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Number of Speakers: 1.5 million

Key Dialects: Kpa, Ko, Waanjama, Sewawa

Geographical Center: South central Sierra Leone and in Liberia in areas bordering Sierra Leone.

Mende is spoken primarily in the southern region of Sierra Leone in an expanse of land extending to the coast and eastwards to Liberia. Approximately 1.5 million speak Mende natively in Sierra Leone. Some 20,000 people in Liberia are known to speak the language. Many speakers of Mende speak Krio as a second language.

Mende is a member of the Southwestern Mande subgroup of the Mande branch of Niger Congo languages within the Niger-Kordofanian family. The most closely related languages are Loko (spoken in northern Sierra Leone) and Bandi (spoken in Liberia). Mende is also closely related to Lorma and Kpelle.

There is very little dialectal variation in Mende. The geographical dividing line between the two major dialects Kpa and Ko is near the town of Kenema. The two most closely related languages, Loko and Bandi, are so close to Mende that they could be considered dialects.

Mende is primarily written in a Latin script. However, a small sect of the population in southern and eastern Sierra Leone use Kikakui, a right-to-left syllabary orthography that has been in use since 1917 primarily for use in religious writings. Tone is not represented in the standard Latin script.

Mende has a seven-vowel system and an assimilation rule that fronts non-front vowels when they occur before the specific suffix -i. The consonant inventory of the language consists of over twenty phonemes, although the precise number varies according to the analysis.

There are four basic tones in Mende, two of which are level tones (High, Low) and two of which are contour tones (Rising, Falling). Mende contour tones occur exclusively on the final syllables of words. The level tones are not restricted in this way. Tones are subject to downstep in the language. That is, in an underlying High - Low - High tone sequence, the pitch of second High tone is pronounced lower than that of the first High tone when the intervening Low tone is lost (i.e. deleted). In this case, the second High tone is said to be “downstepped”.

As a Mande language, Mende shows no signs of a noun class system, either on nouns or on their dependents. There is no case marking either. There are three types of morphologically distinct possessive constructions however; one for kinship, another for body parts, and one for everything else. Subject pronouns have become fused with other morphemes, yielding five distinct sets of subject pronouns.

Mende verbs do not show subject agreement for person, number, or gender, nor do they bear tense marking. Tense is realized by combining the subject pronouns with appropriate postverbal particles.

The basic word order in Mende is SOV. However, this word order can be changed by using emphatic markers.

Mende is one of the official languages of Sierra Leone (along with Temne, Kono, Limba and Krio). It is widely used as a trade language and is the second language of many Krio speakers. Mende language education is considerably developed. It is taught from the primary school level through the college level.

According to oral tradition, the Mende migrated from the Sudan to the north during the period from 200 to 1500 A.D. Various cultural and physical differences among the Mende suggest that the migrants originated from more than one ethnic source. Folkloric tradition links the Mende with the coastal Bullom stock.

Dwyer, D. 1978. “What sort of a tone language is Mende?”. In Studies in African Linguistics 9, pp. 167-208.

Gordon, R.G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Innes, G. 1962. A Mende Grammar. London: MacMillan.

Innes, G. 1967. A Mende-English Dicationary. London: Cambridge University Press.

Spears, R.A. 1967. Basic Course in Mende. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University.

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