The Somali Language.

The Somali Language

The Sound System and Pronunciation

Somali uses all but three letters (p, v, and z) of the English alphabet. Of the thirty-three sounds, fifteen (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, s, sh, t, w, and y) are very much like their English counterparts.

Somali has seven consonants (c, dh, kh, q, r, x and ' [glottal stop]) that do not match anything in English. The English sounds most likely to present difficulties for Somalis are those represented by the letters c, q, r, and x, since these letters are pronounced quite differently in Somali. For pronunciation of Somali letters.

In Somali, the consonants b, d, dh, g, l, m, n, and r can be doubled to indicate a sound which is pronounced with much more force than its single counterpart. Thus, Somalis often pronounce the doubled consonants in English words such as "bigger," "middle," "merry," "simmer," and "nibble" with more strength than they would be pronounced by a native speaker of English.

Vowels always have fixed value in Somali; each letter has one sound and each sound has one lette

a tart aa father
ay high ey say
e way ee payday
i in,wit i i see
o boat oo sew
u coo uu



Long vowels (aa, ee, ii, oo, uu) are used in Somali and pronounced about twice as long as a single counterpart

English vowels will present some difficulty to Somalis, since English lacks Somali's one-to-one correspondence between vowel letters and sounds; in English, each letter has more than one sound, and each sound has more than one spelling. Typically, Somalis will pronounce English words the way they would pronounce them in Somali. Thus, boat might be pronounced "bow-at" with two syllables, and the word may might be pronounced "my."

Somalis may draw out English double vowels, as in noon or been, giving them the long sound that doubled vowel letters represent in Somali.

Tone occurs in Somali, but it is not as complex as in Chinese, in which every word has a special tone pattern. In Somali, tone rarely marks a difference in word meaning. This aspect of Somali is not likely to create a problem for Somalis learning English.

The Grammatical System


Somali and English are quite different when it comes to the and a. The definite article in Somali has gender suffixes; like French, the Somali definite article has a masculine and feminine form.

Somalis can have difficulty mastering the English indefinite article (a/an) because their own language has no equivalent. In Somali, the concept of indefiniteness is expressed by the noun alone.

In Somali, differences in gender, number, or case are marked by grammatical tone:

' inán 'girl' [gender] díbi 'ox' dibí 'oxen' [number] Múuse 'Moses' Mu'use 'Hey, Moses' [vocative case]

ínan 'boy inán girl gender
díbi ox dibí oxen number
Múuse Moses Mu´use 'hey,Moses' Vocative case

The system of case marking is so different between the two languages that mistakes are unavoidable. Typically, a Somali will drop the apostrophe-s possessive in favor of a tone change, e.g., "Mary book", with a rising intonation on the first syllable of "Mary".


In Somali, most adjectives are formed by adding -an or -san to a verb or noun. Thus, gaab 'shortness' becomes gaaban 'short', and qurux 'beauty' becomes quruxsan 'beautiful'. Somalis may coin some interesting English adjectives by a similar process.

Somali adjectives often occur with a short form of the verb to be suffixed to them. For example, yar 'small' becomes yaraa 'he was small'. As a result, Somali speakers of English tend to add aa to adjectives. Thus, instead of saying "small", they might say something that sounds like "small-ah". This may cause confusion, particularly among British speakers of English, who may think the speaker is saying "smaller".

Prepositions English prepositions can cause great difficulty for Somalis. Whereas English has a great variety of prepositions, Somali has only four, and they come before the verb rather than before the noun. Because they are so few, Somali prepositions have a wide range of meanings:

  1. ka 'from, away from, out of' and 'about, concerning'
  2. ku 'in, into, on, at' and 'with, by means of, using'
  3. la 'with, together with, in the company of'
  4. u 'to, towards' and 'for, on behalf of'

For example:

  1. Isaga u sheeg.-- Tell it to him.
  2. Isaga ka sheeg.-- Tell about him.
  3. Isaga ku sheeg.-- Call him (a name).
  4. Qori ka samee!-- Make it of wood!
  5. Guriga ku samee!-- Do it at home!
  6. Isaga la samee!-- Do it with him!


Verbs usually come last in Somali sentences. As a result, Somali speakers of English may tend to put the verb at the end of a sentence. Somali lacks a passive voice. Instead of the passive, Somali uses the indefinite pronoun la 'someone', as in Goormaa la dhisey? "When was it built?" (literally, "When someone built?"). Using English passives correctly can be a major challenge for Somali students of English.

Somali has a present habitual and a present progressive tense, but they are not used in the same contexts in which these tenses are used in English. Somali uses the present progressive tense where the simple present tense would be used in English, and this feature of Somali may carry over into the English speech of Somalis. Somali speakers of English often make use of the present progressive tense ("I am going to work every day") where English speakers would use the simple present ("I go to work every day").

The Importance of Proverbs

Somali has a rich tradition of proverbs, passed on from previous generations and embellished by individual speakers. Proverbs play a very important role in everyday speech.

Aqoon la'aani waa iftiin la'aan. Being without knowledge is to be without light.
Ilko wada jir bey wax ku gooyaan. Unity is power. (literally, "Together the teeth can cut.")
Intaadan falin ka fiirso. Look before you leap. (literally, "Think before you do.")
Nabar doogi ma haro. An old wound will not go away.

This is one area where Somalis find English impoverished. Some will go to great effort to learn English sayings and use them far too frequently; others may translate literally from the Somali and hope for the best.

The Writing System

Somali has had a written form only since 1972. Because only a small segment of Somali society young adults who studied Somali spelling in schoo lhas throughly mastered Somali orthography, spelling mistakes are frequent. Spelling errors occur frequently in the Somali press and in government reports. Most errors involve using single, rather than doubled, vowels or consonants.


Some basic somali expressions:

Ma nabad baa? Hello. [literally, "Is it peace?" standard greeting]
Waa nabad. Hello. [literally, "It is peace." in response]
Subax wanaagsan. Good morning.
Maalin wanaagsan Good day.
Galab wanaagsan. Good afternoon
Habeen wanaagsan Good evening
Magacaa? What is your name?
Iska warran? How are you?