A Look at the Somali Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Somali language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Somali

Somali has one of the strangest proposition systems on Earth. It actually has no real prepositions at all. Instead it has preverbal particles and possessives that serve as prepositions.

Here is how possessives serve as prepositions:

habeennimada horteeda
the-night her-front
“before nightfall”

kulaylka dartiisa
the-heat his-reason
“because of the heat”

Here we have the use of a preverbal particle serving as a preposition:

kú ríd shandádda
Into put the-suitcase.
“Put it into the suitcase.”

Somali combines four “prepositions” with four deictic particles to form its prepositions.

There are four basic “prepositions”:

“to”
“in”
“from”
“with”

These combine with a four different deictic particles:

toward the speaker
away from the speaker
toward each other
away from each other

Hence you put the “prepositions” and the deictic particles together in various ways. Both tend to go in front of and close to the verb:

Nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.
Well-the rope with-from towards me I raised.
“I pulled the man out of the well with a rope.”

Way inoogá warrámi jireen.
They us-to-about news gave.
“They used to give us news about it.”

Prepositions are the hardest part of the Somali language for the learner.

Somali deals with verbs of motion via deixis in a similar way that Georgian does. One reference point is the speaker and the other is any other entities discussed. Verbs of motion are formed using adverbs. Entities may move:

towards each other    wada
away from each other  kala
towards the speaker   so
away from the speaker si

Hence:

kala durka "to separate"
si gal     "go in (away from the speaker)"
so gal     "come in (toward the speaker)"

At one time, Somali lacked orthographic consistency. There were four different orthographic systems in use – the Wadaad Arabic script, the Osmanya Ethiopic script, the Borama script and the Latin Somali alphabet. In 1972, Somali President Said Barre decreed that the Latin alphabet would be the official alphabet for the Somali language, so the Somali orthographic system is now stable.

All of the difficult sounds of Arabic are also present in Somali, another Semitic language – the alef, the ha, the qaf and the kha. There are long and short vowels.  There is a retroflex d, the same sound found in South Indian languages. Somali also has 2 tones – high and low. For some reason, Somali tends to make it onto craziest phonologies lists.

Somali pluralization makes no sense and must be memorized. There are seven different plurals and there is no clue in the singular that tells you what form to use in the plural. See here:

Republication:

áf  “language” -> afaf “languages”

Suffixation:

hoóyo “mother” -> hoyoóyin “mothers”

áabbe -> aabayaal

Note the tone shifts in all three of the plurals above.

There are four cases, absolutive, nominative, genitive and vocative. Despite the presence of both absolutive and nominative cases, Somali is not an ergative language. Absolutive case is the basic case of the noun, and nominative is the case given to the noun when a verb follows in the sentence. There are different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned previously or not (similar to the articles a and the in English). The absolutive and nominative are marked not only on the noun but also on the article that precedes it.

In terms of difficulty, Somali is much harder than Persian and probably about as difficult as Arabic.

Somali gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.

2 Comments

Filed under Africa, Afroasiatic, Applied, East Africa, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Regional, Semitic, Somalia

2 responses to “A Look at the Somali Language

  1. Great article, Just a minor correction. There is one Somali orthographic system in use, and that is the Latin system. Prior to the 1972 introduction of the Latin based orthography, there was a vigorous debate about what system to use which included consideration of the above scripts. Ultimately, Barre’s government decided that the Latin script was the way to go, and that has remained the standard until today. Hope that’s helpful.

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