Region of the Dagaare language
Region of the Dagaare language
Dagaare is a Mabia language and has two million speakers. The language has been described as a dialect continuum, which includes Waale and Birifor. Following Ethnologue, Dagaare can be subcategorized into three languages. (1) Southern/Central Dagaare spoken mainly in Ghana, (2) Nothern Dagara spoken mainly in Burkina Faso and (3) Dagaari Dioula spoken mainly in Burkina Faso, which has been influenced by the Dioula language. In this article, we refer to the language as Dagaare.

Linguistic classificiation

  • Niger-Congo
    • Atlantic-Congo
      • Mabia
        • Mabia Central
          • Mabia Dagaare
            • Dagaare

Tone System

Dagaare is a tone language with a two-level tone system with a downstep high tone. The Dagaare tone has two basic functions, namely a lexical and a grammatical function. Its lexical function concerns differences in lexical semantics, such that differing in tone but not in morphosyntactic form triggers different semantics, as illustrated in (1). Its grammatical function is responsible for cases, in which different tone markings on a segment result in different semantics of that expression. This is shown in (2).

Lexical Function

(1)   a.  
'to go very fast'
'to fix the ground'1

Grammatical Function

(2)   a.   Ò kùŋ gáá.
s/he NEG.FUT  come.PERF
'S/he will not go' (negative declarative sentence)
b.   Ò kúŋ gáá.
s/he NEG.HORT  come.PERF
'S/he should not go' (negative hortative sentence)2

Noun Class System2

Noun Class Singular Form Noun Stem Plural Form
Class I Singular: [ -Vocal] Plural: [ -bɔ']
(+human cl.) pɔ'ɣɔ'   'woman' pɔ'g- pɔ'ɣíbɔ'   'women'
Class II Singular: [ -Vocal] Plural: [ -rí]
Cl. IIa Singular: [ -é] Plural: [ -rí]
bìé 'child' bì- bíírí 'children'
Cl. IIb Singular: [ -ó] Plural: [ - rí]
dùó 'pig' dò- dòrí 'pigs'
Cl. IIc Singular: [ -í] Plural: [ - rí]
síɣí 'hut' síg- síɣrí 'huts'
Class III Singular: [ -í] Plural: [ -Vocal]
Cl. IIIa Singular: [ -í] Plural: [ -é]
gyìlí 'xylophone' gyìl- gyìlé 'xylophones'
Cl. IIIb Singular: [ -í] Plural: [ -ɔ´]
pɔ`lí 'path (for rats)' pɔ` pɔ`lɔ´ 'paths'
Cl. IIIc Singular: [ -í] Plural: [ -á]
váálí 'rubbish' váál- váálá 'rubbish'
Class IV Singular: [ -rʊʊ] Plural: [ -rì]
pírʊʊ 'sheep' pí- píírì 'sheep'
Class V Singular: [ -∅] Plural: [ -rí]
túú 'forest' tùù- túúrí 'forest'
Class VI Singular: [ -rì] Plural: [ -Vocal]
Cl. VIa Singular: [ -rì] Plural: [ -è]
bírì 'seed' bí- bíè 'seeds'
Cl. VIb Singular: [ -rí] Plural: [ -ó]
tóórí 'ear' tóó- tòbó 'ears'
Cl. VIc Singular: [ -rí] Plural: [ -á]
yàgrí 'cheek' yàg- yàɤá 'cheeks'
Class VII SG: Nasal+Vocal Pl: Nasal+Vocal
Cl. VIIa Singular: [ -ní] Plural: [ -mà]
gánì 'hide/book' gán- gámà 'hides/books'
Cl. VIIb Singular: [ -mʊ] Plural: [ -má]
táamʊ 'bow' tàn- támá 'bows'
Cl. VIIc Singular: [ -ŋé] Plural: [ -ní]
bìŋé 'pen' bìŋ- bìnní 'pens'
Cl. VIId Singular: [ -ŋó] Plural: [ -ní]
bòŋó 'donkey' bòŋ- bònní 'donkeys'
Cl. VIIe Singular: [ -∅] Pl: [ -nɛɛ] (types of)
-count plurals dãã ` 'pito' dãã ` dãã `nɛɛ 'pito'
Class VIII Singular: [ -áá] Plural: [ -í]
gbíŋgbíláá 'drying spot' gbígbíl- gbíŋgbíllí 'drying spots'
Class IX Singular: [ -ù] (no plural)
(derived n.) Dúóù 'climbing'
Class X (no singular) Plural: [ -úŋ]
(count class) bùùl- búúlúŋ 'porridge'

Pronominal System2

Personal Pronouns

In Dagaare, personal pronouns do not exhibit gender differences. For subject pronouns, there is a distinction between strong and weak personal pronouns. Moreover, there is a distinction between human and non-human forms for third person plural pronouns.

Subject (Nom) Object (Acc)
Weak Form Strong Form
1st SG n maa ma
2nd SG fo foo fo
3rd SG o onɔ o
1st PL te tenee te
2nd PL yɛnee
3rd PL ba bana ba
3rd PL a ana a

Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexivity is expressed by the words 'mengɛ' or 'mengɛ tɔr' in singular and 'menne' or 'menne tɔr' in plural after any personal pronouns.

Weak reflexive pronouns Strong reflexive pronouns
n mengɛ (tɔr) "myself" maa mengɛ "me, myself"
fo mengɛ (tɔr) "yourself" foo mengɛ "you, yourself"
o mengɛ (tɔr) "him/herself" onɔ mengɛ "s/he, him/herself"
te menne (tɔr) "ourselves" tenee menne "we, ourselves"
yɛ menne (tɔr) "yourselves" yɛnee menne "you, yourselves"
ba menne (tɔr) "themselves" bana menne "they, themselves"
a menne (tɔr) "themselves" ana menne "they, themselves"

Reciprocal Pronouns

Reciprocal pronouns in Dagaare consist of the forms , soba, taa and taaba. The most common form is taa.

(3)   Te    nɔnɔ taa.
we love LA  RECP
'We love each other / one another.'

Relative Pronouns

There is no distinction between human and non-human relative pronouns in Dagaare. For both the relative pronoun is nang.

(4)   a.   A   dɔɔ na nang   wa.
DEF  man   COMP  who come.PERF
'The man who came.'
b.   A gane   na nang le
DEF   book   COMP   which  fall.PERF
'The book that fell down.'

Interrogative Pronouns

Interrogative pronouns are formed by a root like [ bo- ] ('what, which') which combines with a suffix. According to Dakubu (2005), interrogative pronoun roots in Dagaare include also [ yeŋ- ] ('where'), [ ʔaŋ- ] ('who') and [ wʊla- ] ('how many').

bong, boluu "what"
boo "which one, which of them"
baboo, babobo "which of them (humans)"
aboo, abobo "which of them (non-human)"
ang "who (singular, human)"
ang mine "who (plural, human)"

Possessive Pronouns

Possession is expressed by the words toɔr and den in singular and deme in plural, meaning "own", combined with any personal pronoun.

n toɔr, den, deme "mine, my own"
fo toɔr, den, deme "yours, you own"
o toɔr, den, deme "his/hers, his/her own"
te toɔr, den, deme "ours, our own"
yɛ toɔr, den, deme "yours, your own"
ba toɔr, den, deme "theirs, their own (human)"
a toɔr, den, deme "theirs, their own (non-human)"

Demonstrative Pronouns

Similarly to the personal pronouns, there is a distinction between human and non-human forms for the third person plural pronouns.

nyɛ "this (one)"
onɔng "that (one)"
banang "those (ones) - (human)"
anang "those (ones) - (non-human)"
"like that (one)"
nyɛɛ "like this (one)"

Indefinite Pronouns

Dagaare does not seem to have indefinite pronouns and rather combines a noun like "person" or "body" with the element kang in order to express indefinites like "somebody" or "someone".

(5)   Neɛ    kang wa-ɛ lá.
person   INDEF   come-PERF   LA
'Someone has come.'

Word Order

The canonical word order of Dagaare is SVO (subject-verb-object). This can be seen in the following examples showing an intransitive clause (6), a transitive clause including an adverb (7) and a ditransitive (8).

(6)   Báyúó   tòng tómɔ   (zààméng).
Bayuo PST   work   LA   work   yesterday
'Bayuo worked (yesterday).’

(7)   Dɛr   nyuuri a kʊɔ wɪɛʊ.
Dɛr   drink.IPFV   LA   DEF   water   quickly
'Dɛr is drinking the water quickly.’0

(8)   Zeɛmɛ   kɔ   /   korɔ Naapɔge   doge.
Ziema PST   give.PFV     PST   give.IPFV   LA   Napog pot
'Ziema gave / was giving Napog a pot.’

Verbal System

The VP in Dagaare consists of a preverbal particle encoding tense, the predicate, and a postverbal particle with a function yet to be fully investigated.

Preverbal Particles

Daagare marks past and future tenses by the use of preverbal particles. Present tense in not marked or lexicalized in this language. These preverbal particles function like auxiliary verbs in Indo-European languages lexicalizing tense and aspectual features.

(9)   a.   Badɛr   kpi-e lá.
spider   PST die-PFV   LA
'The spider died.'
b.   O na ngmɛ ma   lá.
he FUT   beat me   LA
'He will beat me.' 2

Contrary to Indo-European languages like English, French and Norwegian, Dagaare exhibits the lexicalization of a habitual marker. While in the Indo-European languages this habitual marker is basically an adverb, in Dagaare it is realized as the preverbal particle mang. This preverbal particle can only occur after the subject, thus it is not an adverb, since adverbs are more flexible in the positions they can potentially occur in within the clause.

(10)   O   mang   ngmeɛ-rɛ ma  yaga.
s/he   HAB   beat-IPFV   me LA  plenty
'S/he is always beating me a lot.' 2

Major Particles2

Tense, Aspect, Modal Particles Dagaare
today (also once upon a time) da
one day away zaa
two or more days away daar
habitual mang
still, not yet nang
actually sorong
once again, as usual yaa
suddenly, just deɛ
nonfuture negative ba
future affix na
future negative kong
imperative subjunctive negative ta

These preverbal particles are difficult to classify as temporal, aspectual, modal and polar, since the relationship between polarity and tense in the Mabia languages is very tight. This means that a particular preverbal particle can express a positive or negative action in the past (da) or a positive or negative action in the future (na). The na particle for instance does not only mark tense, but also positivity of an action. Its counterpart kong is not simply the negation of an action, but also indicating the tense of this action.

Main Verb

The main verb in Dagaare consists of a verb stem and a suffix. This suffix encodes perfective or imperfective aspect. In this system, the speaker considers an action as either completed or not yet completed, irrespective of whether the action happens in the present or past tense.2 There is the verbal suffix form -ng in Dagaare, whose function is to affirm or emphasize the verbal action. This affix is in complementary distribution with the postverbal particle la, also shown in the subsection on this postverbal particle.

(11)   a.   Ò   dà  kul-ee   lá.
s/he   PST  go home.PERF.INTR   LA
'S/he went home.'
b.   Ò kul-o lá.
s/he PST   go home-IPFV  LA
'S/he was going home.'
c.   Ò kul-o lá.
s/he go home-IPFV   LA
'S/he is going home.'2

Most verb roots in Dagaare are monosyllabic and combine with inflectional affixes. As already mentioned, the main inflectional affixes in Dagaare express aspect. There are then three distinct inflectional affix forms, one imperfective or progressive affix (-ro) and two perfective or completive affixes (-∅, -e). Imperative forms are homophonous with the perfective transitive forms.2 An interesting aspect of the Mabia verbal system is that verbs can be classified into pairs of oppositions depending on causativity, transitivity, reversivity and other derivational processes.

Postverbal Particle

According to Bodomo (1997), the postverbal particle la mainly marks factivity, polarity, affirmation or even emphasis.* It usually occurs in postverbal position, but under particular pragmatic constraints it can also occur preverbally. The la particle is in complementary distribution with negative polarity particles.

(12)   a.   Ò   na kul lá.
s/he   FUT+POS   go home   LA
'S/he will not go home.'
b.   Ò kong kul (*lá).
s/he FUT+NEG   go home LA
'S/he will not go home.' 2

Besides being in complementary distribution with negative polarity particles, there are four main constraints on the la particle in Dagaare. Firstly, it never occurs after adjuncts postverbally.

(13)   a.   Bayuo   gbir-ee velaa.
Bayuo   PST sleep-PERF.INTR   LA good
'Bayuo slept well.'
b. *Bayuo   gbir-ee velaa   lá.
Bayuo PST   sleep-PERF.INTR good LA
'Bayuo slept well.' 2

Secondly, it occurs before all full NP complements, but it never intervenes between any two full NPs nor follows them.

(14)   a.   Ò   ko Dɛre   a gane.
s/he   PST give   LA   Dere   DEF  book
'S/he gave Dere the book.'
b.   ko Dɛre   a gane.
s/he PST   give Dere   LA   DEF book
'S/he gave Dere the book.' 2

Thirdly, a pronominal complement must intervene between the verb and the postverbal particle. In this case the affixal form of the particle -ng is attached to the indirect object pronoun ma.

(15)   a.   Ò   ko ma lá   a gane.
s/he   PST give   me   LA   DEF  book
'S/he gave me the book.'
b.   Ò ko mang   a gane.
s/he PST   give me.LA   DEF book
'S/he gave me the book.'
c.   ko ma a gane.
s/he   PST   give LA me DEF book
'S/he gave me the book.'2

Lastly, under pragmatic circumstances the particle can occur in certain positions within the clause in order to emphasize the role of particular elements. In (16a), the particle occurs after the subject NP and before the verb in order to focus the subject and not the action of the sentence. In (16b) on the other hand the particle occurs postverbally in order to focus the action and not the subject of the clause.

(16)   a.   Badɛre   kpi.
spider   LA  die-PERF
'The spider died.'
b.   Badɛre   kpi-e lá.
spider die-PERF.INTR   LA
'The spider died.' 2

*Note that the postverbal particle is glossed as LA, since its glossing in the literature is not consistent and therefore its syntactic nature is not so clear. We thus propose that the postverbal particle may function as a focus marker, while previous research assumed it to be a factive marker.


In addition to the preverbal particles above, negation is also expressed by preverbal particles. In Dagaare, negation is related to mood and aspect, such that choice of the negated particle varies between the perfective and the imperfective as well as with regard to clause types.

Negation of a declarative

In declarative clauses, the particle expresses negation and occurs between the subject and the predicate. Negative preverbal particles are in complementary distribution with the focus marker , shown in the contrast in (17).

(17)   a.   Tè   dà   gáá   lá   dàá.

1PL   PST   go   FOC   market
'We did go to the market.’4
b.   Tè   dà   bá   gàà   dàá.
1PL   PST   NEG   go   market
'We did not go to the market.'4
c.   *Tè   dà   bá   gáá   lá   dàá.
1PL   PST   NEG   go   FOC   market
'We did not go to the market.'4

Negation involving future

If negation should refer to an action or event in the future, the particle kòng is used.

(18)   Fò   mɔ̀ɔ́   kòng   gángè   bèè?
2SG   PART   FUT.NEG   lie.down   PART
'Won’t you lie down /sleep overnight?’4

Negation of an imperative

In order to express negation in an imperative, the preverbal particle is used instead.

(19)   a.   Dàkóráá   dà   bà   nyú   à   kòɔ́.
Dakoraa   PST   NEG   drink   DEF   water
'Dakoraa did not drink the water.’4
b.   Tá   nyú!
IMP.NEG   drink
'Don't drink!'4

Negation and Focus

Since the negative particle and the focus marker are in complementary distribution, there is a special form náá that marks both, negation and focus.
This particle, however, has the identical distribution than its counterpart with respect to focus constructions in Dagaare.

(20)   a.   Dàkóráá   dà   bá   dì   à   sááó   bágúó   sángà.
Dakoraa   PST   NEG   eat   DEF   saao   morning   period
'Dakoraa did not eat the saao this morning.’4
b.   *Dàkóráá   dà   bá   dì   là   à   sááó   bágúó   sángà.
Dakoraa   PST   NEG   eat   FOC   DEF   saao   morning   period
'Dakoraa did not eat the saao this morning.’4
c.   Dàkóráá   náá   dà   dì   à   sááó   bágúó   sángà.
Dakoraa   FOC.NEG   PST   eat   DEF   saao   morning   period
'DAKORAA did not eat the saao this morning.’ (It was not him.)4
d.   À   sááó   náá   kà   Dàkóráá   dà   dì   bágúó   sángà.
DEF   saao   FOC.NEG   COMP   Dakoraa   PST   eat   morning   DEF
‘It is not the SAAO that Dakoraa ate this morning.’4
e.   Bágúó   sángà   náá   kà   Dàkóráá   dà   dì   à   sááó.
morning   period   FOC.NEG   COMP   Dakoraa   PST   eat   DEF   saao
‘It was not THIS MORNING that Dakoraa ate the saao.’
f.   Dííú   náá   kà   Dàkóráá   dà   dì   à   sááó   bágúó   sángà.
eat.NMLZ   FOC.NEG   COMP   Dakoraa   PST   eat   DEF   saao   morning   period
‘Dakoraa did not EAT the saao in the morning.’4

Question Formation

There are two types of questions in Dagaare. Usually, questions are formed by a question word in the sentence-initial position, but in a few cases there is either a question marker that has to occur in sentence-final position or the question word can appear in situ.2

Ex situ

The Dagaare bong questions correspond to wh-questions in English, but since most of the question words in Dagaare start with the letter b, it makes no sense to refer to them as wh-questions as well and therefore one can refer to them as bong questions2 . These questions exhibit the question word ex situ and vary according to its Q-element.

(21)   Bòng   è?
what LA   PST   COP
'What happened?’

(22)   Àng yíélì / yíélè?
who   LA   PST   sing.PFV     sing.IPFV  
'Who sang / is singing?’

In some cases, the Q-element is followed not only by the particle , but additionally by the complementizer . This might indicate that the Q-element occupies the specifier position and the complementizer appears in the head position of the CP. The particle occurs in between both elements and might mark focus, in this case verbal focus.

(23)   Bòng   fo mɛ?
what LA   COMP   2SG   build.PFV
'What did you build?'

Lastly, multiple questions are highly marked in Dagaare. In these cases, one Q-element occurs ex situ and the other one(s) in situ.

(24)   ??Àng   bòng?
who LA   buy.PFV   what
'Who bought what?'

(25)   ??Àng   gaa yeng?
who LA   travel   where
'Who traveled where?'

In situ

Examples for a question that do not exhibit the question word ex situ are the so-called bee questions, which are known as yes-/no- questions in languages like English. These questions only require a yes- or no-answer instead of a more complex and informative answer. Bee is here the particular question marker, which has to appear obligatorily as the final element of the clause. These questions can express contrastive focus.

(26)   a.   Dabuo   gbire bee?
Dabuo   sleep.IPFV   LA   Q
'Is Dabuo sleeping?'
  b.   Ai, Ayuo   lá   gbire.
no Ayuo LA   sleep.IPFV
'No, Ayuo is sleeping.'

Besides this type of question, there are cases, in which the question word can also appear in situ. These questions might correspond to echo questions.

(27)   a.   Dɔɔsaa   di bòng?
Doosaa   eat LA   what
'What did Doosaa eat?'
  b.   Ò ba di bonzaa.
3SG   NEG   eat nothing

Long distance extraction

In Dagaare the question word can cross a clause-boundary, which gives rise to long distance extraction. The following example illustrates the potential positions within the clause, in which the question word can occur. Note that only in (28b) a focus marker occurs, which varies from la to na. In (28a) the two complementizer indicate the clause boundaries across the question word has been moved.

(28)   a.   Bòng Ayuo sogri John kɔ ?
what   COMP   Ayuo   ask COMP   John   PST   slaughter
'What did Ayuo ask that John slaughtered?’
b.   Ayuo sogri na John bòng na ɔ nang kɔ.
Ayuo ask FOC   John what   FOC   3SG   REL   slaughter
'Ayuo asks what John slaughtered.'
c.   Ayuo sorgi bòng John kɔ.
Ayuo ask COMP   what   COMP   John slaughter
'Ayuo asks what it is that John slaughters.'


  • 1. Bodomo, Adams, Hasiyatu Abubakari, Samuel Alhassan Issah (2020): Handbook of the Mabia Languages of West Africa.: Glienicke 
  • 2. Bodomo, Adams ( 1997 ): The structure of Dagaare. Stanford: CSLI Publications, p. 18 
  • 3. Kropp-Dakubu, M. E. (2005): Collected language notes on Dagaare grammar. Legon: Institue of African Studies, University of Ghana 
  • 4. Ali, Mark, Scott Grimm & Adams Bodomo (2021): A dictionary and grammatical sketch of Dagaare. Berlin: Language Science Press 
  • 5. Akinbo, S., Angsongna, A., Ozburn, A., Schellenberg, M., & Pulleyblank, D. (2022): Velar Tap in Dàgáárè. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.6393732.: Zenodo 
  • 6. Grimm, Scott (2016): The information packaging particle la in Dagaare .: Presentation, University of Rochester 
  • 7. Saanchi, J. Angkaaraba (2003): Aspect and the Dagaare verb.: Cahiers Voltaiques / Gur Papers 6, 101-106 

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