Songhai, Zarma - Djerma

Koroborocini, Zarmasaani, Dendi, ...

1.  Classification / Classification

Songhai is classed within the Songhai branch of Nilo-Saharan, but the relationship of this branch with the others of Nilo-Saharan is contested. According to Nicolaï (personal communication, 1986), Songhai is composed of two distinct dialect groups, Northern and Southern. (Webbook)

Ethnologue lists the classification of the two main groups as:

  • Nilo-Saharan, Songhai, Southern
  • Nilo-Saharan, Songhai, Northern

2.  Where Spoken / Localisation géographique

Southern Songhai is spoken principally along the Niger River from Djenné in Mali through western Niger (known mainly as Zarma or Djerma) to the north of Benin (called Dendi); it is also found in several places in the northwest of Nigeria, in several villages of Burkina Faso, and even in several urban quarters, of which the most southern is Salaga of Ghana. Northern Songhai is spoken by sedentary populations in the region of Ingall, in the southern Algerian oasis of Tabelbala, and by the nomadic populations in the region of Menaka (Mali), Abala, and Abalak (Niger). (Webbook)

Here is a map of southern Songhai/Zarma dialects according to Nicolaï (1981) as seen in Harrison, Harrison and Rueck (1997):

Carte des dialectes de la langue Soŋay (Harrison, Harrison and Rueck, 1997)

3.  Number of Speakers / Nombre de locuteurs

Southern (Total, all dialects & all countries: 2,960,450)

  • Dendi
    • 30,000 in Benin (1995 Jones)
    • 2,050 in Nigeria (2000 WCD)
    • Population total all countries: 32,050
  • Zarma (Djerma)
    • 2,100,000 in Niger (1998)
    • 87,800 in Nigeria (2000)
    • 600 in Burkina Faso (1987 SIL)
    • Population total all countries: 2,188,400
  • Songhay (Humburi Senni)
    • 125,000 in Burkina Faso (1999)
    • 15,000 in Mali (1999 Heath)
    • Population total all countries: 140,000
  • Songhay, Koyra Chiini
    • 200,000 in Mali (1999 SIL)
  • Songhay, Koyraboro Senni
    • 400,000 in Mali (1999 Dan Stauffer)

Northern (Total, all dialects & all countries: 39,800)

  • Tadaksahak
    • 30,000 in Mali (1995)
    • Population total all countries: 31,800
  • Tasawaq
    • 8,000 in Niger (1998 SIL)

Korandje (no estimate; in Algeria)

4.  Dialect Survey / Enquête de dialecte

Nicolaï, in Les dialectes du songhay (1981), notes six major dialects of Southern Songhai, four major dialects of Northern Songhai, and two independent dialect clusters. (Webbook)

According to Ethnologue:

  • Southern (5)
    • Dendi
    • Zarma
      • Kaado
    • Songhay (Humburi Senni)
      • Marensé (Maransé, Koroboré)
      • Djenne Chiini [?]
    • Songhay, Koyra Chiini
      • Koyra Chiini
      • Djenné Chiini [this is more properly here]
    • Songhay, Koyraboro Senni
  • Northern (2)
    • Tadaksahak
    • Tasawaq
  • Korandje

Ethnologue says re Zarma: In Niger, dialects from Dendi and Songai blend into Zarma. Intelligibility is high, although they use ethnic names 'Dendi' or 'Songai' for themselves. Speakers cannot understand Gao Songai in Mali. [However, American Peace Corps volunteers speaking Zarma of Niger were able to communicate with people in villages in Gao area, but had some difficulty communicating in Gao city. DZO]

Ethnologue says re Songhay, Koyra Chiini: The main dialect division is between Timbuktu and the upriver towns from Diré to Niafunké. A very distinct dialect is in Djenné city. [All in Mali]

Northern Songhay Languages share features from Songhay and Tamasheq. (Ethnologue)

5.  Usage / Utilisation

Songhai/Zarma is a significant regional as well as a national language in Niger and Mali. It is broadcast over Radio-diffusion du Mali and La voix du Sahel in Niger. (Webbook)

Zarma is spoken by about a quarter of the population in Niger, mostly in the west.

Ethnologue has the following notes re Songhay, Koyraboro Senni of Mali:

  • Language use: National language. Trade language. Language of instruction at primary level in some experimental schools. All ages. Gao variety is dominant in all respects. Many are monolingual. Some know Bambara, French, or Tamasheq, but there is no extensive bilingualism (J. Heath 1999).
  • Language development: Actively promoted by the government through adult literacy classes and as the language of instruction at the primary level in some experimental schools. Some French literacy. Dictionary. Grammar.

Apparently some of the texts in the Timbuktu manuscripts are written in Songhay. [need more information]

6.  Orthography / Orthographe

6.1  Status / Statut

An orthography was adopted at the 1966 UNESCO meeting in Bamako, Mali and amended by the relevant national authorities in Niger and Mali. (Webbook) It is Latin-based with extended characters.

The Arabic alphabet was used to write it in the past. [Any current usage?]

6.2  Sample Alphabet / Alphabet exemple

Alphabet as reported by Hartell (1993) and presented in Systèmes alphabétiques (NB, the ny digraph for the palatal n is apparently replaced in the orthographies of both Mali and Niger with the ɲ - n with left hook):

Alphabet zarma (arrété 215-99 de la République du Niger) or sites)

7.  Use in ICT / Utilisation dans les TIC

7.1  Fonts / Polices

Most Unicode fonts with extended Latin ranges include the necessary characters.

There were some 8-bit legacy fonts in Niger (INDRAP98, La nigerienne) and Mali (Bambara Arial?). These should not be used for any documents intended to be shared in digital form or over the internet.

7.2  Keyboard layouts / Dispositions de clavier

The CNRS/LLACAN "AFRO" Tavultesoft Keyman keyboard (for AZERTY) is intended to support Songhay and Zarma:

7.3  Content on computers & internet / Contenu en informatique et sur l'Internet

Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Dendi:

Website with content in Songhay:

7.4  Localized software / Logiciels localisés

There is one nascent effort to localize OpenOffice in Songhai [info from 2005, needs updating]

7.5  Language codes / Codes de langue


  • ISO 639-1: -
  • ISO 639-2: son
  • ISO 639-3: -


  • ISO 639-3: ddn

Songhay (Humburi Senni)

  • ISO 639-3: hmb

Songhay, Koyra Chiini

  • ISO 639-3: khq

Songhay, Koyraboro Senni

  • ISO 639-3: ses


  • ISO 639-3: dje


  • ISO 639-3: dsq


  • ISO 639-3: twq

7.6  Other / Autre

The RIFAL project has been involved in translating texts in legacy fonts into Unicode fonts (in Niger with INDRAP).

Old version of Peace Corps/Niger Zarma dictionary:

8.  Localisation resources / Ressources pour localisation

8.1  Individuals (experts) / Individuelles (experts)

Dr. Haniafou, IRSH

8.2  Institutions / Institutions

8.3  On the internet / Sur la toile

There is an e-mail list on the Songhay language called "marga" hosted by

9.  Comments / Remarques

10.  References / Références

Chanard, Christian (2006), Systèmes alphabétiques des langues africaines, LLACAN, CNRS,

Dwyer, David (1997), Webbook of African Languages, (page on "Songhai/Zarma," )

Harrison, Byron, Annette Harrison, and Michael J. Rueck, with Mahaman Soumana as Interpreter. 1997. "Southern Songhay Speech Varieties in Niger: A Sociolinguistic Survey of the Zarma, Songhay, Kurtey, Wogo, and Dendi Peoples of Niger."

Hartell, Rhonda L., ed. (1993), The Alphabets of Africa. Dakar: UNESCO and SIL. (The French edition, published the same year, is entitled Alphabets de Langues Africaines).

Nicolaï, Robert. 1981. Les dialectes du songhay. Contribution à l’étude des changements linguistiques. (étude phonologique). Paris: Selaf.

SIL International, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, "Dendi,"

______, "Korandje,"

______, "Songhay, Humburi Senni,"

______, "Songhay, Koyra Chiini,"

______, "Songhai, Koyraboro Senni,"

______, "Tadaksahak,"

______, "Tasawaq,"

SIL International, "ISO 639 Code Tables,"

U.S. Library of Congress, "ISO 639.2: Codes for the Representation of Names of Languages: Alpha-3 codes arranged alphabetically by the English name of language,"

Wikipedia, "Songhaï (langue),"ï_(langue)

______, "Songhay languages,"

______, "Southern Songhay languages,"

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