Zarma language

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Region southwestern Niger
Ethnicity Zarma people
Native speakers
2.4 million  (2006)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 dje
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Zarma (also spelled Djerma, Dyabarma, Dyarma, Dyerma, Adzerma, Zabarma, Zarbarma, Zarma, Zarmaci, and Zerma) is a member of the Songhay languages. It is the leading indigenous language of the southwestern lobe of the West African nation of Niger, where the Niger River flows and the capital city, Niamey, is located, and it is the second leading for that entire nation, after Hausa, which is spoken in south central Niger. In earlier decades, it was known as Djerma. With over 2 million speakers, Zarma is far and away the most widely spoken of the Songhay languages. The two other major Songhay dialects or languages are spoken upriver in the neighboring nation of Mali. They are Koyraboro Senni, centered on the city of Gao, with about 400,000 speakers, and yet further upriver from Zarma territory, Koyra Chiini, centered on the eminent ancient university city of Timbuktu, with about 200,000 speakers. According to some reports, speakers of Zarma do not understand Koyraboro Senni.[2]



The Zarma alphabet uses the following letters. a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, ɲ (or ny), ŋ, o, p, r, s, t, u, w, y, z. In addition, v may be used in a few rare words of foreign origin, but many Zarma cannot pronounce it.

Most of the letters are pronounced with IPA values, the exceptions being j [ɟ] (approximately English j, but more palatalized), y [j], r [ɾ] (a flap). The letter c is approximately like English ch, though more palatalized. The palatal nasal ɲ is sometimes spelled ny.

Long consonants are written with double letters; rr is a trill [r]. Long vowels are sometimes written with double letters, but not consistently. Nasal vowels are written a tilde or by a following n or ŋ. In older works, /c/ was spelled ky or ty. Both n and m are pronounced as a labiodental nasal [ɱ] before f.

Tone is not written unless the word is ambiguous, in which case the standard IPA diacritics are used, e.g. ("to be a lot": high tone), ("to share": low tone), ("to want" or "even": falling tone), and ("to be better": rising tone), though in this case the meaning is almost always unambiguous in context, so these words are usually all written ba.



There are ten vowels: the five oral vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, and their nasalized counterparts. There is slight allophonic variation and slight dialectal variation. Vowel length is phonemically distinctive. There are a number of combinations of vowel plus semivowel /w/ or /j/, in which the semivowel can be initial or final.


Labial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive, voiceless p t c k
Plosive, voiced b d ɟ ɡ
Fricative f s z h
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Trill r
Flap ɾ
Approximant w l j

The combinations /ɡe/, /ɡi/, /ke/ and /ki/ usually have some palatal quality to them and may even become interchangeable with /ɟe/, /ɟi/, /ce/ and /ci/ in many people's speech.

All consonants may be short and all consonants except /c/, /h/, /f/ and /z/ may be long. (In some dialects, long /f/ exists in the word goffo.)

Lexical tone and stress[edit]

Zarma is a tonal language with four tones: high, low, fall and rise. In Dosso, some linguists (such as Tersis) have observed a dipping (falling-rising) tone on certain words, e.g. ma ("the name").

Stress is generally unimportant in Zarma. According to Abdou Hamani (1980), two-syllable words are stressed on their first syllable, unless that syllable is just a short vowel: a-, i- or u-. Three-syllable words have stress on their second syllable. The first consonant of a stressed syllable is pronounced a bit more strongly and the vowel in the preceding syllable is weakened. Only emphasized words have a stressed syllable. There is no change of tone for a stressed syllable.



There are a large number of suffixes in Zarma. There are very few prefixes, of which only one (a-/i- before adjectives and numbers) is common.


Nouns may be singular or plural. There are also three "forms" which indicate whether the noun is indefinite, definite, or demonstrative. "Form" and number are indicated conjointly by an enclitic on the noun phrase. The singular definite enclitic is -ǒ or -ǎ. Some authors always write this ending with a rising tone mark even if it is not ambiguous and even if not truly a rising tone. The other endings are in the table below. The definite and demonstrative endings replace any final vowel. See Hamani (1980) for a discussion of when to add -ǒ and when to add -ǎ, as well as other irregularities. See Tersis (1981) for a discussion of the complex changes in tone that may occur.

Indefinite Definite Demonstrative
Singular -∅ -ǒ or -ǎ
Plural -yáŋ -ěy -êy

For example, súsúbày means "morning" (indefinite singular); súsúbǎ means "the morning" (definite singular); and súsúbô means "this morning" (demonstrative singular).

There is no gender or case in Zarma; thus the third person singular pronoun a can mean he, she, it, her, him, his, hers, its, one or one's, according to its position in the sentence.


Verbs do not have tenses and are not conjugated. There are at least three aspects for verbs which are indicated by a modal word before the verb and any object nouns. The aspects are the completive (daahir gasu), the incompletive (daahir gasu si) and the subjunctive (afiri ŋwaaray nufa). (Beginning grammars for foreigners sometimes call the first two "past and present tenses", but this is not accurate.) There is also an imperative and a continuing or progressive construction. Lack of a modal marker indicates either the affirmative completive aspect (if there is a subject and no object) or the singular affirmative imperative (if there is no subject). There is a special modal marker, ka or ga, according to dialect, which indicates the completive aspect with emphasis on the subject. Different markers are used to indicate a negative sentence.

Modal Markers
Affirmative Negative
Completive or mǎn or màná
Emphasized completive ka or ga mǎn or màná
Incompletive ga
Subjunctive mà sí
Progressive go ga si ga
Singular Imperative
Plural Imperative wà sí

Linguists do not agree on the tone for ga. Some say it is high before a low tone and low before a high tone.

There are several words in Zarma expressing the English idea "to be". The defective verb is used to equate two noun phrases and is used only with the emphasized completive ka/ga, as in Ay ma ka ti Yakuba ("My name is Yakuba"). The existential (negative ) is not a verb (White-Kaba, 1994, calls it a "verboid") and has no aspect; it means "exist" and usually links a noun phrase to a descriptive term such as a place, price or participle, as in A go fuwo ra ("She's in the house"). The predicative means "it is", "they are", etc., and is one of the most common words in the Zarma language. It has no aspect or negative form and is placed after a noun phrase, sometimes for emphasis, as in Ni do no ay ga koy ("It's to your house I'm going"). Other words, such as gòró, cíyà, tíyà, and bárà are much rarer and are usually used to express ideas, such as the subjunctive, which and cannot handle.

Participles can be formed with the suffix -ànté, similar in meaning to the past participle in English. This suffix can also be added to quantities to form ordinal numbers and to some nouns to form adjectives. A sort of gerund can be formed by adding -yàŋ, transforming the verb into a noun. There are many other suffixes that can make nouns out of verbs, but only -yàŋ works with all verbs.

Two verbs can be related with the word . (In many dialects it is , not to be confused with the incompletive aspect marker or the emphasized completive marker.) The connector implies that the second verb is a result of the first, or that the first is the reason or cause of the second, as in ka ga ŋwa, "come (in order to) eat."


Zarma is a SOV language; that is, the normal word order is subject–object–verb. Objects are normally placed before the verb, though the object may be placed after the verb for emphasis, and a few common verbs require the object after. Zarma has postpositions (instead of prepositions as in English) which are placed after the noun.

Word order in noun phrases. When a noun ("determinatum") is to be modified by another noun ("determinant"), the determinant is placed in front of the determinatum. The determinant may show possession, purpose or description. All other modifiers of a noun (adjectives, articles, numbers, demonstratives, etc.) are placed after it.

Example. Here is a proverb in Zarma:

Da curo fo hẽ, afo mana hẽ, i si jinde kaana bay.

da curo fo hẽ, a-fo mana hẽ, i si jinde kaan-a bay
if bird one cry, noun-forming
cry, they negative.incom-
voice good-definite know
‘If one bird sings, and another doesn't sing, they won't know which voice is sweetest.’

i.e., 'you need to hear both sides of the story'.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zarma at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Ethnologue


  • Bernard, Yves & White-Kaba, Mary. (1994) Dictionnaire zarma-français (République du Niger). Paris: Agence de coopération culturelle et technique
  • Hamani, Abdou. (1980) La structure grammaticale du zarma: Essai de systématisation. 2 volumes. Université de Paris VII. Dissertation.
  • Hamani, Abdou. (1982) De l’oralité à l’écriture: le zarma s’écrit aussi. Niamey: INDRAP
  • Tersis, Nicole. (1981) Economie d’un système: unités et relations syntaxiques en zarma (Niger). Paris: SURUGUE.

External links[edit]