Somali Language

Listen to a sample of the Somali language Somali Audio Recording

The universal language in Somalia is Somali, a Cushitic language shared by people of Eastern Africa. Somali includes distinct regional variations. The two main variants, Af Maay and Af Maxaa, were the official languages of Somalia until 1972 when the government determined that Af Maxaa would serve as the official written language. Though the two languages are similar in written form, they are mutually unintelligible when spoken.

As the majority of the population is Muslim, Arabic is the second most commonly spoken language in Somalia. The formally educated in Somalia may also speak French, Italian, English, Russian, or Swahili.
The Somali Bantu may speak a number of languages. The main language spoken by the people who fled the lower Juba River valley, in Southern Somalia, is Af Maay (also known as Maay, or Maay Maay, sometimes spelled as May or Maimai.)

Listen to samples of native Somali speakers reading a passage in English Speech Accent Archive-Somali


All of the following information on Somali phonology (with the exception of tone) is taken directly from: Somali Phonology


Somali has 22 consonant phonemes.

  Bilabial Labiodental





Palatal Velar Uvulo-Epiglottal Pharyngeal Glottal
Nasal m    n            
Plosive b   t̪ d̪  ɖ   k g q͡ʡ   ʔ
Fricative   f  s ʃ       ħ ʕ h
Trill      r            
Approximate      l   j        
  • /ɖ/ is a voiced retroflex plosive. Some phoneticians say that it has an implosive quality for some speakers. It is sometimes realized as the flap [ɾ] between vowels.
  • The voiceless stops /t/ and /k/ are always aspirated.
  • The uvular fricative /χ/ is often pronounced [x], i.e. a voiceless velar fricative. All words with this phoneme are adoptions from Arabic. They may be “Somalized” by replacing them with the stop /ɢ/.
  • /ʕ/, the voiced pharyngeal fricative, may have creaky voice.
  • /r/ is often pronounced with breathy voice and may be partially devoiced. Between vowels it may be a single tap.


  • Somali has five vowel articulations which all contrast breathy voice and harsh voice as well as vowel length.
  • There is little change in vowel quality when the vowel is lengthened.
  • Somali front-back vowel pairs participate in a system of vowel harmony at the level of the phonological word or perhaps some larger phrasal category.
  • Somali vowels are divided into two sets: a front series and a back series, all of which occur both long and short.
  • Vowel harmony is essential to an authentic pronunciation of the language.
  • Vowel harmony is the rule that within a certain range all vowels have to match, i.e. belong to the same series. One such domain is a word: so that the vowels in a noun root, for example, will all be front as in [libaax] libàax 'lion', or all back as in [mAAlIn] maalín 'day'.
  • The lexical categories of noun, verb and adjective inherently have vowels which are either from the front or the back series, and this must be learned for each word from these categories.
  • However, inflectional endings and the functional categories of determiners, conjunctions, verbal pronouns, auxiliary verbs, classifers and focus words are variable: their vowels can be either from the front or back series and will tend to match neighbouring lexical categories.
  • Thus vowels harmony is a kind of phonetic 'agreement' where the vowels in functional affixes and words agree with the vowels in neighbouring nouns, verbs and adjectives. 


  • Phonotactics in the Somali language:
  • When a vowel occurs in word-initial position, a glottal stop is inserted before it.
  • Clusters of two consonants do not occur word-initially or word-finally. They only occur at syllable boundaries.
  • The following consonants can be spoken as long consonants: /b/, /d/, /ɖ/, /ɡ/, /ɢ/, /m/, /n/, /r/ and /l/.
  • The following consonants cannot be spoken as long consonants: /t/, /k/ and the fricatives.
  • Two vowels cannot occur together at syllable boundaries. Therefore, consonants such as [j] and [ʔ] are inserted when two vowels occur at a syllable boundary.
  • /tʃ/ does not occur syllable-final in native Somali words but it does in Arabic words that have been incorporated into the Somali language.


  • The voiced stops (/b/, /d/, /ɡ/ and /ɢ/) are devoiced in word-initial and word-final position. Between two vowels they become fricatives.
  • The voiceless stops /t/ and /k/ are realised as [d] and [ɡ] in syllable-final position.
  • /m/ is realised as [n] in syllable-final position.
  • /tʃ/ appears to have fairly free variation between [tʃ] and [dʒ].
  • Between vowels, /h/ is usually voiced to [ɦ].
  • All vowels are nasalised before or after a nasal consonant.


  • The following information is taken directly from: Putnam & Noor (1999). The Somalis: Their History and Culture
  • The Somali language has three tones: high, low and falling.
  • The tone system distinguishes grammatical differences rather than lexical differences. Grammatical differences marked by tone include singular/plural, masculine/feminine, and case.
  • One example is ínan (“boy”) and inán (“girl”). Although this appears in English to be a lexical difference, in fact it is part of a masculine-feminine pattern which also differentiates words such as daméer (“male donkey”) and dameér (“female donkey”).

 Additional examples:

  • Singular/plural marked by tone: díbi (ox) vs. dibí (oxen)
  • Case marked by tone: Múuse (Moses) vs. Mu'use (Hey, Moses )


The following information on Somali syntax is taken directly from: Putnam & Noor (1999). The Somalis: Their History and Culture


Somali nouns are more highly inflected than nouns in English. In English, nouns are inflected only for number that is, they have different forms for singular and plural. In Somali, not only does each noun have number, with eight kinds of plural forms; a noun is also inflected for gender (masculine or feminine) and case (nominative, genitive, absolutive, and vocative). In Somali, differences in gender, number, or case are marked by tone.
The system of case marking is so different between Somali and English that mistakes are unavoidable. For example, 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”.


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 uses the present progressive tense where the simple present tense would be used in English. 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”).


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).

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”.


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.

  • ka (from, away from, out of, about, concerning)
  • ku (in, into, on, at, with, by means of, using)
  • la (with, together with, in the company of)
  • u (to, towards, for, on behalf of)

For example:

  • Isaga u sheeg. Tell it to him.
  • Isaga ka sheeg. Tell about him.
  • Isaga ku sheeg. Call him (a name).
  • Qori ka samee. Make it of wood.
  • Guriga ku samee. Do it at home.


Somali and English are quite different when it comes to articles. 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.

Figurative Language

The following information is taken directly from: Putnam & Noor (1999). The Somalis: Their History and Culture
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. Some examples of Somali proverbs:

  • Being without knowledge is to be without light.
  • Unity is power. (Literally, “Together the teeth can cut.”)
  • Look before you leap. (Literally, “Think before you do.”)
  • An old wound will not go away.

Written Language

The following information is taken directly from: Somali Writing

The Latin alphabet was adopted in 1972 at the same time that Somali was made the sole official language of Somalia. Shire Jama Ahmed is credited with the invention of this spelling system, and his system was chosen from among eighteen competing new orthographies.

Sample text:
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.
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. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Communication Disorders

Importance of Oral Communication Skills

Facility with speech is highly valued among Somalis, and Somalis tend to appreciate oral communication above all other art forms. Somali speakers may also use humor based on puns and word play to counter criticism, “save face,” or disentangle themselves from uncomfortable or embarrassing situations. In Somali society, one’s abilities as a leader, warrior, or suitor may depend largely on the ability to speak eloquently and with humor.

Autism Among Somali Immigrants

A report from Swedish neurologists, published in 2008, says the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in Somali children aged 7 to 17 years in Stockholm is nearly four times higher than in non-Somali children.

During the fall of 2008, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Somali community began a dialogue related to concerns expressed by the community about the number of preschool Somali children with a classification of autism in the Minneapolis Public Schools.  In April 2009, the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed the fears of Somali families: Somali children were found to be represented in autism education programs 2 to 7 times greater than non-Somali students.

Somali families were frightened and perplexed about the seemingly high occurrence of autism in their community. Somalis had no word for autism in their language. Some called it “the American disease,” because they rarely encountered it before relocating to America. In keeping with cultural explanations for illness, some families initially believed their children had autism because of some wrong they had committed or their parents had committed, and the curse was catching up with them.

Many Somali parents in the U.S. do not read English or watch American television, so they first hear of autism only when a pediatrician suggests that a child may need to be assessed. Some send their children back to relatives in Somalia, believing that children with autism have trouble communicating because they spend too much time isolated in their homes in the U.S. The belief is that back in Somalia, children with autism will be immersed in daily outdoor play with many other children, and will be forced to communicate.

Using focus groups and open-ended questions, Kediye at al. asked ten Somali-Canadian mothers parenting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to narrate their experiences and beliefs regarding the stresses they face in parenting a child with ASD.

Many of the stresses reported by the mothers included anxiety over lack of developmental gains in their children with ASD and the resulting issues over safety and future independence. Tensions with key professionals such as teachers and doctors was also noted as causing considerable stress and was perceived to result from limited language skills on the mothers’ part, and lack of knowledge of Somali culture on the part of the professionals. The absence of an extended family in Canada was also noted as causing undue hardship for these mothers and was complicated by Canadian immigration policies that were perceived as rigid. The mothers’ negative experiences with the general public often led them to isolate themselves and their child. While parenting a child with ASD has considerable challenges, being an immigrant mother and a member of a visible minority appears to intensify those challenges.


Implications for the SLP

Cultural Tips for Working with Somalis

Please bear in mind that the following points are generalizations and may not apply to all Somalis.

  • The common way to greet a person is to say asalamu alaykum (peace be with you).
  • When greeters are of the same gender, they shake hands.
  • The Islamic tradition is that women and men do not touch each other, so men and women don’t shake hands with one another.
  • Recognize the role of family, especially the male head of household, in decision making. In some families, it may only be acceptable for the husband or father to speak for a woman.
  • Do not assume that Somalis can read English or Somali. The Somali written language was introduced only in the 1970s and social upheaval severely disrupted education, therefore many Somalis do not read or write.
  • Somalis traditionally do not express gratitude or appreciation verbally. Do not assume that clients are ungrateful if they do not express gratitude directly.

Using Qualified Interpreters

  • When working with Somali clients, it is important to work with an interpreter who has been trained in providing language interpretation services. It may be tempting to use a family member or other Somali speaker to act as an interpreter, but there are good reasons to avoid doing this, such as:
  • The possibility that messages will be translated inaccurately, leading to misunderstanding and communication breakdowns.
  • It may be very uncomfortable for family members to be put in the position of interpreting for one another. It may ask family members to step outside well-established role expectations (e.g., asking children to translate for parents may be very uncomfortable for both the child and the adult).
  • When using interpreters for assessment or intervention, it is important to explain to the interpreter the purpose of the assessment or intervention, and what you as the SLP hope to accomplish during the session. This will give the interpreter a foundation for understanding how best to facilitate communication during the session.
  • When possible, it is always best to use an interpreter who is both bilingual and bicultural. That is, the interpreter should have knowledge of the language and culture of both Somalis and Americans. Furthermore, such an interpreter may be able to act as a cultural informant, assisting the SLP in understanding the client's culture and how best to work within the client's cultural veiwpoint to make services most effective.
  • One possible source of trained Somali-English interpreters is the International Refugee Center of Oregon (IRCO). Link to IRCO interpretation services


Helpful information for School-Based SLPs

Hypothetical case study of a school-based SLP treating a Somali child with language impairment: Somali child with Language Impairment

  • Approximately 335 students from Somali-speaking homes attend Portland Public Schools. Somali is the fifth most common language spoken among PPS students, after English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Cantonese.
  • Many Somalis have no experience with a formal education system, so this may make the transition to the US school system difficult. 31)
  • There are no standardized speech or language assessments in Somali.
  • When planning assessment and treatment, take into account language differences between Somali and English:
  • 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.
  • In Somali, when a vowel occurs in word-initial position, a glottal stop is inserted before it. Therefore, Somali speakers learning English may put a glottal stop before words that start with vowels.
  • These language and phonetic differences may lead to slightly different second language acquisition.
  • It is necessary to take into account years of language experience, input, output, use, proficiency, and monitor change over time.

Like other Muslims who practice Islam, men generally don't shake a woman's hand for greeting except if they are spouses. Somali women generally don't shake men's hands, either. Some students and their parents may have difficulties when they meet Americans who don't know this tradition. The family may not be able to explain this matter because of language barriers. Therefore, the family may prefer not to come to school meetings, in order to avoid the discomfort of shaking hands. Asking families their preferred way of greeting may help increase their comfort in interacting with school personnel.

Families may have expectations related to culture and religion. For instance, Somali parents may prefer that schools separate the girls from the boys when they have mixed or body-touching activities such as swimming class. It may be helpful for schools to provide options to Somali students, especially girls, about activities such as these. In addition, it may be helpful to provide options where clothing may be an issue (for example, wearing athletic clothing for physical education classes). Girls may not want to wear athletic clothing because they would be stepping outside their preferred cultural manner of dressing.

Somalis who practice Islam pray five times every day wherever they are. Somali students and their parents may have questions about where their children can pray and how the American schools can meet the needs of their students related to prayer. It may be helpful if schools have resources or basic information about prayer in Islam, school-year prayer schedule and how it is different from other faith's prayers.

Ramadan is the most important month for Moslem people around the world. During this month, Moslems fast during the day, and eat when the sun goes down. Only teens and adults are required to fast (younger children may fast for half the day). It would be helpful if schools provide an alternate room at lunch time for students who are fasting. Schools could also use the opportunity to educate the entire school community about the significance of Ramadan in Islam.


Original contributors: Moira Finnegan and Dona Davis, Winter 2011

References and Resources