Written by  Annette van der Merwe

Mandinka or Mandingo, is mainly spoken in Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau and to a lesser extent in Sierra Leone and the northern part of Liberia. It is spoken by the Mandinka people and it is one of the major Mande languages which is in turn part of the greater Congo-Niger language family.

It is a tonal language in which higher and lower tones are used to distinguish between words, phrases, and complete utterances that are otherwise identically constructed. But the particular variety of Mandinka spoken in the Gambia and Senegal borders on a pitch accent due to its proximity with non-tonal neighbouring languages like Wolof. Pitch accent languages differ from tonal languages in that pitch accents are only assigned to one syllable in a word, whereas tones can be assigned to multiple syllables in a word.

Its varying orthography is the result of geo-political influences. Mandinka uses both the Latin and the Arabic alphabets. The Latin version is used mostly for official purposes. This is probably due to the colonial influence. The Arabic orthography is however more widely used and much older. More over the pan-Manding writing system developed in 1949, is often used in north east Guinea and across the border in the Ivory Coast and Mali. There is also limited use of the Garay alphabet originally developed for Wolof.


Though it has three different writing systems, a Latin system, an Arabic system, and the N’Ko system (also used for other languages in the Mande family), it’s not uncommon for a native Mandinka speaker to not know how to write. The most common writing system is the Arabic-based system, which has been used the longest by the Mandinka people. The N’Ko system is actually very recent, as it was developed in 1949.

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