Region of the Dagbani language
Region of the Dagbani language
Dagbani is a Mabia language and spoken by an increasing population around 1,160,000 speakers. The language is spoken in the north of Ghana, in the northeast of Tamale as far as to Yendi. Dagbani has three dialects Tomosili (Western dialect), Nayahali and Nanunli (both Eastern dialects). Whereas Tomosili is spoken in and around the political capital of the Northern Region, Tamale, Nanunli is spoken in and around Bimbilla and Nayahali is predominantly found in and around Yendi.1. The main dialectal variations observable in all three dialects manifest at the phonological, lexical and morphosyntactic level. These dialects are lexically similar to Mampruli, Gurene and Kusaal.

Linguistic classification

  • Niger-Congo
    • Atlantic-Congo
      • Mabia
        • Mabia Central
          • Mabia South
            • Dagbani

Tone System

Dagbani is a tonal language in which pitch is used to distinguish words. The tone system of Dagbani is characterised by two level tones and a downstep (a lowering effect occurring between sequences of the same phonemic tone).

Lexical Function

(1)   a.   pállí
b.   pállì

Grammatical Function

In (2a) and (2b) the tone on the 3rd person is low. In the hortative form, the tone on the 3rd person is high, and the verb has an imperative suffix, as in (2c).

(2)   a.   Ò dí-rí sá​ɤìm.
3SG   eat-IPFV   TZ
'S/he eats TZ.’
b.   Ò sá​ɤìm
3SG   eat TZ
'S/he ate TZ.'
c.   Ó dí-m sá​ɤìm.
3SG eat-HORTA   TZ
'S/he should eat TZ.'2

Tone changes are only possible if the subject is in 3rd person singular or plural. Tone changes are excluded if the subject is 2nd person, whereby the pronoun is simply omitted.
The last case in which grammatical tone is available concerns the marking of subjects, which the speaker does not want to identify. This is usually used in common speech, moreover in gossips or innuendos.

(3)   a.   Á yómà.
2SG be near
'You are close by.’
b.   À yómà
Somebody be near
'One who is close by.'2

Noun Class System2

Noun Class Example(SG) Example(PL) SG Suffix PL Suffix Gloss
1 tIb-li tIb-a -li -a Ear
2 paG-a paG-ba -a -ba woman
3 gab-ga gab-si -ga -si Rope
4 wab-gu wab-ri -gu -ri elephant
5 kur-gu kur-a -gu -a Old
6 ko-m/kom- ko-ma/kom-a -m/ -ma/-a water

Pronominal System

Each set of personal pronouns in Dagbani is distinguished regarding person, number and animacy. Besides the distinction between singular and plural, there is an additional distinction between [+/- animate] in the 3rd person. Moreover, Dagbani distinguishes between emphatic and non-emphatic pronouns and there are no gender distinctions. While there is no morphological differentiation between grammatical cases, pronouns can occur in different forms according to whether they appear pre- or postverbally. 1

Non-emphatic Pronouns

Preverbal pronouns serve as subjects of a verb and are all monosyllabic.1

1. <n> <ti>
2. <a> <yi>
3. [+animate] <o> <bɛ>
3. [-animate] <di> <di>, <ŋa>

Postverbal pronouns usually denote objects.1

1. <ma> <ti>
2. <a> <ya>
3. [+animate] <o> <ba>
3. [-animate] <li> <li>, <ŋa>

Given the fact that preverbal and postverbal pronouns do not denote two complementary sets, one could refer to them as unmarked or specifically marked for postverbal occurence.1

Unmarked Marked Unmarked Marked
1. n ma ti
2. a yi ya
3. [+animate] o ba
3. [-animate] di li di (ŋa) li

Emphatic Pronouns

Emphatic pronouns in Dagbani serve as regular pronouns in that they can stand in isolation, preverbally or postverbally.1

1. <mani> <tinima>
2. <nyini> <yinima>
3.[+animate] <ŋuni/ŋuna> <bɛna>, <bana>
3.[-animate] <dini/dina> <ŋana>

(4)   a.   Nyini! kamina   kpe!
2sg   come.IMP.DIR   here
'You! Come here!.’1
b.   Ti   ku   tooi   gbai   ŋuna.
2.PL   NEG.FUT   be.able   catch   him.EMPH
'We cannot catch him.’1

Reciprocal Pronouns

Reciprocals are formed by the addition of the word taba after the verb.1

(5)     Ti ŋmaai   taba.
1PL   cut   each other
'We cut each other.’1

Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are formed by the suffix -maŋa, which is attached to the non-emphatic preverbal pronoun.1

(5)     O ŋmaagi   o-maŋa.
3SG   cut   3SG-REFL
'He cuts himself.’1

The affix maŋa can also occur as an emphatic pronoun after nouns.1

(6)     O zo maŋa.
3SG friend REFL
'His friend himself.’1

Possessive Pronouns

The possessive pronouns in Dagbani exactly correspond to the preverbal non-emphatic pronouns, which always proceed the possessed constituent.

(7)     O yili.
3SG house
'His house.’1

Relative Pronouns

In Dagbani the relative pronouns are ŋʊn ("who") as in (8) and ni ("which") as in (9).3

(8)   a.   Bi-so ŋʊn zu baa la ʧaŋ-ja.
child   REL   steal.PFV   dog DET   go.PFV
'The child who stole the dog is gone.’
b.   Ti ɲa bi-so ŋʊn zu baa la.
3PL   see.PFV   child   REL   steal.PFV   dog   DET
'We saw the child who stole the dog.'

(9)     Ti ɲa teebʊlʊ-ʃɛlɨ   a ni da la.
3PL   see.PFV   table.pro   2SG   REL   buy.PFV   DET
'We saw the table which you bought.’3

The relative pronouns in Dagbani are not obligatory present and can also be absent depending on the context, as (10) illustrates.3

(10)   a.   Azima kaagi ji-li ʃɛli ni da la.
Azima visit.PFV   house   pro   REL   buy.PFV   DET
'Azima visited the house which I bought.’
b.   Azima kaagi ji-li la.
Azima   visit.PFV   house   DET
'Azima visited the house which I bought.'3

Following Olawsky (1999) relative pronouns in Dagbani can also be complex in its nature, such that they consist of two two elements, an indefinite pronoun and an emphatic pronoun.3

(11)   a.   Bi-a so ŋʊn   zu baa la ʧaŋ-ja.
child pro   REL   steal.PFV   dog   DET   go.PFV
'The child who stole the dog is gone.’
b.   Su-a   ʃɛli din pa teebʊlʊ zʊʔʊ   maa kabiya.
Knife  pro   REL   be table.SG   head DEF   break.PFV
'The knife which was on the table is broken.'3

Interrogative Pronouns0

Interrogative pronouns in Dagbani make a distinction between human and non-human. A list of interrogatives is given in the table below.

bòn / bà "what"
ŋùní "who"
bòzùɣù "why"
díní "which"
álá "how much"
bòndàlì "when"
sáhá díní "when"
wùlà "how"

Additionally, interrogative pronouns inflect for number, but not all of them. Those inflecting for number belong to the semantic categories [ +THING], [ +SELECTION], [ +PERSON]. An example is given in the second table below5 .

Semantic Category Singular Plural Gloss
[ +PERSON] ŋùní bànímà who/whom
[ +SELECTION] dìní dìnnímà which
[ +THING] bònímà what

Demonstrative Pronouns5

Demonstrative pronouns in Dagbani make a morphological difference between the singular and plural form. Following Issah (2018b) the demonstrative pronoun ŋɔ moves to the specifier of the functional NumP and if Num is plural, then the plural morphem -nímá attaches to the demonstrative pronoun. If Num is singular, there is a zero morphem, such that the demonstrative pronoun does not differ in its morphological form.

Demonstrative Pronoun SG PL Gloss
Proximal ŋɔ ŋɔnímá this/these
Distal ŋɔ há ŋɔnímá há that/those

Indefinite Pronouns

Dagbani distinguishes not only between singular and plural for indefinite pronouns, but also between [+/-animate]. Therefore, there are two pairs of indefinite pronouns. Indefinites are basically used in the same way as adjectives, as their morphological form is similar to that of nouns and adjectives.1 In order to express an indefinite like "something" the inanimate singular form is combined with the noun bini   ("thing").

SG PL Gloss
[+animate] <so> <shɛba> "somebody"
[-animate] <shɛli> <shɛŋa> "something"

Word Order

Dagbani has a rigid SVO word order. In the canonical sentence structure, the verb precedes the direct and indirect object as well as adverbials. The clause structure exhibits varying functional elements projecting various functional phrasal categories including tense, aspect, negation, mood and the conjoint/disjoint paradigm.6

(8)   a.   Dawuni   kú-r-í sòònsí máá.
Dawuni   kill-IPFV-CJ   rabbits DEF
'Dawuni kills the rabbits.’
b.   Páɣà máá bíhí   nyùlí   zùŋò.
woman DEF   give.PFV   children   yam   today
'The woman has given the children yam today.'6

Verbal System

The VP in Dagbani consists of a preverbal particle encoding tense, aspect and mood1, the main verb, and a postverbal particle which marks focus7 .

Preverbal Particles

Major Particles8

Tense, Aspect, Modal Particles Dagbani
today (also once upon a time)
one day away sa
two or more days away daa
habitual yi
still, not yet na
actually siri
once again, as usual yaa
suddenly, just dii
nonfuture negative
future affix
future negative ku
imperative subjunctive negative de
again lah

Main Verb

Each verb in Dagbani has two forms, a perfective and an imperfective form with very few exceptions. In general, the perfective form is the unmarked form, whereas the imperfective form corresponds to the progressive form, or in other words it refers to an action, which is still in progress1. The perfective is nearly syncretic with the infinitive, which in turn has an /n-/-prefix. The imperfective is formed by the suffix /-di/1.

The inflectional system in Dagbani is relatively poor as compared to other languages. There is no grammatical agreement, since number and person are not marked. Tense is marked only under certain constraints. Basically, Dagbani makes a distinction between future and non-future, however the main distinction does not concern Tense, but Aspect and occurs between perfective and imperfective.

Postverbal Particle

Following Issah (2013), the postverbal particle la marks presentational focus, rather than contrastive focus. In comparison to the postverbal particle in Dagaare, the function of this Dagbani particle is also not yet fully investigated. There are native speakers, who consider the particle to indicate that what is expressed to the hearer is not shared knowledge. Issah (2013) on the other hand argues that the presence of la asserts new information, while its absence indicates old information.

(9)   a. Napari   da-∅ la loori.
Napari   buy.PFV   FOC   lorry
'Napari has bought a lorry.'
b.   Napari   da-∅ loori.
Napari   buy.PFV   lorry
'Napari has bought a lorry.7'

Conjoint / Disjoint Markers

Conjoint Disjoint
Imperfective Ò       nyú-r-í                   kóm.
3SG drink-IPFV-CJ water
'He is drinking water.'
Ò      nyú-r-á.
3SG drink-IPFV-DJ
'He is drinking.'
Perfective Ò       nyú-                    kóm.
3SG drink.PFV-CJ water
'He drank water.'
Ò      nyú-yá.
3SG drink.PFV-DJ
'He drank.'


Nominal negation

Nominal negation is expressed by the negated verbs ka or pa, whereas the former is a locative verb the latter is a copula.

(10)   a.   Abu   nyɛla   doo.
Abu   be.FOC   man
'Abu is a man.’1
b.   Abu   pala   doo.
Abu   not.be.FOC   man
'Abu is not a man.'1

Verbal negation

Several verbs in Dagbani have a specific morphological form, when they are negated. The verb be ('to be in a place') and mali ('to have') for instance both have the morphological form ka, when they occur as negated.

(11)   a.   M   be   Tamali.
1SG   live   Tamale
'I live in Tamale.’1
b.   M   ka   Tamali.
1SG   live.NEG   Tamale
'I don't live in Tamale.’1

Negation of a declarative

Negation is expressed by preverbal particles. Dagbani has two different preverbal particles. In the present and the past tense the particle bi is used as in (12), whereas in the future the negative particle is ku as in (13).

(12)   a.   O   bi   chaŋ   Tamali.
3SG   NEG   go   Tamale
'He did not go to Tamale.’1
b.   M   bi   mi   ni   o   be   kpe.
1SG   NEG   know   COMP   3SG   be   here
I do not know if he is here.'1

The preverbal future particle ni cannot co-occur with the preverbal negative particle bi, instead the preverbal negative future particle ku is used.

(13)   a.   O   ni   chaŋ   Tamali.
3SG   FUT   go   Tamale
'He will go to Tamale.’1
b.   O   ku   chaŋ   Tamali.
3SG   FUT.NEG   go   Tamale
'He will not go to Tamale.’1
c.   O   bi   ni   chaŋ   Tamali.
3SG   NEG   FUT   go   Tamale
'He will not go to Tamale.’1

Negation of an imperative

In order to negate an imperative, the particle bi can not be used and di is taken instead. This particle is the negation marker only in imperatives.

(14)   Di   ku   wɔbigu   maa!
IMP.NEG   kill   elephant   DEF
'Don't kill the elephant!’1

Question Formation

In Dagbani questions, the question word can either appear in situ or ex situ.

Ex situ

Dagbani Question words
Dini which
Ya where
Wula how
ŋuni who
ŋun whose
Bɔ zuɤu why

The basic word order in Dagbani questions is SVO, such that the question word is fronted and followed by the focus marker ka. This is the unmarked form and accepted by many native speakers as "natural".1

(15)   a.   Ya ka a chana?
where   FOC   2SG   go.IPFV
'Where did you go to?’
b.   ka a bɔra?
what   FOC   2SG   want.IPFV
'What do you want?1'

In situ

Yes-/No-question in Dagbani are formed by the disjunction bee ('or'), which either conjoints two propositions or which occurs sentence-finally to indicate that the sentence with SVO order is actually a question.

(16)   a.   A ni kana   bee   a ku kana?
2SG   FUT   come   or 2SG  NEG/FUT   come
'Will you come or will you not come?’
b.   A ni kana bee?
2SG   FUT   come or
'Will you come or not?1'

In addition to Yes-/No-questions, the question word can also occur in sentence-final position. This might correspond to echo questions.

(17)   a.   Napari bò?
Napari   buy.PFV   what
'Napari bought what?’
b.   Napari búá.
Napari buy.PFV   goat
'Napari bought a goat.9'


  • 1. Olawsky, Knut J. (1999): Aspects of Dagbani grammar. Munich: Lincom 
  • 2. Bodomo, Adams, Hasiyatu Abubakari & Samuel Alhassan Issah (2020): Handbook of the Mabia Languages of West Africa. Glienicke: Galda Verlag 
  • 3. Inusah, Abdul-Razak (2017): Patterns of Relative Clauses in Dagbanli.: SAGE Open, 1-9 
  • 4. Issah, Samuel Alhassan & Samuel Owoahene Acheampong (2021): Interrogative pronouns in Dagbani and Likpakpaanl.: Ghana Journal of Linguistics 10(2), 30-57 
  • 5. Issah, Samuel Alhassan (2018b): The Form and Function of Dagbani Demonstratives. In: Augustine Agwuele &Adams Bodomo (eds). The Handbook of African Linguistics. London: Routledge, 281-296 
  • 6. Issah, Samuel Alhassan (2018a): On the structure of A-bar constructions in Dagbani: Perspectives of wh-questions and fragment answers. Ph. D. thesis. Frankfurt: Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität 
  • 7. Issah, Samuel Alhassan (2013): The function of the post verbal la in Dagbani.: Studies in African Linguistics 42(2), 153-176 
  • 8. The structure of Dagaare, Bodomo, Adams, Stanford, 1997, CSLI Publications 
  • 9. Issah, Samuel Alhassan (2020): On the structure of A-bar constructions in Dagbani: Perspectives of "wh"-questions and fragment answers.Berlin: Peter Lang 
  • 10. Dagbani Dictionary https://www.webonary.org/dagbani/, Tony Naden, 2020, GILLBT® 
  • 11. Hudu, Fusheini (2009): Focus marking in Dagbani.: Working papers of the Linguistic Circle of the University of Victoria 19, 13-31 

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Page last modified on Wednesday February 7, 2024 12:28:13 CET by Ates.