Sereer Grammar

From Sereer wiki

This is the Wiki page for research on the Saalum (or Saloum) dialect of Sereer, as conducted by the 2012-2013 Graduate Field Methods class in the UC Berkeley Department of Linguistics.

Sereer is a language of the Senegambian branch of the Niger–Congo languages spoken by 1.2 million people in Senegal and 30,000 in The Gambia. It is the principal language of the Sereer people. Some documentation of Sereer exists; however, most existing documentation is for the significantly different Siin dialect (MacLaughlin 1994, 2000, 2005).

Morphosyntactically, Sereer is largely head-initial, suffixing, and agglutinative (especially in the case of derivational verbal morphology). A clause's tense, aspect, person-number agreement, and negation are most frequently expressed in polyexponent verbal suffixes, although prefixing or procliticizing of person-number agreement sometimes occurs. The language is notable for its extensive noun class concord and its system of consonant mutations, the latter of which is exploited in the language's numerous processes of nonconcatenative inflectional and derivational morphology. Sereer also makes use of an unusually large number of stop consonants, including areally unusual uvulars and an extremely rare series of phonemic voiceless implosive stops.

Ancillary pages

List monomorphemic lexical items and associated information here.

Upload recordings and annotations here.

Backup and download the FLEx files here.

This is where wordlists for individual elicitation sessions can be uploaded and checked to avoid redundant work.

PDFs of class presentations and class assignments here, including final papers.

Find code here to make things (tables, interlinear glosses) on the Wiki.

A list of lexical items with French and English translations, from Fal (1980), to be checked against Sereer Saloum and possibly to flesh out minimal pairs


The phonology of Sereer is characterized by a large inventory of consonants, particularly stops, and a vowel length distinction. The surface form of these segments is fairly predictable, due in part to the relatively rigid phonotactics of Sereer. Sereer is a stress language.

A list of minimal pairs can be found here.

Phonological Inventory

Main page: Phonological Inventory


Sereer's consonant inventory makes use of some combinations of parameters that are unusual cross-linguistically, including contrastive voicing in both egressive and ingressive stops. Sereer also has multiple uvular phonemes, a rarity for sub-Saharan Africa. The unusually large size of the consonant inventory is largely due to its 21 phonemically distinct oral stops.

The consonant inventory of Sereer Saalum is given below. Working orthography for a given symbol is indicated in parentheses following a symbol if the orthography differs from the IPA.

Sereer Saalum Consonant Phonemes
    Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
  Voiceless p t c k q ʔ (')
  Voiced b d ɟ (j) g    
Stops Implosive ɓ ɗ ʄ      
  Voiceless Implosive ƥ ƭ ƈ      
  Prenasalized ᵐb (mb) ⁿd (nd) ᶮɟ (nj) ᵑg (ng) ᶰɢ (nq)  
Nasal   m n ɲ (ñ) ŋ    
Fricative   f s     χ (x)  
Tap/Trill     r        
Liquid     l        
Glide   w   j (y)      

Additional information about the realization of these consonants as well as minimal pairs can be found in the more detailed description of the Phonological Inventory. Spectrograms and Audio Samples of Consonants are also available.


The vowel inventory of Sereer Saalum is given below. Vowel length is contrastive; all vowels have long versions.

Sereer Saalum Vowel Phonemes
  Front Central Back
High i ii   u uu
Mid e ee   o oo
Low   a aa    

Vowels after implosive consonants are sometimes creaky; this is not contrastive.


Main page: Phonotactics

The Sereer syllable template is CV(C). All stems must have a consonantal onset, and codas are optional. The nucleus of a syllable is nearly always a short or long vowel; the only exception is syllabic m=, which is an allomorph of um=, the strong first person singular agreement marker.

Vowel length distinctions are never affected by onset or coda consonants. Any C may appear in the onset or coda of a syllable. There are no onset or coda clusters, except very rarely in loan words. All consonant clusters that do occur in Sereer are formed across a syllable boundary.

Vowel hiatus

Vowels are not allowed in hiatus in Sereer, except perhaps in a few borrowed words (e.g. metrais machine gun. It can be argued that word-internally, glottal stop or glide insertion operates in order to resolve hiatus (e.g. fi'aam, or fiyaam "I do", but not *fiaam), but these consonants might also be analyzed as underlying. When two vowels are in contact across word boundaries, one deletes, generally the second. In slow or careful speech, the vowel may be saved by glottal stop insertion, but not in all cases.


Main page: Stress

Sereer exhibits non-contrastive stress. Stress is largely assigned metrically, with a preference for left-anchored iambs (if V-shaped prefixes are taken to be part of the noun's phonological word), or right-anchored trochees (if they are not). While vowel length affects stress assignment, coda consonants do not contribute to syllable weight or affect stress.


Sereer is a highly synthetic language, especially with regard to verbs, which may take numerous derivational and inflectional suffixes. Typically, both nouns and verbs only take a single prefix. Typologically notable aspects of Sereer morphology include mutation of stem-initial consonants, extensive verb derivational affixing, and numerous distinct reduplicative processes.

Morphophonological Processes

Consonant Mutation

Main page: Consonant mutation

Sereer exhibits a system of consonant mutation by which the initial consonant of a stem can alternate. There are three "grades" of consonants, and each is triggered by specific morphological environments.

Unmutated (I) p t c k q b d j g f s x w r ɓ ɗ ƴ m n ñ ŋ l y ʔ
Fortition (II) p t c k q p t c k p c/s q b t ƥ ƭ ƈ m n ñ ŋ l y ʔ
Nasal (III) p/mb t/nd c/nj k/ng q/nq mb nd nj ng mb nj/s nq mb nd ƥ ƭ ƈ m n ñ ŋ l y ʔ

Each noun class requires a specific mutation grade by default, and verbal subject number agreement conditions different mutation grades (unmutated for singular, nasal for plural).


Main page: Reduplication

Reduplication is prevalent in Sereer, occurring in verbs, nouns, and prepositions in three different structures. Bare stative verbs can be fully reduplicated at the end of sentences: ambeel ale axooɗa xooɗ 'The lake is deep'. Agentive nouns are derived from verb stems through partial reduplication of the stem: xoox 'cultivate' > oqooxoox 'farmer'. Locative prepositions can be reduplicated to indicate precision: pam 'next to' > pam e pam 'right next to'.

Nominal Morphology

Sereer nouns fall into fourteen noun classes (nine distinct patterns of singular-plural alternation), which indicate both number and agreement with determiners and adjectives. Noun class markers are prefixed to the stem, and in some cases will trigger mutation of the initial consonant of the stem. Adjectives agree with the noun they modify; this agreement is morphologically realized via concordant prefixes.


a-tuul a-tadak a-ƥaal ak-e
(ak-pig ak-three ak-black ak-DET.prox)
‘three small black pigs'

Noun classes

Main page: Noun classes

There are eight distinct morphological patterns for singular nouns and six for plural nouns. Four of these patterns (two singular and two plural) are exclusively devoted to two noun classes, consisting of reflexes of productive augmentative and diminutive derivational processes (the gak/gal and ong/fn noun classes, respectively). Two of these patterns are exclusively devoted to the ox/w noun class, which consists entirely of nouns denoting humans. The other eight patterns combine in a non-corresponding fashion in six further noun classes.

There are some semantic correlated observed in controller genders, that is, in statistically frequent singular-plural groupings. These semantic similarities tend to stem from salient shape similarities amongst class members, and also seem to have historically traceable groupings. For instance, the n/k class contains all religious and theological terminology.

Noun class examples
Class Example Det. English Plural Det.
ox/w o-tew oxe woman Ø-rew we
ol/ax o-f ole butterfly xa-p axe
l/ak Ø-xomb le turtle a-qomb ake
f/k Ø-xaarit fe friend Ø-qaarit ke
n/k Ø-nqoox ne bull Ø-qoox ke
al/k a-mbeel ale lake Ø-peel ke
al/ak a-koong ale monkey a-koong ake
ong/ax o-nqool onge moon xa-qool axe
ong/fn o-ndew onge woman (DIM) fo-ndew ne
gal/gak ga-ndew
ale woman (AUG) ga-ndew ake

All al/k nouns have an initial prenasalized consonant; all al/ak nouns do not. Because of this, the plural form of any regular noun is predictable from the definite singular form. See irregular nouns for more information.


Sereer has multiple deverbal nominalization processes. Agent nominalization is a reduplicative process whereby the body of the first syllable of the verb stem is reduplicated: lay 'talk' > olaalay 'one who talks a lot'. Other deverbal nominalizations, including event and instrument nominalization, are zero-derivational processes; the verb stem is treated as a noun stem, with a noun class prefix added as with all other nouns in Sereer. The resulting noun class of these deverbal nouns is as of yet unpredictable.

Noun-Noun Derivation

Noun-noun derivation can be accomplished in Sereer by changing the noun class of a noun. Two noun class pairs - augmentatives and diminutives - are almost exclusively populated in this fashion. The augmentative and diminutive derivation processes are highly productive. There are also a few noun-noun pairs that indicate derivational processes to other noun classes; however, these are unpredictable and unproductive. See Related Nouns for more information.

Parts of the Noun Phrase

Nominal Modifiers


Possessives with Adjectives

Determiners and Demonstratives


Verbal Morphology

Sereer contains a rich inventory of verbal morphology, both inflectional and derivational.

Inflectional Verbal Morphology

Main page: Inflectional Verbal Morphology

Verbs in Sereer are inflected for person and number agreement, negation, tense and aspect, and a number of other categories. Sereer also makes use of a number of auxiliary constructions. Inflectional morphemes are strictly ordered as follows:


Subject clitic




Past imperfect

Conditional "if"






xan, fat, bar

(i)n, (u)m, i
o, nu
a, te, de


-', -k



-ee(r), -ir, -(i)i

-e, -el, -eel




Derivational Verbal Morphology

Main page: Derivational Verbal Morphology

Derivational morphology of Sereer verbs is almost entirely suffixing and is mostly concatenative. Derivational affixes can be used on a verb to form other verbs, adjectives, or nouns. Some verb to verb derivational morphology produces valency-changing operations (applicative, causative, etc.). Many verbal derivational suffixes are of the form -V(V)C and, if the vowel is short and non-low, can be contracted to -C in contexts where illegal CCC clusters will not be created.

Reduplication is used to create agentive nouns, and various other deverbal nouns are formed with the attachment of noun class prefixal agreement morphology and concomitant consonantal mutations.


The basic word order of Sereer is S-V-O.

Sereer is mostly head initial/final, evidence from auxiliaries, relatives, adpositions, etc.

main clause word order and pronominalization

  • many of these data should be included in the following section

Verb phrases

Main page: Verb Phrases

Verb phrases (VP's) in Sereer consist of a verb optionally modified by any or all of the following components: any number of adverbs, a noun phrase, or a prepositional phrase. These components are ordered as follows:

1) Verb
2) Adverb / Noun Phrase / Prepositional Phrase

Not enough studies of constituent order in discourse have been conducted to allow generalizations regarding the sensitivity of Sereer to pragmatic principles in constituent ordering, although pragmatic factors influence constituent order to some degree.

Noun phrases

Main page: Noun Phrases

Noun phrases (NPs) in Sereer consist of a noun optionally modified by any or all of the following components: any number of adjectives, a single determiner, a prepositional phrase, a relative clause, and a possessive NP. These components are ordered as follows:

1) Noun
2) Adjectives (in any order)
3) Determiner
4) PP and/or Relative clause (in either order)
5) Possessive NP

Adjectives and determiners agree in noun class with the head of the NP.

Adjectives and Adverbs


Main page: Adjectives

Adjectives in Sereer follow the noun they they modify, and agree with the noun in noun class. There is a very small closed class of true adjective roots, but any verb stem can be make an adjective through the use of the suffix -u.


Main page: Adverbs


Main page: Adpositions

Adpositions serve to license adjucts to a verb phrase. Sereer exhibits only prepositions, which are mostly morphological free elements. Prepositions most often license location adjuncts, as seen in example <glr id=""/>. Additionally, prepositions can license extra nominal adjuncts as seen in <glr id="with.knife"/>.

<gl id="" fontsize=12> oɓox axe kam mbine \gll oɓox a= xe kam mbine dog 3= COP in house.DET \trans A dog is in the house. (274) </gl>

<gl id="with.knife" fontsize=12> Jegaan aɗegta oƥaak ole fo japil \gll Jegaan a= ɗeg -it -a oƥaak ole fo japil Jegaan 3= cut -INSTR -DV rope DET with knife \trans Jegaan cut the rope with the knife. (234) </gl>

There are relatively few prepositions in Sereer, but there are also a number of locational verbs, which indicate position or motion of arguments. These verbs are discussed with the prepositions, since they are the only way to indicate common locational relationships between arguments.


Main page: Negation

Negation is marked by a suffix on the verb, as seen in <glr id="did.not.sit"/>. We have not yet found any negator that functions as a separate word. The exact form of negation is conditioned by voice, tense, and (maybe?) clause type.

<gl id="did.not.sit" fontsize=12> Ami moof'ee pam nden ne \gll Ami moof -' -ee pam nden ne Ami sit -PST -NEG oven \trans Ami didn't sit next to the stove. (274) </gl>

Focus and Extraction

Main page: Extraction or Focus

Sereer has grammaticalized focus marking, which involves fronting of the focused element and (often) specific verbal morphology. An example is below: (1) has no focus while (2) has focus on the object Yande:

<gl fontsize=11> anafa Yande \gll a= naf-a Yande 3sg.sbj hit-fv Yande \trans He hit Yande. </gl>

<gl fontsize=11> Yande anafu \gll Yande a= naf-u Yande 3sg.sbj hit-foc \trans It's Yande he hit. (165) </gl>

In (2), the object Yande has been fronted to indicate focus on that object, and the morphology on the verb has changed. Instead fo the final vowel being -a, it is -u. Such constructions sometimes also appear in wh-questions, as seen below:

<gl fontsize=11> xar ajawu \gll xar a= jaw-u what 3sg.sbj cook-foc \trans What did he cook? </gl>

In (3), the same marking is used on the verb as in (2), but this time the fronted constituent is a wh-question word. Since both focus and wh-question formation are usually analyzed as involving some kind of extraction or movement on the focus/wh-constituent, this special morphology can be analyzed as extraction marking. For a more detailed discussion of the issues at hand, click here.

Mood and Utterance Type

Non-declarative mood in Sereer is introduced through the use of clause-initial (preverbal) uninflected "particles" to mark hortative and prohibitive moods along with polar questions. Fronted WH-constituencies mark WH- questions, and the fronted content appears in the same zone as the preverbal particles. Extraction marking also appears on the verb in the case of WH-questions.

Imperatives and Procedurals



Sereer has a variety of subordination strategies. These are:

  • Finite complement clauses preceded by one of the complementizers (y)ee or ndax (which derives embedded polar questions and may also occur in matrix polar questions).
  • Finite adverbial clauses which involve a variety of adverbial complement clauses.
  • Conditional/sequential clauses which involve the verbal suffix -ang.
  • Non-finite (perhaps 'infinitival') clauses with the non-finite marker o.
  • Relative clauses which involve the relative suffix -na and a relative determiner.
  • Free relative clauses which may function as complement or adverbial clauses. These involve the relative suffix -na and a limited set of relative determiner.

Relative clauses in Sereer are externally headed with the head coming before the relativized clause. Clauses are relativized by suffixing ‘’’-na’’’ to the verb . It appears that any noun in Sereer can head a relative clause, regardless of its syntactic position within that clause.


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