilo-Saharan include the personal pronouns ai (cf. Zaghawa ai), 'I', ni (cf. Kanuri nyi), 'you (sg.)', yer (e.g. Kanuri -ye), 'we', wor (cf. Kanuri -wi), 'you (pl.)'; relative and adjective formants -ma (e.g. Kanuri -ma) and -ko (cf. Maba -ko), a plural suffix -an (?), a hypothetical plural suffix -r (cf. Teso -r) which he takes to appear in the pronouns yer and wor, intransitive/passive -a (cf. Teso -o).
The most striking of the Mande similarities listed by Creissels are the third person pronouns a sg. (pan-Mande a), i pl. (pan-Mande i or e), the demonstratives wo "this" (cf. Manding o, wo) and no "there" (cf. Soninke no, other Mande na), the negative na (found in a couple of Manding dialects) and negative perfect mana (cf. Manding má, máŋ), the subjunctive ma (cf. Manding máa), the copula ti (cf. Bisa ti, Manding de/le), the verbal connective ka (cf. Manding kà), the suffixes -ri (resultative - cf. Mandinka -ri, Bambara -li process nouns), -ncè (ethnonymic, cf. Soninke -nke, Mandinka -nka), -anta (ordinal, cf. Soninke -ndi, Mandinka -njaŋ...), -anta (resultative participle, cf. Soninke -nte), -endi (causative, cf. Soninke, Mandinka -ndi), and the postposition ra "in" (cf. Manding lá, Soso ra...)
Songhay has a morpheme -ndi which marks either the causative or the agentless passive. Verbs can even take two instances of the morpheme, one for each meaning. Thus ŋa-ndi-ndi figuratively translates to "[the rice] was made to be eaten [by someone: causee] [by someone: causer]".
Some Proto-Songhay reconstructions are:
Some Proto-Eastern Songhay reconstructions are:
Publisher and publication abbreviations: