Wolof and Senegal go hand in hand. Not only are the Wolof people the most populous in Senegal, but their language is spoken by 85 percent of Senegalese people. From the Sine-Saloum Delta on the Gambian border to Saint-Louis on Senegal’s northern frontier, Wolof is the language you’ll almost certainly hear on the streets, but hardly ever see in the newspapers.
A predominantly oral language, Wolof is rarely written in official documents and consequently spellings vary from place to place, such as jërejëf and dieuredief (thank you) or chebu-jen and thieboudienne (fish and rice, the national dish). However, the words are still pronounced the same and having a few phrases in your back pocket is as useful for travelling around as it is for putting a smile on locals’ faces.
Salaam aleekum (Sa-laam-a-ley-kum): hello;
Respond with malekum salaam (mal-ay-kum-sal-aam): hello to you
Despite a myriad of different spellings, the pronunciation of this classic Arabic greeting remains remarkably linear. Literally meaning ‘peace be upon you’ (with the response roughly meaning ‘peace also be unto you’), this repartee is the most common way to say ‘hello’ in Senegal.
Na nga def (nan-ga-def): how are you?
Respond with maa ngi fi (man-gi-fi): I’m fine, thanks
The Wolof equivalent of ‘ça va’ or ‘how you doing?’ is commonly used after or instead of salaam aleekum. Don’t be surprised if using it kickstarts a sequence of questions asking how one’s family, house and job are.
Jërejëf (je-re-jef): thank you
Fun to say? Check. Easy to remember? Check. Helpful expression? Check.
Waaw / déedéyt (wao / dey-dey): yes / no
As anyone who has ever had a conversation knows, yes and no are two of the most useful words to know in any language and can easily be used with theatrical gesticulations for effect.
Dégg naa / dégguma (deg-na / deg-goo-ma): I understand / I don’t understand
Depending on how quickly you pick up a language, the latter phrase will likely be the more helpful when you travel in Senegal. Although, if you really want to show you don’t understand, it’s best to pretend you don’t speak any Wolof at all. Or French. Or even English.
Baal ma (baal-ma): sorry or pardon me
If you ever take public transport in Senegal, knowing how to apologise after bumping into someone is handy to know. Not that it will stop you from bumping into them again moments later.
Mangi dem (man-gee-dem): goodbye
Literally translating as ‘I’m going’, mangi dem is another easy to learn phrase that travellers can master without much effort. However, if you fancy having a funkier way of saying goodbye, try some of these phrases out for size: leegi leegi (see you shortly); ba beneen (see you next time); yendu ak jamm (have a nice day).
Ana wanaag wi (ana-wan-aag-wee): where is the toilet?
There’s a strange chemistry between tourists and toilets: sometimes best friends, other times worst enemies. Try and keep the relationship civil by knowing where they are with this handy phrase (although toilettes is almost universal too).
Jaddal sa cammon / jaddal sa ndeyjoor (jad-dal-sa-cam-mon / jad-dal-sa-jay-jor): turn left / turn right
In Senegal, you don’t tend to ask a taxi driver to take you to a street address, but rather to a landmark, such as a restaurant, hotel or beach. However, that landmark is not always exactly where you want to go, so having these two expressions in one hand and Google Maps in the other, should make life a lot easier.
Tahawal fee (ta-ha-wal-fee): stop here
Again, your destination may be closer than the landmark given, so whip this out and save walking back on yourself.
Dama xiif / dama mar (da-ma-keef / da-ma-marr): I’m hungry / thirsty
Travelling is both hungry and thirsty work, especially in a climate as warm as Senegal’s. Luckily, you now know what to say when you’re feeling peckish or fancy a cooling drink.
Ndox (ndorr): water
Having an ‘n’ before another consonant can seem alien for some Western tongues, but focus on the second letter, in this case ‘d’ (and so ‘dorr’), and then try and slip an ‘un’ sound before it.
Neex na (nay-na): it’s delicious
Senegalese cuisine can be delicious and letting either your host, chef or waiter know is sure to bring a smile to their face. If you want to push the boat out, safna sap (saf-narr-sap) means ‘this tastes wonderful’.
Ñaata la? / ñaata lay jar (ni-ata-la / ni-ata-lay-jar): how much? / how much is it?
The first line of defence in a tourist’s armoury against inflated prices. From markets to taxis, asking the price before buying is essential. It goes without saying that their initial response should be knocked down a peg or two.
Dafa Seer / seer na lool (da-fa-sher / sher-na-lool): it’s expensive / that’s very expensive
And the second line of defence.
Waañi ko (oua-ni-ko ): lower the price
Swiftly followed by the third. Whatever the outcome of your bartering skills, you’re likely to have at least made them laugh.
Dara/nayn (da-ra/nayn) – 0
Benn (ben): 1
Naar (nyaar): 2
Nett (nyet): 3
Nent (nyent): 4
Juroom (joo-room): 5
Juroom benn (joo-room ben): 6
Juroom naar (joo-room nyaar): 7
Juroom nett (joo-room nyet): 8
Juroom nent (joo-room nyent): 9
Fukk (fook): 10
Téeméer (tee-meer): 100
Junni (joo-nee): 1,000
Numbers in Wolof are like building blocks: learn the basics and you can make them all. So, on that basis, what’s 5,000? Juroom-junni, of course.
Nanga tudd (nan-ga-tud): What is your name?
Respond with maa ngi tudd (man-gee-tud): my name is…
How do you become friends if you don’t know someone’s name? Exactly.
Nunyi waxee _____ chi Wolof? (nun-yee-war-ee _____ chi-Wol-of): how do you say _____ in Wolof?
Part of the pleasure of learning a few Wolof phrases is the pride and joy emitted by most Senegalese after realising you’ve taken the time to learn about their culture. So, show increased interest by using this expression and either a French word or pointing at something to fill the gap.
Rafet na (raf-et-na): it’s beautiful
Another sure-fire way to make friends in Senegal? Compliments. Whether its jewellery they’ve made or the view over the sea, showing your appreciation always goes down well.
Toubab (too-bab): foreigner (westerner)
You’ll likely hear this at one point in your trip, so best to know what it means. In theory, a ‘toubab’ is anyone that isn’t Senegalese, but it really relates to a westerner or foreigner. It’s not malicious, so don’t be offended if a little child points and calls you ‘monsieur/madame toubab’.
Dama tang / sedd / sonn (da-ma tang / sed / son): I am hot / cold / tired
Dama is ‘I’, dafa is ‘he/she’ and dañu is ‘we’. It would be very surprising if you and / or your travel companions were not hot or tired at some point during your time in Senegal. Highly unlikely, though, if you were cold.