Somali language


Soo dhawoow – Welcome

Somali (Af-Maxaad Tiri, Af Soomaali, الصوماليه) belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Its is closest relative is Oromo.




Somali is spoken by 6.5 million people in Somalia where it has been the national language since 1972. It is also spoken in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. The total number of Somali speakers worldwide is estimated at close to 15 million (Ethnologue). The figure actually may be somewhat higher. It is difficult to collect reliable dataabout the numerous expatriate Somali communities around the world.

In Somalia, Somali is spoken by most of the people in the country. It is used in education, administration and the media. It is taught as a subject and used as a medium of instruction in the primary schools and as a subject in secondary schools. There are many radio and TV stations around the world that broadcast some of their programs in Somali.



Somali is usually divided into three main dialect groups (Ethnologue):

  • Northern Somali, also known as Common or Standard Somali, is the most widely used dialect that serves as a basis for Standard Somali
  • Benaadir (coastal Somali) is spoken on the Benadir coast and also in the capital of Mogadishu. Speakers of Benaadir readily understand Standard Somali.
  • Af-Ashraaf is a distinct variety which has limited intelligibility to speakers of Standard Somali.



Sound system

Somali shares many features with other Cushitic languages. For instance, Somali syllables typically end in a vowel or a single consonant, consonant clusters do not occur in the beginning or at the end of words, and roots usually consist of one or two syllables.



Somali has five vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. The number of vowel phonemes can differ somewhat from dialect to dialect. The vowels can be short or long. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. In the table below, long vowels are marked by a macron over the vowel. In the orthography, long vowels are represented by a double vowel, e.g., Soomaali. In addition to short and long vowels, Somali has numerous diphthongs.

i, ī
u, ū
e, ē
o, ō
a, ā



Somali has 24 consonants. Like its close relative, Oromo, native Somali words do not have the consonants /p/, /v/, and /z/. These sounds occur only in borrowed words. The language is rich in velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal consonants, sounds that are produced at the back of the oral cavity.

Dental Postalveolar Retroflex
Stops Voiceless


Fricatives voiceless


Affricates voiceless x
  • /?/ = sound between vowels in uh-uh
  • /b/, /d/, /ɗ/, /g/, /l/, /m/, /n/, and /r/ can be single or doubled (geminated). In writing, geminated consonants are represented by a double consonant letter.
  • The retroflex stop /ɗ/ is pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth. In some dialects of Somali it may have an implosive quality.
  • /G, X, ħ/ have no equivalents in English.
  • // = sh in ship
  • /t?/ = ch in chip
  • /j/ = y in yet


Tones and stress

The tonal system of Somali is similar to that of Oromo. There are three basic tones: high (marked by an acute accent), low (marked by a grave accent), and falling (marked by a circumflex accent). Somali tone operates at the grammatical, rather than at the lexical level, as it does in languages such as Chinese. For instance, the masculine-feminine distinction is represented by tone in words such as ínan ‘boy’ and inán ‘girl.’ Tone is closely associated with stress: high tone has strong stress, falling tone has weaker stress, and low tone has no stress. Stress typically falls on the final or on the penultimate vowel of a word.



Somali is an agglutinative language that uses suffixes attached to roots for representing grammatical information.



Somali nouns are marked for the following categories:

  • Definiteness is marked with the suffix -ki or -ka for masculine nouns and -ti or -ta for feminine nouns. Indefiniteness is not marked, e.g., nin ‘(a) man,’ and nin-ka ‘the man.’
  • There are two genders: masculine and feminine. Gender is not generally predictable. It can be marked by a difference in tone, e.g., ínan ‘boy’ and inán ‘girl.’ It can also be marked by the definite article, e.g., buug-ga ‘the book’ (masculine) and hacan-ta ‘the hand’ (feminine)’.
  • Number: singular and plural. Number can be marked by a suffix, e.g, buug-ga ‘the book’ and buug-gata ‘the books.’ Plurality can also be marked by a change in tone, e.g.,díbi ‘ox’ and dibí ‘oxen,’ as well as by reduplication.
  • There are four cases: absolutive, nominative, genitive, and vocative. Cases are marked in different ways. The nominative case is used for the subject of a sentence. It is marked with a vowel change in the definite article, e.g., nin-ku ‘The man + verb.’ In the absence of a definite article, the nominative case is marked by a change in tone. The genitive and vocative cases are marked either by a change in tone or by a suffix.


Pronouns have the following features:

  • There are three persons: 1st, 2nd, 3rd.
  • Third person singular pronouns are marked for gender, eg., isagu ‘he’ and iyadu ‘she.’
  • Each pronoun has an emphatic and a short form, e.g., adigu ‘you’ (emphatic) and aad ‘you’ (short).
  • Each pronoun has a subject and an object form, e.g., anigu ‘I’ and aniga ‘me.’
  • There is an inclusive and an exclusive first person plural, e.g., innagu ‘we’ (including the listener) and annagu ‘we’ (excluding the listener).


Somali verbs consist of a stem to which suffixes are added. Verbs in indicative mood exist in four tenses, present, present continuous, past and past continuous, in addition to a subjunctive mood form for present and future tense. Verbs in Somali conjugate mainly through the addition of suffixes, although a very small number of common verbs maintain an archaic conjugation using prefixes.Verbs are marked for the following categories:

  • person: 1st, 2nd, 3rd
  • number: singular, plural
  • gender: masculine, feminine
  • mood: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional
  • tense: present, present continuous, past and past continuous
  • polarity: affirmative, negative


Word order

Word order in Somali sentences is typically Subject-Object-Verb. In general, Somali has a topic-focus grammatical category that marks the information structure of sentences, i.e. those elements that indicate where the focus is located in the sentence.

The markers baa, ayaa, and waxaa places the focus on nouns and noun phrases, e.g., in the example below, the focus is on Who went out? The marker waa places the focus on verbs and verb phrases, e.g., in the example below the focus is on What did John do?
Jamal baa baxay. Waxaa baxay Jamal.
Jamal (focus) went out.’ (Focus) went out Jamal.



Somali vocabulary is Cushitic in origin. The most productive ways of word derivation are reduplication and compounding. Somali has been heavily influenced by Arabic mainly through the medium of Islam. It has also borrowed words from the languages of its former colonizers, such as Italian, English, and French.

Below are a few basic words and phrases in Somali.

Hello Nabadeey
Good bye Nabadeey
Thank you Mahadsanid
Yes Haa
No Maya
Man Nin
Woman Naag (married), dumar (unmarried)


Below are Somali numbers 1-10.




Somali was not written until the Osmanya alphabet was developed in 1920. Osmanya is written from left to right in horizontal rows. The names of the letters were taken from Arabic.


The Latin alphabet was adopted in 1972. Below is the current Somali Latin-based alphabet with the letters listed in the traditional Arabic order. There is no standardized orthography so variations occur.

B b
T t
J j
X x
KH kh
D d
R r
S s
SH sh
DH dh
C c
G g
F f
Q q
K k
L l
M m
N n
W w
H h
Y y
A a
E e
I i
O o
U u

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Latin-based Somali alphabet.

Qod I
Aadanaha dhammaantiis wuxuu dhashaa isagoo xor ah kana siman xagga sharafta iyo xuquuqada Waxaa Alle (Ilaah) siiyay aqoon iyo wacyi, waana in qof la arkaa qofka kale ula dhaqmaa si walaaltinimo ah.
Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn Somali?
There is no information on the difficulty level of Somali for speakers of English.