I recently bought Youssou N’Dour‘s new album Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du reer), and having opened and played it today I am doubly delighted—not just by the music, which is wonderful, but by the booklet. For once, an African language (Wolof) is accorded the respect routinely given European ones: the lyrics are provided in the original as well as in translation. This parallels the recent trend in dictionaries to give exact etymologies even for African and Australian languages: where once “okra” was said to be “of African origin,” now Merriam-Webster’s says “akin to Ibo ókùrù okra.” To celebrate, here are the first lines of the song “Tan bi” followed by their translation from the booklet:

Sedd bi ag tàngaay bi dafa mel ni yëppa yam
Bu ci xas yegsi ba jàll da nga naan mo la gënël
Seddaay bi, tàngaay bi
Koo gëjë gis nan ko xaar tàngaay bi

No matter what the weather, it’s the same for us
In fact, we tend to prefer the season just ended
People you haven’t seen for a long time reappear when the weather is warmer
It’s time for outings again.

Addendum. Well, as I say, that’s the booklet’s translation. I suspected it was on the loose side, so I went looking for an online Wolof dictionary—and found a good one (pdf file). I’d have to know something about Wolof grammar to figure out the sentences, but tàngaay is ‘warm weather,’ seddaay ‘cold weather,’ and dafa mel ‘is like,’ so that gives some idea of what’s going on in the first line. Anyway, if you have any interest in West African languages, check out that dictionary.


  1. For more African music that includes the lyrics in the original as well as the translation, you might check out Cesaria Evora, who sings in Cape Verde creole, a.k.a. Crioulo.

    Excellent for getting over cold weather, I tell you.

    And there is this one sound in that language that I hear repeatedly in her albums as well as others from the area, which has always intrigued me, which I remember distinctly in the line Nha kmate bô tmá cuidote…, in the second word.

    It sounds to me like doubly articulated nasal and stop, which would be highly unusual. I studied that language a bit in college, but I’ve never come across a detailed phonology.

  2. Well, while Cape Verde Creole has a lot of Mande influence, it’s still basically a Romance language which… I mean, I’m sure it’s fascinating in its own right, but in terms of “Wow, look what’s on the lyric sheet!” it can’t hold a candle to Wolof. But I do like her singing, and I should check out her lyrics.

    As for the “doubly articulated nasal and stop,” while it may be unusual in world terms, it’s perfectly normal in West Africa; the word “Ibo,” for example, has just such a consonant (which is why it’s more correctly written “Igbo”), as does the name of the new president of Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo.

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