December 25, 2020


Hey There! Aran Kani baani?

Well, I just greeted you in the Songhay language, want to learn more about the Songhay language and its people and culture? Then you’re probably reading the right article, because at the end of the article, you will learn some greetings of the Songhay language, so let’s start!

 As an ancient language, the Songhay language can be traced back to the 15th and 16th century. It is predominantly centered on the middle reach of the Niger river, which is in today’s climes is called Mali. It extends its territory through the West African region. It was known to be one of the enormous states in African history.


The name “Songhay”, originated from its leading ethnic group and rulers, “the Songhai”. It was historically recorded that people had settled in the city of Gao around 800 ce but didn’t regard it as their capital. 

Historians have argued  that Sonni Ali who ruled in 1464 – 1494 was the first emperor ruler of the Songhay empire, although  in the 11th century, the people of Songhay were ruled by dia Kossoi – an Islam convert.During Kossi’s reign, Gao was officially made the capital of the Songhay empire and  there were series of alterations and changes – favourable or not,  that was brought to an end by the famous Sonni ‘Ali also known as ‘Ali Ber in the year 1464 when he became ruler.

He is remembered for his various victories and is known today as the most famous ruler of the Songhay kingdom , who gave it so much dominance and power.

He took over major cities like Timbuktu in 1468 and Djenne in 1475. After 30 years of peaceful and coordinated ruling,  Songhai empire was passed on to his successor and son, Sonni Baru who didn’t live up to expectations;  This consequently led to the usurping of the empire by one of his father’s then-general; Muhammad Ture (1493 -1528), who instituted political and economical reforms.

SONGHAY LANGUAGE: The Mutual Intelligibility

Songhay languages are closely related so much so that most of them are said to be mutually intelligible between each other( there are no distinct differences in their dialect). These languages are majorly centred around the Niger River in major West African countries such as; Mali, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, Precisely spoken in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, there are several dialects of Songhay language. Researchers and Linguists have classified the Songhay languages as Nilo-Saharan. Even in their similarity, researchers have divided the songhay language into Southern and Northern songhay . 

Zarma is the most widely spoken language in the Southern songhay language branch with two to three million speakers. 

It is also interesting to note that, due to colonial influences in countries like Mali, Benin, and Niger, the majority of the Songhay indigenes are fluent and familiar with the French language. According to its varieties, the various dialects are placed according to its popularity : 

  • Zarma(77.3%)
  • Koyraboro Senni (9.3%)
  • Dendi(5.5%)
  • Koyra Chiini (4.3%)
  • Tadaksahak(2.2%)
  • Others (1.4%)

Phonology and Orthography

Using the Zarma Language, being  the most popular of the lot, the Songhay language is made up of 25 alphabets.  

There are actually 5 vowels which are also known as oral vowels, they are  – a, e, i, o, u. These oral vowels also have nasalized counterparts which technically brings the number of vowels to 10 actual vowels.

The consonants are made up of 20 letters, there are long and short consonants. Zarma is a tonal language, which is made up of four tones; high, low, fall and rise. Zarma language requires little or no stress in its pronunciations.

ITS LOCATION: Where in Africa?

Located East of Mali, West of Niger and the North of Benin, it’s safe to state that the Songhai empire is in today’s society located in the highlands of the Western region of Africa. It consists of rocky plains, rocky land formations in the south, and sandy dunes in the north. Majority of the Songhay speaking indigenes live in Mali and Niger.

Major  towns in the Songhay empire are Gao and the famous Timbuktu which has been used by a famous Western African musician (Davido), in one of his songs – “Holy Ground”, while other cities such as; Ayoru, Tillaberi, Niamey, and Tera are all part of the Niger republic. They are majorly agriculturists dealing in millet and sorghum in the sandy fields and cultivate rice in the shallows of the Niger River. Interestingly, they are known to experience one of the world’s harshest weather climates, with no rains between May to October yearly.

CULTURE AND RELIGION: The way of life of the people

Almost all Songhay indigenes practice Islam, however, they haven’t excluded their pre-Islamic beliefs. They see life as a series of paths that constitutes life in the world. According to the Songhay belief, the metaphoric paths of life comes to an end when they meet two parts that redirect them to a new path. At this point, they are faced with crossroads, these are points of danger, people tend to be vulnerable, suffering from misfortune, sickness and possible death. Songhay people believe that life is seen as a continuous encounter with dangerous crossroads. 

They are proud of their imperial past and celebrate it with songs, dance, and epic poetry that tells stories of their heritage and forefathers. Like every other African culture, they perform rituals – the rite of passage, that underscores the major events of the life-cycle. Majority of these rituals follow the Islamic prescriptions, though practices relating to birth, divorce, puberty, and death, predate Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.


From various research, nothing is  known as to current notable individuals from Songhay or who speake the language, but till date, the Songhai people believe the two most influential individuals of the empire are Sunni Ali and Askia Muhammad. During their reign, they were known to have strengthened the empire more than any other ruler. Songhay people were known to have achieved great things and also developed useful technologies and art. They created a variety of artworks, prominent among  them was the riverboat which was used for commerce and economic activities.

One of their major cities, Gao, was known as the artisan paradise because of its advancement in the creation of its artworks, from sculptures made from woods to statues, pottery, masks etc. It is Interesting to note is that these artworks were not just made for entertainment purposes but also to advance their civilization. They were known to create beautiful architectural  edifices, most notable till date is the tomb of Askia Muhammad. Built with the combination of mud bricks and wood timbers, the tomb structure resembles a step pyramid. 

Just in case you find yourself in a town populated by the Songhay, here are some of the common greetings

  • Hello – Fo/FoFo
  • Welcome – Fo’ndakyan/Kubayni
  • Hello, how are you? – Aran kani baani (Morning) 
  • Hello, how are you? – Aran foy baani (Afternoon)

NB : response to the above questions – Baani Samey

  • Good morning – Aran kani baani
  • Good afternoon – Aran foy baani
  • Good evening – Matey aran wichira
  • Good Bye – Kala tonto

Even though in today’s world the Songhay empire may not be as civilized and advanced as most countries in the 21st century, their history, culture and language have been part of the civilization process of some African countries. 
Hope you learnt a lot about the Songhay language?. Till next time when we get to talk about another beautiful language it’s goodbye for now or should I say Kala tonto!