Why Somali is harder than your language

English: A young Somali man.
A young Somali man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Recently I was discussing with @JaredRomey about an article he posted, “9 hard languages for English speakers.”  I replied that I don’t know why Somali never makes it onto those lists; they tend to be the same list: Chinese, Arabic, etc.  Jared suggested I blog about why Somali deserves to be on the list.  He suggested 5 reasons why it’s hard–I came up with 7, but I’m only a beginner.

 

In difficulty, Somali can stand its ground against the hardest languages.  Yet the Foreign Service Institute puts Somali in category 2, where 3 is the hardest.  Category 2 includes Farsi and 3 includes Arabic.  I’ve studied both, and I don’t see how this is so; Somali seems to be way harder than Farsi and of at least the same level of difficulty as Arabic.  If you drew a Venn  diagram of languages and their hardest aspects, Somali would overlap with a lot of them.  While Mandarin and Somali have tones, Mandarin has no case.  While German and Somali have case, German has fairly simple sounds.  While Arabic and Somali have difficult sounds, Arabic has a consistent writing system.  Plus Somali does some odd things with prepositions you’ll have to read about, below.  Somali is a doosy–but the challenge is made lighter by the joy of Somalis hearing their language spoken by a foreigner.

 

For a bit of background: Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family, in the Cushitic branch.  More famous branches of this family are Semitic, to which Arabic and Hebrew belong, and Egyptian, which includes the language of the ancient Pharaohs.  Some overlap with Arabic, then, is natural.

 

  1. Three (four?) writing systems.  When Somali was originally written down in the Arabic script in the 13th century (Wadaad script).  In 1920, another script was invented that somewhat resembled the Ethiopian writing system (Osmanya script).  A more minor script was invented in 1930, called the Borama script.  The official script since 1972 has been a Latin-based alphabet (Somali alphabet).
  2. All the hard sounds of Arabic.  The guttural sounds that foreigners have trouble with in Arabic–they’re all in Somali.  The emphatic ha, the ayin, the qaf, the raspy kha–they’re all there.  (They’re spelled x, c, q, and kh, respectively.)  Additionally, Somali distinguishes between short and long vowels, like in Arabic, and other languages like Japanese and Finnish.  So my friends correct me if I say “si” rather than “sii.”  Finally, they have a retroflex “d” (spelled dh) like in Indian languages.
  3. Some of the tones of Mandarin.  Most have heard of the four different tones of Mandarin: high, low, falling, and rising.  Somali only has two, high and low, but they can sound different depending on the environment they are found in.  They change the meaning of the word, too!  “Boy” is ínan, and “girl” is inán; “dog” is éy and “dogs” is eý.
  4. Irregular plurals like German or Arabic.  A Somali noun forms its plural according to a pattern that is not predictable from its singular, and Somali has 7 or so patterns.  This concept may sound familiar to German- or Arabic-speakers.  Unlike English, which almost always forms its plural with “-(e)s,” Somali has no “regular” plural suffix.  So the plural of áf  “language,” flattens the tone and repeats the last syllable: afaf.  For some nouns, a suffix is used, so hoóyo “mother” goes to hoyoóyin, and áabbe goes to aabayaal (also note the tone shift).  Finally, words may shift gender as they go from singular to plural.
  5. Prepositions–unlike anything.  Somali prepositions don’t resemble any language I know.  They’re a challenge, so I’ll explain as well as I can based largely on this academic source and this textbook.  They are divided into prepositions and “deictic particles.”  They have four prepositions, roughly “to”, “in”, “from”, and “with”.  “Deictic particles” indicate activity relative to the speaker; the four Somali deictic particles indicate toward the speaker, away from the speaker, toward each other, or away from each other.  One may need to use both a preposition and a deictic particle.  Somali tends to place these items in front of the verb, not the noun.
    For example, “I pulled the man out of the well with a rope” is nínkíi bàan cèelka xádhig kagá sóo saaray.  The last five words literally mean, “well-the rope with-from towards_me I-raised.”  Similarly, “they used to give us news about it” is way inoogá warrámi jireen, literally, “They us-to-about news gave.”  They could have thrown a soo in there, too, right after inoogá.  It seems to me they cluster all the prepositions together.  In the first example, “from” goes with “well” and “with” goes with “rope,” but both stick by the verb.  In the second, “to” goes with “us” and “about” goes with the unspoken “it.”  Unscrambling in real time what preposition goes with what is beyond my level right now.
  6. Cases–like Greek or German.  Somali has four cases, but not the ones you may know from, say German or Greek.  They are absolutive, subject, genitive, and vocative.  Absolutive is used when it is by itself, and subject if there is another noun in the sentence.  Genitive, like in other languages, indicates possession, and vocative is used in directly addressing someone or something.  Like the plural, they are marked with a suffix or tone change, depending on the class of the noun.  In addition, like in German and Greek, the absolutive and subject are marked on the article, as well.  However, Somali also has different articles depending on whether the noun was mentioned before or not (similar to English “a” and “the”).
  7. Poetry.  Somalis are known for their love of poetry.  Richard Burton noted in the 19th century the widespread recitation and performance of poetry among Somalis.  When Somali is spoken it is peppered with poetic allusion, proverbs, and alliteration.  The uninitiated cannot understand the depth of the language without a deep knowledge and appreciation of the poetry.

 

Before you feel discouraged, let me tell you that Somalis love to hear their language spoken by foreigners.  Some non-Somalis have become YouTube sensations by simply interviewing in Somali.  When you try to learn the language, you will receive tons of help.  Somalis love their language, and their love is infectious.  Enjoy taking on this challenge of learning Somali and all the new, friendly people you will recruit to help your efforts and entertain with your enthusiasm.

 

 

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64 thoughts on “Why Somali is harder than your language

    1. Yes, not as many as Russian, though. And you only mark it on the noun and article in Somali, not the adjective or number. The thing that’s confusing is that the subject and absolutive both kind of map onto the nominative, so there isn’t an exact equivalent to Indo-European cases.

      Like

  1. italkyoutalklanguages

    Really interesting post. It sounds like a fascinating language. I bet there’s a real sense of achievement to be had the first time you unscramble those prepositions in conversation!

    Like

    1. I was making headway. Then my friend told me that there is a preposition “oo” that isn’t on the table I was looking at. Maybe more complicated than I thought 🙂

      I also didn’t mention that the prepositions get squished into a single word with the pronoun in the little bundle by the verb. To me, it looks like a tangle right now.

      Like

  2. Richard,

    Talk about a surprise as I started reading this post! Glad to see you took my suggestion to heart. And thanks for educating me about Somali, as I knew nothing about it.

    It seems you have a knack for coming up with great article and project ideas too. Based on what you point out about Somali being an FSI Category 2 language, I’d say it’s time to create a more exact framework. You already started it as you walked us through the comparisons with Somali and other languages.

    I’m sure there’d be some arguments and controversy about it, but I think there is some use to a grouping of the difficulty of languages.

    Jared

    Like

    1. Thanks for interesting comments. I hadn’t thought of a formal system of comparing difficulty of languages. You make me think, though. Evidently, you have quite a knack for making me think!

      You think so creatively about language, speaking from a high level. I’d love to begin some of those arguments and controversies.

      Anyone disagree with me that Somali is harder than your language? 🙂

      Like

  3. Hi,
    I enjoyed your article and it really did enlighten me.Growing up speaking Somali i probably couldn’t tell you the level of difficulty the language has however I’ve realized that pronouncing Arabic Words are really easy for me so much so that sometimes i sound fluent in it, (Even though i only known bits of it). Its also made learning languages like Swahili and Korean Easier.
    Growing up in the UK Learning how to read and write Somali was difficult. Although knowing how to speak it was a tremendous help. So i was wondering what made you want to learn Somali? What got you interested in it?

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    1. I see that Somali is helpful for a lot of things!

      I got interested in Somali because I live in Minnesota. Our city has the largest Somali population in the US. And I used to live in Seattle, the 2nd biggest Somali population in the US. I want to know the languages of the people around me.

      I also work with Somalis who are very knowledgeable about their language, so learning Somali with them is fun.

      What languages do you speak?

      Like

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  5. Richard; Holy schmoley, Somali! Fabulous to think that in a place as un-Somali as I can imagine (Minnesota), you have carved out a community that can help you learn that tongue in a natural, useful way. Just wonderful.

    I have a circle of Monoglian friends here in Geneva, Switzerland, and now feel motivated to try to learn from them. Thank you for laying down that gauntlet.

    (Um.. How does Monoglian rank on the FSI? Do I even have a chance? )

    And where do the Finno-Ugric languages lie on the FSI index? How would they compare with Somali? And is English in any way difficult for your Somali friends?

    Like

    1. Yes, Minnesota is an unlikely home to thousands of Latinos, Hmong, and Somali immigrants and refugees. I wonder if someone explained where they were coming 🙂

      I think learning a few Mongolian phrases would be awesome to toss around with your friends! So exotic, and a ready-made community. My mouth is watering . . .

      FSI only means how many hours you have to put into the language to reach a certain proficiency level, that is, receive such-and-such a grade on an official test. But when you’re starting, it doesn’t take any longer to learn “Sain baina uu!” than to learn “Gruss Gott!” I think the Finno-Urgic languages are some of the harder FSI languages. So time to get started now–no time to waste 🙂

      I couldn’t find Somali on the FSI list, which is odd since it’s considered a critical language by the US government. I’m sure it’s up there, but the FSI index takes into account orthography, so Chinese languages are always going to dominate.

      English can be hard for Somalis. They start off with an advantage, though, because they started learning Arabic in school, and many lived in Ethiopia or Kenya before coming to the US. They already knew how to learn languages. Women, though, seem to have a harder time learning English than men, it seems to me. Maybe because they interact less with native English-speakers. They love it when I break out a little Somali, so a little helps.

      Like

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  8. amir

    well in case any one of you is interested to learn Somali let me know. I’m on facebook @amer.mouhamed. Somali is fun and aint that difficult at all.

    Like

  9. R.H. Soloman

    Very interesting article! It seems you have special talent for languages. You provided a lot of important information about languages. I’m a Somali native speaker and I didn’t know that Somali language is one of the top difficult languages. I always thought that ENGLISH is the most difficult language imaginable. I love it for its malleability and quirks, but Gosh, I could never be mad at any immigrant for being baffled by it.

    Like

  10. hakim

    Amazing, as a Somali American, I appreciate your interest personally and culturally in the language. I came here at a young age which allowed me to master English, to an extent, however I have always had a feeling of not fully knowing my native language. It is a HARD language. When I hear somali poetry it is almost a foreign language to me. It gets intricate and has ancient words that I have to end up asking my mom about (she doesn’t let me hear the end of it lol), but any somali who says it is easy clearly won’t be able to recite you any poem. I’m from San Diego where there is a substantial amount of somalis and almost infinite Hispanic population lol. Which is why I’m learning spanish. Any way, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in its community/birthplace. And Bashir is a close friend of mine. Good luck, aad baa u mahadsantahai.

    Like

  11. Abdirahman

    Thank you for sharing your experience in learning Somali. I am a Somali and and I used to say that because Somali language is so difficult, all other languages become so easy for somalis. I thought I was proven wrong when I met so many Minnesotans that speak Somali. some had Somali courses at colleges and many just learned from their interactions with Somali Community members in the Twin Cities.

    Like

    1. Really? You’ve found Minnesotans who learned Somali? I’d love to find out where they learned it. There is one course I know of at the community college (MCTC). Are there other course?

      I’m really happy to hear about how many Minnesotans you’ve found who have learned Somali. It makes me more of an optimist 🙂

      Like

      1. Such a fantastic article, kudos!

        I’m Somali-American and stumbled across this post while looking for online resources to finally tackle learning Somali.

        Do you have any suggestions on where I should start looking for some reliable and accurate resources/online classes?

        Like

      2. Mahadsanid!

        Stay tuned! I’ll be discussing this in my next post.

        BTW do you have a lot of Somalis where you live? Have you looked into finding a local teacher? I ask because I’m looking for one.

        Like

      3. I’m in Columbus Oh, which has a substantial community. I understand that OSU offers a course. But I was in search of resources outside a classroom environment.

        Like

      4. Fahad, I have another post that talks about some of the (few) on-line Somali language resources: https://lovinglanguage.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/the-hard-work-of-loving-language/

        There are so few people learning Somali as a foreign language that materials are hard to come by. Liban Axmad (also, Ahmad) has written some stuff. He is someone who clearly loves the language and writes out of love. He does some really helpful linguistic analysis, too.

        Like

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  18. Soma

    Thanks for the post – unlike you I can’t explain why a sentence sounds right since I never learnt the language rules in school like the majority of Somalians!
    I do however, chide you for not covering the difficult sounds and tones found in old Somali; afMaay. If you don’t know much about old Somali- the common tongue before migration and settlement with other clans in the region split the language. [e.g. north Somali has some afar vocab but still shares a lot vocab and parts of sentence structure with old Somali].
    I’ll use the IPA to demonstrate.
    ʄ – this one is really difficult, I can’t even begin to describe it.
    and these two are like South East Asian languages:
    ŋ – ng
    ɲ – nya
    additionaly, there are 3 more vowels than the standard 5;
    ʉ, ɤ, and ø
    unfortunately, lack of a common script means that not much is written in the tongue.

    Like

  19. I’m going to be studying Hebrew this year, which I’m quite excited about because it’s unlike any language I’ve studied before (I’ve only studied European languages before). I picked up the textbooks the other day and flipped through them and thought, “Wow, this is more different than I thought it would be!” The Greek textbook has things like “the genitive and dative” and “the future perfect” and stuff like that listed in the page of contents, all familiar words to someone who just finished Year 12 German. The Hebrew textbook says things like “the qal perfect” and “the niphal stem”, which are completely foreign to me!

    I’m very excited and keen to start learning! (Unfortunately, I’ve got to get through O-week first… eurgh). Hopefully, in a few months, I’ll even be able to understand some of the things you’re talking about when you talk about Somali!

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  20. Also, with respect to the “hardest languages for English-speakers”, I think what these lists typically mean is “hardest major world languages for English-speakers to learn which they’re likely to be exposed to or want to learn at some point”. Mandarin is popularly pushed in Australian schools (we want good relations with China), but Arabic is consigned to community evening-schools, so Mandarin would probably rate higher on a list here than Arabic would because more people complain about it!

    Likewise, Italian would probably be rated as easier than Spanish, because we’re exposed to Italian quite a bit from an early age, while Spanish is a “foreign” language with little opportunity for practice or exposure – Spanish would probably be considered “easier” than Italian in the US.

    Another thing – and I’ll wrap up soon – is conceptions about the language. Somali isn’t popular enough for there to be conceptions that “it’s a really tricky language” – Arabic and Mandarin are. Likewise, Gaelic is a language I have found reasonably straight-forward – very different to English and the German and Romance languages, granted, but straightforward and fairly easy to wrap my head around – but there are lot of misconception out there that “Gaelic is a difficult language” and “Gaelic is impossible to learn”. It has some of the difficult grammar points of German (is very dependant on cases) as well as some other odd grammar things (lenition and morphing, and the whole preposition thing), and it’s got a sound system which is quite unusual for English-speakers – but from what you’ve said in this post, it has nothing on Somali for tricky bits!

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  21. Hassan Jama

    You will not belief what am going to write and you’re going to read about Somali language at first as matter of fact it is going to be a big surprise or shock but judging from your words you seem sincere and honest as well as very intelligent person , and am sure you will agree with me. All my life I used to here scorn and contempt from my fellow Somalis of thier mother tongue most of them believing it being a collection of other languages and when I made my own research I found out that it is the source or the origin from which other languages developed or came from! I will give you three examples the first how the English you speak originated from Somali , second how Arabic, too has come from Somali and on the third what is the prove I have for what I claim ; let me start with WORD= WAA YEEDH= WAA ( IT IS) YEEDH ( A CALL). I think you understood what am trying to tell you and I will add this one too as a bonus AUSTRITY= UUS TIRID= UUS (THAT”the food” WHICH IS IN THE STOMACH ) TIRID( MAKE IT GO AWAY) and you know that austrity measures is eating less than you used and become slimmer. Now to the Arabic which I guess you’re familiar with KALIMA(word) when put back to Somali where it had originated from is as follows KALIMA = KAL IMAD= KAL ( THAT WHICH FROM THE BREAST/CHEST) IMAD (CAME) and where do words come out but from the air in the lungs which pass through the chest and let me add this one as a bonus to ILAH = I LEH= I (ME) LEH ( OWNER) and that is what we as muslims belief that we belong to Allah who owns us. Now for the prove neither the English nor the Arabs understand it this way or are able to explain it as I have done. Okay what is more every word in the Somali language can be traced back to how it came to be what it is unlike the above mentoined languages and here is how: BARAAG(man made water pool or water reservior) =BAR RAAG= BAR ( RAIN WATER DROP) RAAG (LONG TIME KEPT) and exactly that is what they BARAAGUHU do another one as a bonus prove DHAGO(ears) = DHAA AG = DHEH (WHERE THAT WHICH WE SAY OR SOUND WE MAKE) AG (IS BESIDE) sound is always found beside the ear. I think your grasp of Somali language but you can use your Somali friends help but the last part is will be new to them for although they speak the language they haven’t looked deep into it. I can somalise the word EAR but I’ll stop at this for it is 4 in the morning. Bye for now and please it will be a pleasure to hear from you.

    Like

  22. Kaveri

    Hi im somali-finish boy from finland and i think somali and finish are among the hardest languages. Finnish with its endless cases and somali with its pronounces.

    Like

  23. Hi,
    Great article! I’ve always thought it was different, and tough language. But I’m only fluent when speaking, but I can not read or write in Somali. I’m a Somali American. Whenever I have to read or write in it I usually use google translator because it takes way too long to sound it out. I’m trying to read and write in the language, any suggestions for resources. You know I’ve learned a few sentences and words in Chinese/Mandarin, Vietnamese, French(took 2yrs),Spanish(lived in a spanish community for a few years), Arabic, Swahili, and Turkish(I spent a few weeks in Istanbul). Everyone I’ve tried speaking to have said that I have no accent, and that I sound like a native. I wonder if it’s because of Somali. I find it really easy to pronounce words in many languages. By the way, I use to be trilingual in Somali, Swahili, and English. But when I became fluent in English I forgot Swahili. Now I’m try to relearn it, and practice my Somali language skills. I also plan to learn Arabic. Many of my family members speak many languages, so I really want to be fluent in many languages.

    Like

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  25. Jude

    Hi, interesting article! I never knew those stuff about the Somali language. You should have a try at Sinhala (spoken in Sri Lanka- where I’m from). IMO, that’s also pretty hard for non-native speakers 🙂

    Like

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  28. Abdalla

    I am somali boy i never thought that My language (Somalian language) is hard,,, I live in Sweden, I can speak Swedish,English,little Finish, little Arabic and Somali… I can’t read Latin alphabet or Russian language or Far East Asia languages……. In Somali alphabets there is no (v),(p),(z) the sound of (x) and the sound of (q) indeed we have (x) with another sound and (q) for another sound,,, but never mind that Somali language is hard.. it’s surprising me

    Like

  29. Aden H

    Loving Language,

    Great article. I found a wonderful book years ago. This book was written long time ago. This is by far the best Somalia learning book. It was put there in the late 80s when the first Somalia migrant moved to the US and in Canada. Here is the book in a PDF format:

    English – Somali Phrasebook – Cultural Orientation Resource (COR) Center
    http://www.culturalorientation.net › content › file

    Like

  30. Said Sahid

    I Am Somali , Somali is best language that i talk, If U learn Somali, U will be feel so happg when u speaking , Somali has many parts , Example : May May , and Maxaa ,
    Maxaa Is Most , and Also somali have Process Called ” Jir-jir” , We talk This when we Not need to understand our topics , Specially children can’t Undersrand
    Example ” Waa waa labo xaa xaa labadii ma ii keekee labeesay”
    Also I write as engl” Waa waa labo , haa haa labadee ma ee kee kee
    Labeesay”
    Meaning as Part maxaa ” Waraa xaashidii ma ii keentay ”
    meaning as eng” Heey , did u have given me Paper”(talka to man).

    Like

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