Region of the Buli language
Region of the Buli language
Buli is a Mabia language and has 200 000 speakers. The Buli dialects are not well researched and claims about these dialects are therefore inconsistent.1. According to Schwarz (2005), one dialect is Chuchuliga, spoken in the northern part of Ghana close to Navrongo. This dialect is influenced by Kasim, which is another Mabia language spoken in the Upper East Region of northern Ghana and in Burkina Faso. Chuchuliga has specific morphological features such as the lack of diphthongs, a richer nominal morphology and the lack of low tones, which are similar to other varieties of Buli1. According to Ethnologue, Buli does not show dialectal variation and is reportedly similar to Konni, which is spoken in the districts of Nangurima and Yikpabongo. Moreover, Buli is lexically similar with Mampruli (77%), according to Ethnologue.

Linguistic classification

  • Niger-Congo
    • Atlantic-Congo
      • Mabia
        • Mabia Central
          • Mabia Mid-Central
            • Mabia Buli-Konni
                • Buli

Tone system

There are three tonal levels in Buli, i.e. high, mid and low, and the tone phenomena are very complex. Words deviate from their basic tonal patterns when they occur in a syntactic schema.

Lexical function

(1)   a.   bāng
b.   bàng

Grammatical functions

(2)   a.   Ateng a chēng yabanga.
'Ateng is going to the market.'
b.   Ateng a chèng yabanga.
'Ateng was going to the market.'2

Noun class system2

There are four singular classes and five plural classes. While the singular class identifiers are not markers of number, the plural markers mark number. This classification is based on semantics rather than morphology. Items in class one are [+human ] and the suffixes do not mark number, but they mostly serve as determiners. The items in all other classes are [-human] and their plural suffixes mark number.

Class Singular Plural Example Semantics
I núr 'man' human / loan words
II ŋà yérí 'house' dependent entities (body parts, fruits, languages)
III bàŋ 'lizard' ethnonyms, trees, diminutives
IV síuk 'path' animals, instruments, mass and abstract nouns
V -   trees, body parts, animals, liquids, abstract nouns

Pronominal System1

Personal Pronouns / Possessive Pronouns

In Buli, there is a distinction between speaker, hearer and topic. The speaker corresponds to the first person, while the hearer is second person. Topic on the other hand refers to the third person, but is treated differently from first and second person in that the third person form corresponds to a nominal class pronoun. In contrast, the first and second person pronouns are formed by a strong or weak person pronoun form. In general, these pronouns show number agreement. Moreover, the topic forms not only express person and number, but also gives rise to the differentiation between the five singular and four plural forms of the noun class system1.

According to Sulemana (2021), there is a distinction between strong and deficient (weak) pronouns which differ in their tonal appearance. The strong forms have a high tone, whereas the deficient forms have a low tone. An overview of the inventory of the personal pronouns in Buli is given in the table below.

Pers/Num/CL Strong forms Deficient (weak) forms
1SG ǹ (mə)
2SG fì (fə)
1PL támà
2PL námà
3PL.CL4 ŋá ŋà

Interestingly, for the first and second person pronouns in singular there are three different forms. The pronouns in deficient form and can only appear in object function shown in (3a) and (3b), while the pronouns ǹ and can only serve as subjects, shown in (3c) and (3d). The pronouns in strong form on the other hand can appear in both subject and object position. This is shown in (3e) and (3f). Furthermore, the person pronouns shown in the table above can also be used as possessive pronouns, meaning that they are homonymous. An example is given in (4), in which the the possessive pronoun can either appear as an independent element as in (4a) or it can be clitically bound with the noun as in (4b).

(3)   a.   Asouk nàgì   mə/fə.
Asouk hit 1SG/2SG
'Asouk hit me/you.’
b. *Mə/fə nágí Asouk.
1SG/2SG hit Asouk
'I/you hit Asouk.'
c. Ǹ nàgí Asouk.
1SG hit Asouk
'I hit Asouk.'
d. *Asouk nàgì ǹ.
Asouk hit 1SG
'Asouk hit me.'
e. nágí Asouk.
1SG hit Asouk
'I hit Asouk.'
f. Asouk nàgì mí.
Asouk hit 1SG
'Asouk hit me.'3

(4)   a.   bìmbìlī   ǹnā.
1.SG   pot   CONJ   DEM:DET
'This is my pot.’
b.   M=bìmbìlī   ǹnā.
'This is my pot.'1

Absolute Pronouns

Pronouns that refer to entities, independent of a verbal predicate, always have to appear in the strong form. In these contexts, there is no possible option of cliticalization, because the focus marker as the only preceding element does not obligatorily need to be present. The following examples illustrate this fact.

(5)   a.   (Ká) mí.
FOC   1.SG
'It's me.’
b. *(Ká) ǹ.
FOC   1.SG
'It's me.'1

(6)   a.   (Ká) fí.
FOC   2.SG
'It's you.’
b. *(Ká) fì.
FOC   2.SG
'It's you.'1

(7)   a.   (Ká) wá.
FOC   1.PL
'It's us.’
b. *(Ká) wà.
FOC   1.PL
'It's us.'1

Reflexive Pronouns

In order to express reflexivity in Buli, an additional particle dék is used, which can either follow the strong form of a pronoun or it can clitically bind with the deficient form of a pronoun. The strong form is used in order to express logophoric reference, as shown in (9), while the deficient form is used in cases, in which the agent and the patient of a predicate are coreferent. This is shown in (8a). An overview of the reflexive pronouns is given in the table below.1

Pers/Num/CL Strong forms Deficient (weak) forms
1SG mí dék ǹ=dēk
2SG fí dék fì=dēk
3SG.CL1 wá dék wà=dēk
3SG.CL2 dí dék dì=dēk
3SG.CL3 ká dék kà=dēk
3SG.CL4 kú dék kù=dēk
3SG.CL5 bú dék bù=dēk
1PL tàmā dék tì=dēk
2PL nàmā dék nì=dēk
3PL.CL1 bá dék bà=dēk
3PL.CL2 sí dék sì=dēk
3PL.CL3 tí dék tì=dēk
3PL.CL4 ŋá dék ŋà=dēk

(8)   a.   nág ǹ=dēk
1SG   hit 1SG=REFL
'I hit myself.’
b. zágí dék yìtìyā.
1SG   rise   1SG   REFL   get.up
'I got up (myself).'1

(9)   Bà=wèènì àyēn dék jām.
3PL.CL1=say   COMP   3PL.CL1   REFL   FUT   come
'They said that they themselves will come.’1

Reciprocal Pronouns

The particle dék expressing reflexivity in a construction with a pronoun can also be used in reciprocal contexts, shown in (10). In order to disambiguate the expression, the reciprocal nominal element chāāb can be used in object position. This is shown in (11).

(10)   Bà=nàg bà=dēk.
3PL.CL1=hit   FOC   3PL.CL1=REFL
'They hit themselves / each other.’1

(11)   Tì=ɲà chāāb.
1PL=see   REZ
'We saw each of us. ’1

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are formed by the stem of the pronouns of the noun classes (3SG.CL1-5 and 3.PL.CL1-4) with an additional vowel. In contexts involving negation or conditionals, these pronouns refer to NPI elements like nobody, no one. 1

1 wāā(i) bāā(i)
2 dīī sīī
3 kāā(i) tīī
4 kūū(i) ŋāā(i)
5 būū(i)

Demonstrative Pronouns

In general, there are two demonstrative pronouns in Buli, dɛ, lá.

The demonstrative form is used in contexts, in which an entity to which the pronoun refers to is visible. The form itself can be translated to here. The pronoun is adjoined to the definite noun as a suffix, as illustrated in (12).

(12)   Bà=bòrà=ā   nāg     gɔgtàŋā,   máástàwàdɛ   dèrì tààm ...
NC1.PL=LOC.be=there=IPF   hit dance.PL:DEF   master:DEF:there   CONJ   immediately   pass
'While they drummed to the dance, the teacher immediately came ... .’1

For this demonstrative form there exists also a second more complex form, actually. The basis of the form comes from a noun class pronoun, to which the demonstrative is adjoined as a suffix and the morphem ɲā is optionally prepended. An overview of the demonstrative noun class pronouns formed with is given below.1

1 (ɲā) wādɛ (ŋā) bādɛ
2 (ɲā) dīdɛ (ŋā) sīdɛ
3 (ɲā) kādɛ (ŋā) tīdɛ
4 (ɲā) kūdɛ (ŋā) ŋādɛ
5 (ɲā) būdɛ

In contexts, in which the entity to which the demonstrative refers to is not visible, the form is used. This demonstrative form is also formed by a noun class pronoun, to which the demonstrative also adjoins as a suffix. This demonstrative can be translated to that. An overview of these forms is given in the table below and an example for a context in which the demonstrative is used is given in (13).

1 wálá bálá
2 dílá sílá
3 kálá tílá
4 kúlá ŋálá
5 búlá

The demonstrative can also form a compound with a preceding noun, as shown in (13b).

(13)   a.   Bà=nē ɲɛ   dílá nùè=lā ...
NC1.PL=CONJ   do   CL2.SG:DET   finish=DET  
'After they finished that, ... .’
b.   bísáŋá   à yāā yí-dílá   yīkā.
1SG   child.PL:DEF   IPF   like FOC   song-NC2.SG:DET   sing.N
'My children love to sing this song. '1

Interrogative Pronouns


The interrogative pronoun for which is formed by the pronoun form of the noun classes with the suffix -nà.1

1 wànà bànà
2 dìnà sìnà
3 kànà tìnà
4 kùnà ŋànà
5 bùnà


The singular and plural forms of the first noun class interrogative pronouns (which) are used as the question word for human referents (who). Note that the abbreviation INT denotes interrogativity.

(14)   wànàà?
FOC   CL1.SG.which.INT
'Who is that?.’1

How much/many

In order to express how much/many, the interrogative form of the second class singular dìnà is used. It can either appear with the focus marker only or preceded by a substantive as antecedent.1

(15)   a.   dìnàà?
FOC   how.much.INT
'How much/many?’
b.   Jà-nàlìŋkàdɛ à da=ká dìnàà?
Thing-pretty:DEF:here   &   sell=FOC   how.much.INT
'How much is this pretty thing?'1

The interrogative form can also combine with the strong form of the personal pronouns from the noun classes in order to function as an adnominal quantifier of a preceding noun.

(16)   Nídɔābā   =dìnà   àlē jàmìyāā?
man.PL CL.1.PL=how.many   &:CONJ   come:ASS.INT
'How many men came?'1


The interrogative form for what is bɔà, which can either form a compound like in (15a), or which modifies a following noun, as shown in (15b).

(17)   a.   yí-bɔà àtè fàà wōŋ fì=yīì?
FOC   song-what   &:CONJ   2.SG:IPF   say.COMP   2SG=sing.INT
'What (which song) are you going to sing?'
b.   bɔàn yìīlì àtè fàà wōŋ fì=yīì?
FOC   what song &:CONJ   2SG:IPF   say.COMP   2SG=sing.INT
'What (which song) are you going to sing?' 1


The interrogative pronoun for how is sɛ`, that appears in a position preceded by the focus marker .

(18)   ɲɛ=kú sɛ?
2SG   do=CL.4SG   FOC   how.INT
'How did you do it?’1


There are two local question words in Buli, lèē and bɛɛ. The former relates to locations of entities like in (17a), while the latter is used adverbally like in (17b).

(19)   a.   Fì=yènní lèē?
2SG=house:DEF   where.INT
'Where is your house?’
b.   Fàà chēŋ   bɛɛ?
2SG:IPF   go FOC   where.INT
'Where are you going (to)?'1


For the temporal interrogative pronoun there exist several forms in Buli. One form is a compound consisting of the noun tám ("time") and the question word for what. Another and more precise form like "which day/ month/...?" can be formed by the interrogative form for "which" and a noun like "day", as dà-dìnàà. Alternatively, there is a third form dìmpōɔ/dìsàpō, which refers to a more general point in time.

(20)   a.   tám-bɔà wà=kpìì?
FOC   time-what   CONJ   CL.1SG=die.INT
'When did he die?'
b.   ɔ=jàm dà-dìnàà?
CL.1SG=come   FOC   day-CL.2SG.which.INT
'When did he come?'
c.   Wà=kpìì dìmpōɔ?
CL.1SG=die.INT   FOC   when.INT
'When did he die?'1

Word order

Buli has a strict SVO word order with optional focus/wh-movement and no pro-drop. In (21) an intransitive clause with an adverb is given, in (22) a transitive clause also with an adverb is shown and in (23) the word order in an embedded clause is shown. All examples confirm the basic word order of SVO.

(21)   ɲú=ká ɲwūlì.
1.SG   drink=FOC   quickly
'I drank quickly.’1

(22)   Núrúwá kàlì   mɔātī (ká) fì.
Person:DEF   sit himself.next   (FOC)   2.SG
'The man lives next to you.’1

(23)   Asibi   wìen   āyīn Asouk   dìgì làmmú.
Asibi say COMP   Asouk cook   meat.DEF
'Asibi said that Asouk cooked the meat.’3

Verbal System

The verbal system in Buli is characterized by tonal inflection and relatively simple segmental verb morphology. Most of the verbs have a single segmental basic form, to which either a preverbal or postverbal particle is added and a specific tone in order to mark different aspects, modes, affirmation as well as negation.1

Preverbal Particles

Preverbal particles mainly mark aspect and polarity. Note that the absence of a preverbal particle indicates perfective aspect.

Á, À

The preverbal particle á, à marks imperfective aspect. In the subjunctive the particle á is used, while its counterpart with low tone à is used in the indicative. In (24a) this particle thus occurs in subjunctive and in (24b) in indicative.

(24)   a.   Núrúmá á bōb   nííŋá.
Person.PL:DEF   IPFV   tie cow.PL:DEF

'The people should tie the cows (again).’
b.   Núrúmá à bōb   nííŋá.
Person.PL:DEF   IPFV   tie cow.PL:DEF
'The people tie the cows (again).'1

The preverbal particle marks future tense. It can either attach to a preceding pronoun as in (25a) or it can occur as an independent particle as in (25b).

(25)   a.   Tì= wēēn   núrú-mbàlá.
1PL=FUT   say Person-DEM:3PL.CL1:DET
'We will inform the other people.’
b.   Tììmū bōlisi.
tree:DEF   FUT   cut
' The tree will be cut. '1

Kán, kàn

This preverbal particle kán, kàn is a preverbal negative marker. Similarly to the tone pattern of the preverbal particle á, à, in the subjunctive the preverbal particle kán has a high tone on the vowel, while in the indicative it has a low tone kàn.

(26)   Ǹ=kàn   bàntí=fùʔ.
1SG=NEG1   say.goodbye=2SG.NEG2
'I will not say goodbye to you.’1

Main Verb

Postverbal Particles

Postverbal particles in Buli mainly express affirmation and negation.


The postverbal particle expresses assertion and is used in cases in which there is no preverbal particle, thus in perfective aspect. In contrast to the preverbal particles, this postverbal particle has to attach to the verb and cannot appear as an independent particle. The example in (27) illustrates that the speaker expresses a particularly surprising aspect of the facts. Moreover, predicates marked with this particle are used by speakers as an unexpected or unforeseeable change of situation, occasionally also adverbially translated as 'just now', 'immediately' or 'suddenly'.1

(27)   Bà=bòlìsì tììmū=yā.
3PL.CL1=trim   tree:DEF=ASS
'They trimmed the tree.’’1


This particle expresses affirmation. Interestingly, the focus marker seems to be contained in the morphem ká-, while the morphem -mā seems to be an element with unknown function.1 The emphatic function of this particle is to establish a relation between a truth value of a proposition and an expression from the previous context of the discourse, (i.e. indeed, really). It seems that this particle expresses verum focus, but according to Schwarz (2005) it is an outstanding issue to investigate whether varying positions of the particle in the clause lead to semantic-pragmatic effects.

(28)   ɲá=wá kámā.
1SG   see=3SG.CL1   AFF
'I really saw him.’1

The postverbal particle is formally identical with the demonstrative pronoun and also has an emphatic function. In Schwarz (2005), the use of this particle is described as the use of emphasis on the subject, which is characterized to a particular degree by the facts predicated on it as standing out from the crowd of potential alternatives. In (28) this particle stresses the property of being late and having a big nose.

(29)   a.   Fì=bèní=là.
'You are really late.’
b.   Fì=ɲōnní zùà=là.
2SG=nose:DEF   big=EMPH
'Your nose is very big.'1


Negation in Buli is expressed by two negative markers, one occurs preverbally and the other one postverbally. The example in (30a) illustrates negation in the perfective, while (30b) illustrates it in the imperfective. In both examples, there is a preverbal negative marker and a postverbal one, similar to other negation systems like in French ne ... pas.

(30)   a.   àn dìgi lām ā.
2SG   NEG1   cook   meat   NEG2
'You didn't cook meat.’
b.   kàn dìgi lām ā.
2SG   NEG1   cook   meat   NEG2
'You don't cook meat.'1

Preverbal negative markers

The following table gives an overview of the preverbal negative markers, that appear between the subject and the negated verb.4 The negative markers for the imperative II and the future tense differ only in tones, such that in the imperative II the tone on the vowel is low and the tone on the end is high, while in the future tense it is the exact opposite. The form of the indicative II is the form that deviates the most from the other forms. According to Schwarz (1999), the negative marker àn is associated with a verb in the perfective aspect, while the negative marker kàn is associated with imperfective aspect.

Tense Buli
Imperative I á kūrī
Imperative II kàń kūrī
Future káǹ kūrī
Indicative I kàn kūrī
Indicative II àn kùríyà

Postverbal negative markers

Contrary to preverbal negative markers, it is not obligatory for postverbal negative markers to show up.3 These rather stress the negated clause.

Postverbal Glottal Stop

All negated predicates in Buli have a hart glottal stop at the end of the clause. This glottal stop stresses the negation at the end of the clause and thus functions as a second negative marker. Note that this glottal stop is not always included in the glossing.

(31)   Wá=kàn kpì dōnláʔ.
3SG.CL1=NEG1   die     year.DEM.NEG2
'He will not die this year.’4


For reasons of completeness, the postverbal negative marker (y)ā is listed here as well. Note that the example in (30) thus is repeated here.

(32)   a.   àn dìgi lām ā.
2SG   NEG1   cook   meat   NEG2
'You didn't cook meat.’
b.   kàn digi lām ā.
2SG   NEG1   cook   meat   NEG2
'You don't cook meat.'1

Question Formation5

In Buli, questions can be formed by an ex situ strategy as well as an in situ strategy. In addition, embedded questions and multiple questions are discussed as well.

Ex situ

Questions that exhibit the question word ex situ are formed by the order QVO, in which the particle can optionally precede the question word. Note that this particle is homonymous with the focus marker . In subject questions the particle ālì obligatorily follows the subject wh-phrase as in (33a), whereas in non-subject questions the particle ātì immediately follows the non-subject wh-phrase.

(33)   a.   (Ká)   wānā   *(ālì)   dìg   lāmmúː?
Q who   PTC  cook   meat.DEF
'Who cooked the meat?’
b.   (Ká)  bwā   *(ātì)   bíːká   dìgìː?
Q what     PTC   child.DEF   cook
'What is it that the child cooked?'5

In situ

In questions, in which the question word occurs in situ, the particle obligatorily precedes the question word or the phrase containing the question word, respectively.

(34)   a.   Bíːká   dìg *(ká) bwāː?
child.DEF   cook     Q what
'What did the child cook?’
b.   Bíːká   *(ká) wānā   lāmmúː?
child.DEF   give     Q who meat.DEF
'Who did the child give the meat to?'
c.   Bíːká   dìg lāmmú   *(ká) bɛ̄ː?
child.DEF   cook   meat.DEF   Q where
'Where did the child cook the meat?'
d.   Bíːká   dìg lāmmú   *(ká)   wānā:?
child.DEF   cook   meat.DEF   give   Q who
'Who did the child cook the meat for?'5


In embedded questions the question word remains in situ and is embedded via the complementizer āsī, which only occurs in embedded contexts. In declarative contexts the complementizer āyīn is used.

(35)   a.   Mary   bèg   āsī   John   dìg   *(ká)   bwāː.
Mary ask C John   cook      Q what
'Mary asked what John has cooked.’
b.   Mary   à-bā   āsī   John   dìg   *(ká)   bwāː.
Mary IPFV-wonder   C John   cook       Q what
'Mary wonders what John has cooked.'5

Multiple questions

In ex situ, in situ and embedded questions it is possible to have more than one question word. In multiple questions, the particle precedes the highest wh-containing phrase.

(36)   a.   Ajohn   tè   ká   wān   bwāː?
Ajohn   give   Q who   what
'Who did John give what?’
b.   (Ká)   wānā   ālì   dìg   bwāː?
Q who   PTC   cook   what
'Who cooked what?
c.   (Ká)   bwā   ātì   wānā   dìgìː?
Q what PTC   who   cook
'What is it that who cooks?'5


  • 1. Schwarz, Anne (2005): Aspekte der Morphosyntax und Tonologie im Buli. Ph. D. thesis. Berlin: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin 
  • 2. Bodomo, Adams, Hasiyatu Abubakari & Samuel Alhassan Issah (2020): Handbook of the Mabia Languages of West Africa. Glienicke: Galda Verlag 
  • 3. Sulemana, Abdul-Razak (2021): Non-finite Complementation: A case study of Bùlì. Ph. D. thesis.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  • 4. Schwarz, Anne (1999): Preverbal negative markers in Buli .: Cahiers Voltaïques / Gur Papers 4, 91-98 
  • 5. Sulemana, Abdul-Razak (2019): Q-particles and the nature of covert movement: Evidence from Buli.: Glossa, 1-21 
  • 6. Abdul-Razak Sulemana. (2022): Obligatory controlled subjects in Bùlì. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.6393754.: Zenodo 
  • 7. Ferreira, Marcelo & Heejeong Ko (2003): Questions in Buli. In: Michael Kenstowicz & George Akanlig-Pare (eds.), Studies in Buli grammar: Working papers on endangered and less familiar languages 4. Cambridge, MA: MITWPL, pp. 35-44 
  • 8. Hiraiwa, Ken (2003): Relativization in Buli.: Working papers on Endangered and Less Familiar Languages 4, 45-84 
  • 9. Hiraiwa, Ken (2005): Predicate clefts in Buli: Phase and category.: Linguistic Analysis: a special volume: African linguistics in the new millennium 32, 544-583 
  • 10. Kenstowicz, Michael (2004): Verbal tone in Buli: a morphosyntactic analysis.: MIT 
  • 11. Kenstowicz, Michael & George Akanlig-Pare (2003): Studies in Buli Grammar: Working papers on endangered and less familiar languages. Cambridge, MA: Dept. of Linguistics, Massachusetts Inst. of Technology (MIT): MITWPL 
  • 12. Schwarz, Anne (2006): Sentence-medial adverbials in Buli.: Afrikanistentag München Handout 
  • 13. Schwarz, Anne (2009): To be or not to be? About the copula system in Buli (Gur). In: Margarida Petter & Ronald Beline Mendes (eds.), Proceedings of the Special World Congress of African Linguistics – São Paulo 2008: Exploring the African language conne. São Paulo: Humanitas, 263-278 
  • 14. Schwarz, Anne (2010): Discourse principles in grammar: the thetic/categorial dichotomy.: 
  • 15. Schwarz, Anne (2016): All-in-one and one-for-all: Thetic structures in Buli grammar and discourse. In: Doric L. Payne, Sara Pacchiarott and Mokaya Bosire (eds.) Diversity in African languages. Berlin: Language Science Press, 81-100 

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