Fon language

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Native toBenin, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Gabon
EthnicityFon people
Native speakers
2.2 million (2000–2006)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2fon
ISO 639-3fon – inclusive code
Individual codes:
guw – Gun
mxl – Maxi
Glottologfonn1241  Fon language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Gbe languages

Fon (fɔ̀ngbè, pronounced [fɔ̃̀ɡ͡bē][2]) is spoken in Benin, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Gabon by approximately 1.7 million speakers, and is the language of the Fon people. Like the other Gbe languages, Fon is an isolating language with an SVO basic word order.

Cultural and legal status[edit]

In Benin, French is the official language, while Fon and other indigenous languages, including the Yom and Yoruba languages, are classified as national languages.[3]



The standardized Fon language is part of the Fon cluster of languages inside the Eastern Gbe languages. Hounkpati B Christophe Capo groups Agbome, Kpase, Gun, Maxi and Weme (Ouémé) in the Fon dialect cluster, although other clusterings are suggested. Standard Fon is the primary target of language planning efforts in Benin, although separate efforts exists for Gun, Gen, and other languages of the country.[4]

To date, there are about 53 different dialects of the Fon language spoken throughout Benin.


"Welcome" (Kwabɔ) in Fon at a pharmacy at Cotonou Airport in Cotonou, Benin


Fon has seven oral vowel phonemes and five nasal vowel phonemes.

Vowel phonemes of Fon[5]
Oral Nasal
front back front back
Close i u ĩ ũ
Close-Mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ ɛ̃ ɔ̃
Open a ã


Consonant phonemes of Fon[5]
Labial Coronal Palatal Velar Labial
"Nasal" m ~ b n ~ ɖ
Occlusive (p) t d k ɡ kp ɡb
Fricative f v s z x ɣ ɣʷ
Approximant l ~ ɾ ɲ ~ j w

/p/ only occurs in linguistic mimesis and loanwords, though often it is replaced by /f/ in the latter, as in cɔ́fù 'shop'. Several of the voiced occlusives only occur before oral vowels, while the homorganic nasal stops only occur before nasal vowels, indicating that [b] [m] and [ɖ] [n] are allophones. [ɲ] is in free variation with [j̃]; Fongbe therefore can be argued to have no phonemic nasal consonants, a pattern rather common in West Africa.[a] /w/ and /l/ are also nasalized before nasal vowels; /w/ may be assimilated to [ɥ] before /i/.

The only consonant clusters in Fon have /l/ or /j/ as the second consonant; after (post)alveolars, /l/ is optionally realized as [ɾ]: klɔ́ 'to wash', wlí 'to catch', jlò [d͡ʒlò] ~ [d͡ʒɾò] 'to want'.


Fon has two phonemic tones, HIGH and LOW. High is realized as rising (low–high) after a voiced consonant. Basic disyllabic words have all four possibilities: HIGHHIGH, HIGHLOW, LOWHIGH, and LOWLOW.

In longer phonological words, such as verb and noun phrases, a high tone tends to persist until the final syllable; if that syllable has a phonemic low tone, it becomes falling (high–low). Low tones disappear between high tones, but their effect remains as a downstep. Rising tones (low–high) simplify to HIGH after HIGH (without triggering downstep) and to LOW before HIGH.

/ xʷèví-sà-tɔ́ é xɔ̀ àsɔ̃́ wè /
[ xʷèvísáꜜtɔ́ ‖ é ꜜxɔ̂ | àsɔ̃́ wê ‖ ]
fish-sell-aɡent s/he PERF buy crab two
Hwevísatɔ́, é ko hɔ asón we.
"The fishmonger, she bought two crabs"

In Ouidah, a rising or falling tone is realized as a mid tone. For example, 'we, you', phonemically high-tone /bĩ́/ but phonetically rising because of the voiced consonant, is generally mid-tone [mĩ̄] in Ouidah.


The Fon alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet, with the addition of the letters Ɖ/ɖ, Ɛ/ɛ, and Ɔ/ɔ, and the digraphs gb, hw, kp, ny, and xw.[6]

Fon alphabet
Majuscule A B C D Ɖ E Ɛ F G GB H HW I J K KP L M N NY O Ɔ P R S T U V W X XW Y Z
Minuscule a b c d ɖ e ɛ f g gb h hw i j k kp l m n ny o ɔ p r s t u v w x xw y z
Sound (IPA) a b t͡ɕ d ɖ e ɛ f ɡ ɡb ɣ ɣʷ i d͡ʑ k kp l m n ɲ o ɔ p r s t u v w x j z

Tone marking[edit]

Tones are marked as follows:

Tones are fully marked in reference books, but not always marked in other writing. The tone marking is phonemic, and the actual pronunciation may be different according to the syllable's environment.[7]

Sample text[edit]

From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Ee nyi ɖɔ hɛnnu ɖokpo mɛ ɔ, mɛ ɖokpoɖokpo ka do susu tɔn, bɔ acɛ ɖokpo ɔ wɛ mɛbi ɖo bo e ma sixu kan fɛn kpon é ɖi mɛɖesusi jijɛ, hwɛjijɔzinzan, kpodo fifa ni tiin nu wɛkɛ ɔ bi e ɔ, ...


Radio programs in Fon are broadcast on ORTB channels.

Television programs in Fon is shown on the La Beninoise satellite TV channel.[8]

French used to be the only language of education in Benin, but in the second decade of the twenty first century, the government is experimenting with teaching some subjects in Benin schools in the country's local languages, among them Fon.[1][9][10][11]

Machine translation efforts[edit]

There is an effort to create a machine translator for Fon (to and from French), by Bonaventure Dossou (from Benin) and Chris Emezue (from Nigeria).[12] Their project is called FFR.[13] It uses phrases from Jehovah's Witnesses sermons as well as other biblical phrases as the research corpus to train a Natural Language Processing (NLP) neural net model.[14]


  1. ^ This is a matter of perspective; it could also be argued that [b] and [ɖ] are denasalized allophones of /m/ and /n/ before oral vowels.


  1. ^ a b Fon at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
    Gun at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
    Maxi at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Höftmann & Ahohounkpanzon, p. 179
  3. ^ "Language data for Benin". Translators without Borders. Retrieved 2022-10-12.
  4. ^ Kluge, Angela (2007). "The Gbe Language Continuum of West Africa: A Synchronic Typological Approach to Prioritizing In-depth Sociolinguistic Research on Literature Extensibility" (PDF). Language Documentation & Conservation: 182–215.
  5. ^ a b Claire Lefebvre; Anne-Marie Brousseau (2002). A Grammar of Fongbe. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 15–29. ISBN 3-11-017360-3.
  6. ^ Höftmann & Ahohounkpanzon, p. 19
  7. ^ Höftmann & Ahohounkpanzon, p. 20
  8. ^ "BTV - La Béninoise TV - La Béninoise des Télés | La proximité par les langues". (in French). Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  9. ^ Akpo, Georges. "Système éducatif béninois : les langues nationales seront enseignées à l'école à la rentrée prochaine". La Nouvelle Tribune (in French). Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  10. ^ "Reportage Afrique - Bénin : l'apprentissage à l'école dans la langue maternelle". RFI (in French). 2013-12-26. Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  11. ^ "Langues nationales dans le système scolaire : La phase expérimentale continue, une initiative à améliorer - Matin Libre" (in French). Archived from the original on 2018-07-03. Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  12. ^ "AI in Africa: Teaching a bot to read my mum's texts". BBC News. 2020-04-29. Retrieved 2022-10-12.
  13. ^ Retrieved 2022-10-12. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  14. ^ Emezue, Chris Chinenye; Dossou, Femi Pancrace Bonaventure (2020). "FFR v1.1: Fon-French Neural Machine Translation". Proceedings of the Fourth Widening Natural Language Processing Workshop. Seattle, USA: Association for Computational Linguistics: 83–87. doi:10.18653/v1/2020.winlp-1.21.


External links[edit]