Wolof 2.0: Spoken Languages in a Digital Age

Digital Content

In Senegal, French was traditionally the language of writing, Wolof the language of speaking. But, helped by mobile phones and the web, that is fast changing.

At her three-storey family home in central Dakar, Mami Fall doesn’t know when the internet connection will kick in. When it does, she has to act fast.

“Wi-fi?” she yells to her younger brother, Medoune, who perches on the roof searching for signal.

Her brother shouts a confirmation and Mami yanks her smartphone from its charger. Pressing herself against the wall where the signal is strongest, she opens her Facebook account and starts typing.

Her messages combine Wolof – the most widely-spoken language in Senegal – with French and Arabic, along with the occasional ‘nice’ or ‘cool’ in English.

“On Facebook there are no rules for Wolof”, says Medoune. “We write however we want.”

In fact, even if Mami was determined to write Wolof ‘correctly’, she might not know how.

In the 1970s, a team of linguists, with the support of Senegal’s poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor, codified the country’s leading language, but this writing system never caught on. Around 80% of Senegalese speak Wolof but only 10% recognise its standardised form.

French is Senegal’s official language and remains the only language taught in schools. And traditionally, French was the language of writing, Wolof the language of speaking; French dominated the public sphere, Wolof the private.

This began to change in the 1990s, however, when the privatisation of radio and television shifted the linguistic compass towards urban Wolof as talk show hosts engaged with listeners in the language of everyday life.

Politicians, most notably Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s president from 2000 to 2012, also began using the language in political speeches where it became a symbolic indicator of ‘Senegalese-ness’. (Wade’s French-educated son Karim’s attempts at Wolof were somewhat less successful; rather than marking him out as one of the people, his garbled Wolof inspired a slew of comedy sketches and led his political adversaries to label him a “toubab [white person]” after he botched the Wolof name for a Senegalese town.)

This rise of Wolof in the public sphere further fuelled the growth of written urban Wolof too. Graffiti artists scrawled political slogans in the language, and advertisers increasingly included Wolof phrases on their billboard advertisements.

But it was with the explosion in mobile phone usage and the internet that ordinary Senegalese really started conversing with one other in written Wolof. And today, the language is blossoming on phones and social media. On news sites, comments from readers are punctuated with Wolof proverbs, while discourses, diatribes, love poems and song lyrics in Wolof proliferate on Facebook.

And like with Mami’s written Wolof, the vast majority of these don’t follow any strict forms of spelling.

This worries some such as Souleymane Faye, a former collaborator with Senghor and linguist at Centre de Linguistique Appliquée de Dakar (CLAD). Faye is concerned that, especially without widely recognised standard rules for Wolof, the spread of Facebook-Wolof endangers the language as a whole. Although new media could introduce African languages to the outside world, he says, “the internet will not raise African languages to an academic or intellectual status”.

However, Mami’s older sister Sokhna perhaps sums up the views of many Senegalese, when she comments: “Spelling is not important. It’s the ability to communicate a message that counts”.

Although the language is becoming increasingly prevalent online with the spread of social media, however, Wolof is not new to the web.

Since the late 1990s, the National Association for Literacy and Adult Education (ANAFA) has been translating software into the standardised forms of the local languages Wolof, Bambara and Manding, with the aim of teaching the illiterate to read, write and surf the web in their mother tongue.

According to Usmaan Faati Ndongo, the founder of the non-profit, the organisation was set up to fill a gap in the government’s education programmes and is aimed at helping expand literacy, increase people’s access to information, and develop national languages.

Yaye Mbaye was one of those involved in the scheme. She runs the Maison Valorisation des Activités des Femmes, a women’s collective in Dakar’s impoverished Yeumbuel suburb, where she has taught Wolof literacy courses since 1992. The women use written Wolof to keep track of who owes whom in their microcredit association. Learning to read and write in Wolof “gives you courage”, says Mbaye. “It opens your spirit.”

In 2007, Mbaye took part in an ANAFA pilot computer-literacy training programme, teaching a cohort of Wolof-literature students to type and surf the web. “When I placed these ten fingers on the keyboard, it was extraordinary”, she says. “Did I type in French? No! No! Everything in Wolof.”

Mbaya used her Wolof online surfing the web for news in Wolof and even writing poetry with ANAFA’s word processing programme. But a few months ago, the cost of electricity spiked, significantly increasing running costs. And since then, the four computers donated by a foreign NGO have gathered dust, unused.

Ndongo now believes it’s high time for the government to get fully behind language programmes and the promotion of Wolof. “It’s a question of political will”, he says.

Souleymane Ly, Communications Manager for the Department of Literacy and National Languages (DALN) at the Ministry of Education agrees. Efforts to integrate national languages into formal education have stopped, started and stopped again, he says.

In a country with over 50% illiteracy, only a tiny fraction of Senegal’s budget is devoted to the division that administers national language provision. “That’s not fair at all,” says Ly.

Ly and other language activists therefore insist that it is now the government’s responsibility to invest in the teaching and promotion of Wolof, including its integration on the web.

“If we don’t want African languages to die, we have to position them on the web”, says Waldiodio Ndiaye, an employee of ANAFA.

Meanwhile Demba Jóob, a web developer and blogger, is clear about the importance of the language. He explains why he chooses to blog exclusively in Wolof: “Because I’m a nationalist, period. I live in my own country. What I’m saying, my message, could benefit my people. So when I speak and write, I will write in Wolof. It’s our national language”.