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Classification: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East Cushitic, Lowland East Cushitic.

Cushitic is a highly diverse group of languages spoken in the Horn of Africa and one of the six branches (or families) of the Afroasiatic phylum; it is divided into North, Central and East Cushitic which is further subdivided into Highland and Lowland languages. Other important Lowland East Cushitic members, besides Somali, are Oromo and Afar.

Overview. Somali is one of the major languages of the Horn of Africa and the second largest within the Cushitic family after Oromo. It is the national language of Somalia and a major regional one of Ethiopia. The Somali people migrated from northern Kenya during the first centuries CE occupying the entire Somali peninsula. They found there coastal Arab trading communities from which they adopted Islam around the 12th century. Somali is distinguished by having pharyngeal consonants, tone-accents, subject-object-verb word order and an elaborate focus-marking system.

Distribution. Somali is spoken mainly in Somalia (including the now effectively independent region of Somaliland), and Ethiopia, spreading north into Djibouti and south into Kenya. Also, by many Somalis in the diaspora, particularly in Yemen.

Speakers. There are more than 16 million native Somali speakers in these countries:







Arab Emirates







Varieties. Somali has three main dialect groups. Northern Somali forms the basis of the standard language, Benaadir is spoken on  coastal areas, and Maay in South Somalia.

Status. Somali is the official language of Somalia along with Arabic.


Vowels (1o). Somali has the typical Eastern Cushitic set of five short and five long vowels. Vowel length is phonemic. Some scholars think that Somali has vowel harmony between front and back variants of each of the five vowels.


Consonants (22). The consonantal system is distinguished by having eight places of articulation including retroflex, uvular and pharyngeal. The [x] sound is  found exclusively in loanwords from Arabic. The only affricate may be pronounced either voiceless [tʃ] or voiced [dʒ]. Somali, doesn't have a p-sound. Consonant clusters are not allowed at the beginning and end of a word.

Tones: Somali has three tones, high, low and falling, that serve to make grammatical distinctions. They are not usually indicated in the script but when required high tone is marked with an acute accent and falling tone is marked with a grave accent (low tone is not marked). Tones are associated with stress: high tone has a strong stress, low tone is unstressed while falling tone has a diminishing stress (from strong to weak).

Script and Orthography.

In 1972 the Roman alphabet was adopted. It contains 32 symbols. The equivalent of each in the International Phonetic Alphabet is given between square brackets:

-long vowels are indicated by doubling.

-the retroflex stop [ɖ] is written dh.

-the glottal stop [ʔ] is marked by an apostrophe.

-the affricate, pronounced as [tʃ] or [dʒ], is symbolized by j.

-the fricatives are represented: [ʃ] as sh, [x] as kh, [ħ] as x, [ʕ] as c.


  1. Nominal. Nouns are marked for case, gender, number and definiteness.

  1. case: absolutive, nominative, genitive, vocative.

  2. Case marking is usually phrasal i.e. it  occurs at the very end of the noun phrase. If the last element of  it is a determiner (like a demonstrative or an article), the determiner and not the noun is marked for case. The unmarked absolutive is the citation form, functioning as predicative or direct object. The nominative marks the subject with tones and, optionally, by suffixes (indefinite i, definite ku/tu). The genitive is generally marked by a change in tone, exhibiting a low-high tone pattern (high in monosyllables):

  1. absolutive         genitive

  2. libàax               libáax        (lion)

  3. ínan                   inán          (boy)

  1. The vocative is marked by suffixes or by a tonal change.

  1. gender: masculine and feminine. Gender is marked by tonal distinction and by agreement on determiners like possessives, demonstratives, articles, and the verb. The masculine marker is basically k, the feminine marker t. Many nouns exhibit polarity i.e. they are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, and vice versa.

  1. numbersingular and plural. Plural marking is complex and depends on the type and gender of the noun. Adjectives used attributively generally agree with their nouns in number; the plural of adjectives is made by reduplication of the first syllable.

  1. definiteness: there are two definite articles, non-remote and remote, which are suffixed to a noun. The non-remote definite article (ka for masculine nouns, ta for feminine nouns) refers to the present or the future and is unmarked spatially. The remote definite article (kii for masculine nouns, tii for feminine nouns) refers to the past or to something distant from the speaker. If the article is the last element of the phrase it may be marked for subject case: ka and ta become ku and tu, respectively, while kii and nii undergo a tonal lowering.

  1. pronouns: independent, verbal (subject and object), possessive.

  1. Independent pronouns can stand on their own and are used mainly for emphasis or focus. Verbal pronouns are essentially preverbal clitics; they have subject and object forms. Verbal subject pronouns have full and short forms.

  2. Possessive pronouns are formed by possessive morphemes preceded by a gender marker (k or t) and followed by the definite article:

  1. Demonstrative pronouns are as follows: kan/tan (‘this’), kuwan (‘these’), kaas/taas (‘that’), kuwaas (‘those’).

  1. Nouns can be questioned by attaching the interrogative determiners kée (‘which?’, masc.) and tée (‘which?’, fem.) to them. Alternatively, by suffixing ma, an interrogative particle that serves also to question whole sentences.

  1. Verbal. Verbs are inflected for person-number  and tense-mood-aspect (TMA) by adding suffixes to the root (a few verbs use prefixes). The infinitive never occurs alone but combines with auxiliary verbs to form compound tenses like the future and conditional.

  1. person and number: 1 s-3 ms, 2-3 fs; 1 p, 2p, 3p. Gender is only distinguished in the 3rd person singular. The forms for the 1st person singular and 3rd person masculine singular are identical; the forms for the 2nd person singular and 3rd person feminine are identical as well.

  1. tense: past, present, future

  2. Verbal inflection is achieved mainly by suffixes but a group of five 'strong' verbs uses prefixes as well.

  3. The marker for the present is aa, and the past marker is ay. The past and present have also progressive forms which include the verb hay (‘to have’) fused to the stem. A past habitual can be formed with the auxiliary jir ('to be').

  4. The future is expressed by a periphrastic construction combining the infinitive with the present of the auxiliary verb doon ('to want'). As an example, the conjugation of keen ('to bring') is shown below:


  1. black: verb root; red: person-number marker, orange: progressive marker; blue: tense-aspect marker, brown: plural marker.

  1. The 2nd and 3rd plurals are the plural forms of the 2nd singular and 3rd singular masculine respectively.

  1. Predicate negation is expressed by preverbal particles and verbal inflection. The negative past has only an invariable form (keenín) which must be preceded by a negative word (or aan). The negative present must also be preceded by a negative particle but inflects regularly: má keenó (1st sg-3rd masc. sg.), má keentó (2nd sg-3rd fem. sg.), etc.

  1. aspect: simple, progressive, habitual.

  1. mood: declarative, optative, potential, conditional, imperative.

  2. The optative is used to express wish or hope, also for blessings and suggestions; its marker is o and it must be preceded by the appropriate subject clitic pronoun in all persons except the third when it is preceded by the special optative marker . The potential denotes possibility, its marker is ee and is preceded by the marker shòw. The conditional denotes a hypothetical situation in the present or past; it is formed by combining the infinitive with the auxiliary lahaa ('would/would have').


  1. black: verb root; red: person-number marker, blue: mood marker, brown: plural marker.

  1. The 2nd and 3rd plurals of the optative and the potential are the plural forms of the 2nd singular and 3rd singular masculine respectively.

  1. The optative negative has a single form (keénin) preceded by the marker yàan fused with the appropriate subject clitic pronoun. The potential has no negative form. The conditional negative, in contrast with the affirmative, doesn't use an auxiliary. Negative imperatives require the marker ha: ha keénin (2nd sg), ha keenína (2nd pl).

  1. voice/derived stems: autobenefactive (for oneself), passive, causative.


    The neutral word order of the sentence in Somali is Subject-Object-Verb. The usual order of the noun phrase is: numeral-noun-possessive-definite article or demonstrative-adjective. In attributive usage, adjectives follow their head noun and may agree with it in number.

    Somali has an elaborate focus marking system. Noun focus is expressed by the particles ayaa or baa, which immediately follow noun phrases, and verbal focus is marked by the particle waa which appears as the first element of the verbal phrase. There can only be one focus marker in a main clause. The form of the noun focus marker depends if it is the subject of the sentence or not. If the subject is in focus, the marker occurs in its simple form. If a non-subject is focused, the focus marker is suffixed with a clitic subject pronoun: ay-aan (1st sg), ay-aad (2nd sg), ay-uu (3rd sg. masc.), etc.:

  1. Nin-kii       libaax-ii    ay-uu  dilay

  2. man-DEF    lion-DEF   FOC  killed

  3. The man killed the lion.

DEF: remote definite article; FOC: non-subject noun marker (of lion).

  1. Nin-kii       ayaa  libaax-ii     dilay

  2. man-DEF   FOC  lion-DEF   killed

  3. It was the man who killed the lion.

DEF: remote definite article; FOC: subject noun marker (of man).

When there is verbal focus, yes-no questions are formed by replacing the verbal focus (also called declarative) marker waa by the question particle ma:

  1. Aabbahaa waa-n   la   hadlay          Aabbahaa ma   la   hadlay

  2. father-your FM-I with  spoke          father-your  ?  with  spoke

  3. I spoke with your father.              Did I/he speak with your father?

If there is a nominal focus, the question particle is placed before the focused noun phrase. Clauses may be coordinated by the particle oo or they may be joined by attaching the suffix na to the first element of the second clause. In subordinated clauses, there are no focus markers and the verb adopts a special subordinated form.

Basic Vocabulary (we have indicated tone only in the numerals)

one: ków

two: lába

three: sáddex

four: áfar

five: shán

six: lix

seven: toddobá

eight: siddéed

nine: sagáal

ten: toban

hundred: boqól

father: aabbe

mother: hiindo, habar

brother: walaal

sister: walaasha

son: wiil

daughter: inan

head: madax

eye: il

foot: cag, cagta

heart: wab, wadna, qalbi

tongue: carrab

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati


Further Reading

  1. -Somali Reference Grammar. J. I. Saeed. Dunwoody Press (1993).

  2. -Somali (London Oriental and African Language Library). J. Saeed. John Benjamins (1999).

  3. -Referenzgrammatik des Somali. J. Berchem. OMIMEE Intercultural Publishers (1991).

  4. -'Somali'. F. Serzisko. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 987-990. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

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