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Senegal Turns Away from French in Boost to Democracy

  • Nico Colombant

World-renowned Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour announced that he was running for president against incumbent Abdoulaye Wade in February 26 elections, (File).

World-renowned Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour announced that he was running for president against incumbent Abdoulaye Wade in February 26 elections, (File).

Senegal, once considered a francophone cradle in West Africa, is now increasingly turning from French to the local Wolof language. Scholars say this is a boost for democracy, but also a problem in some regions of the country.

A collective of rappers sings what has become an opposition anthem in the streets of Senegal's capital, Dakar. The song, which is also the name of an activist movement, “Y'en A Marre,” translates as “Fed Up."

The title and refrain of the song are in French, the language of former colonial power France and Senegal's official language, but the lyrics are in Wolof, the country's most widely spoken language.

The opposition presidential hopeful in the February 26 poll, world famous singer Youssou N'Dour, has released new songs about politics on his Internet YouTube channel, mostly in Wolof as well.

It is not just the music, but campaign speeches, slogans, posters and new political party names that are increasingly in Wolof.

A scholar at the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, Etienne Smith, has researched and written about the turn of Senegalese society toward Wolof. Academics like him call it the “wolofization” of Senegal.

“More and more politicians speak the language of the people, that is they speak Wolof, the language of the people on the streets, that clearly helps slogans, being more understood by the citizens, politics being discussed more and more by the citizenry thanks to the use of African languages and thanks to the use of radio specifically," he said.

Other West African countries where he says a turnaway from French is taking place are Mali and the Central African Republic.

In Senegal, Smith describes the growth of Wolof as a grassroots development. “It is precisely because the state did not sponsor an official compulsory homogenization of the policies, like official 'wolofization' policies, but because it was done informally and not state-sponsored that it was successful. People chose to speak Wolof basically because it was useful as the language of the urban communities, the language of the youth, commerce and trade, and they basically made the voluntary choice to speak this language because of its usefulness and not because it was imposed on them," he said.

After independence from France, when excelling in French was considered an asset for politicians, former president Leopold Sedar Senghor called himself the father of French speakers. His successor, Abdou Diouf, has been the secretary-general of the organization that promotes French worldwide, the International Organization of La Francophonie, since 2003.

Now, Smith says, the situation is somewhat reversed in Senegal, as politicians who do not speak Wolof well are the ones facing difficulties in being accepted. This is not the case for Wolof-speaking incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade, an octogenarian who is running for a new presidential term. But it has been a problem for his son, his possible preferred successor Karim Wade, who has held high positions in his government, despite speaking little Wolof.

Outside the realm of politics, music and media, Wolof also is being used increasingly in business meetings and even court proceedings.

Additional research on the topic, however, indicates not everyone is pleased. The growth of Wolof has inconvenienced many foreigners, including other French-speaking West Africans, who come to Senegal expecting more French to be spoken.

Scholars say Wolof also is taking over from other languages widely spoken in Senegal, such as Pular, Serer, Mandinka and Jola, angering citizens in regions where Wolof has not been the main language.

Academics say that while French is losing its appeal and Wolof is gaining the upper hand, Wolof speakers feel emboldened, but some non-Wolof speakers feel marginalized.