Week 5 of loving Somali: Camel’s milk and hospitality

Yes, camel's milk. Cheers!
Yes, camel’s milk. Cheers!

What would it be like to live in Somalia, or even just to visit? What would strike me about the culture? Since love is learning to live with quirks that sometimes rub me the wrong way (in my humble opinion), what would I love about Somalia?

I know that I would love their helpfulness. I’ve found so many people already who want to help me with the language and who love doing so. I’m already grateful.

I wonder how I would love Somali hospitality. As an American, I love my space, but I sometimes feel lonely. I’ve found that Eastern forms of hospitality assume that people should be together, that being alone might indicate a problem. The negotiation between guest and host operates constantly. I love Eastern hospitality, but I know that as an American, I feel some tension with it. As an extrovert, I’m glad to experience cultures that value highly connecting with others, so I’ve tended to enjoy myself. If my lessons this week accurately represent Somali culture, I can see that Somalis are wonderfully hospitable. I look forward to experiencing it one day.

I have a couple questions about grammar this week (below), if anyone has a moment to help me. Thank you!

Study progress update

Twitter help. I had some great help from some folks on Twitter. Imagined Art (@ItsEscapism) and SomaliLitProject (@SomaliLiteracy) offered me assistance. Imagined Art helped me with grammar (see below) and SomaliLit helped me with some translations. It’s great to make connections!

I invite anyone to help out through the comments here or on Twitter!

Fun facts

  1. Camel’s milk, of course. In this chapter (ch. 8), the word “milk” was introduced. I noticed it was two words, however, caleen geel, “camel’s milk.” Milk can come from multiple sources, of course, so I had to reflect how in English the default source of milk is cows. For the Mongols, it was probably horse. Does this book reflect a tendency, that Somali milk defaults to camel’s milk? Or is it a warning for Westerners to read the label and not to assume milk comes from cows?
  2. How many breads? This chapter had so many names for bread! There are three words for fluffy breads: rooti, furun, and kibis. Why so many? The first sounds like the typical South Asian bread; the second, like the Arabic word for “oven”; and the third like the Arabic word for bread, khubs, or even more like the diminuative, khubis. The lesson also included two words for flat bread, canjeelo and laxoox. I can’t help but associate the first word with Ethiopian flat bread, injera. I don’t know about laxoox. Wikipedia makes it sound local to Somalia, Djibouti, and Yemen. (Thanks to Yemeni Jews, it is now very popular in Israel.) “Bread” makes Somalia sound to me like a fascinating cross-roads of cultures, amalgamating bread from East and West.

    This fact shows me the multiple cultures and influences in Somali culture. Goods and ideas and traditions come from East and West, as well as being home-grown.

    For your enjoyment, here’s a video in Somali for cooking laxoox

    And for baking Italian rooti:

  3. Serve your guest a drink. The phrase for “What do you want to drink?” came up in my book this week. The author included a significant footnote on it, however. It said, “Often in Somali culture this type of question is not even asked of a guest. Rather the host simply brings out something to drink, e.g. tea or soda for the guest.” Americans would think this is rude. The host brings you a drink, even though you didn’t ask for it, and probably expects you to drink at least some of it, even though you don’t want it. I’ve been in this situation in many places in the world, even though I’ve never been to East Africa. I’m happy this book warns the reader right off the bat.

Grammar facts

  1. Use of oo and ah in relative clauses. Thanks to Imagined Art (@ItsEscapism), I learned more about how relative clauses work. The marker for the relative seems to be oo, and the end marker is ah. The first marker can be confusing because it’s a homonym with a word for “and.” Also, sometimes the relative marker is aa and takes suffixes. For example, “The place where you are” is haalki aad joogtid, where the aa takes the second person singular ending.
    The end marker is confusing because it doesn’t appear when the relative clause is something besides a nominal clause, ie, the verb is not “be.” In that case, the clause includes a different verb. I asked myself if that ah marker is just the “be” verb, but it’s different. Normally, one would expect yahay. I would guess that the ah represents maybe a reduced form of the “be” verb.

    Can anyone explain this relative clause marker? Please do so in the comments.

  2. Alternation between “r” and “dh”. I noticed that sometimes the spelling of a word can change. For example, my book introduces the word fariiso and then offers the alternative fadhiiso. It makes sense, since a flapped “r” would easily sound like a “dh” if you leave your tongue there for a moment longer. There could be a dialectical difference, too. As an American, the way I can tell a Scottish accent is if the tongue hits the roof of the mouth for an “r”, since it won’t touch for a standard English accent. Does anybody know if this is dialectical in Somali?
  3. What is kuu? In the “drink” question, it says, Maxaan kuu keena? “What do you bring?” I understand the words and the sense, but I don’t understand what kuu adds to or changes in the sentence. Can someone please explain?

I’m so pleased that I’m learning more about Somali culture from my textbook. I dislike some things from the book, but the recognition of distinct dialects and of the differences from Western culture is a bonus. If I get a chance to visit Somalia, I may just get served camel’s milk without being asked! I wonder what kind of bread will come with it?

Thank you also to everyone who is interacting with me here and on Twitter. What do you think of Somali? Do you see differences between it and other East African languages that you know about? similarities?

Have you experienced Western and Eastern hospitality? What differences do you see? How have you negotiated the differences?

Photo credit: jessamyn / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

18 thoughts on “Week 5 of loving Somali: Camel’s milk and hospitality

  1. Rachel

    It’s funny you should mention that about a Scottish accent, because I’ve noticed in Gaelic that an “r” sound surrounded by slender vowels (i or e) makes more of a “d” sound, while one with broad vowels (a, o, or u) makes the “r” sound you’d expect. Thus, “fuireach” (to live) sounds like “fidduck”, which “feurach” (to graze) is “ferruck”. If you don’t remember to make more of a “d” sound, the words end up sounding almost the same!

    (BTW, you need that to figure out a Scottish accent?!)


    1. I apologize for not responding more quickly.

      I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised about the r/d distinction. Physiologically they’re so close to each other. We almost have it in US English. When English has a “t” or a “d” between two vowels (eg, “butter”, “fodder”) we pronounce it in the US as a tongue “flap”. This flap is almost like a trilled “r” except the tongue touches one time, not multiple times.

      And yes, that’s what I need to hear the difference. I can tell different US accents, but I have to listen so hard just to distinguish an Australian accent from a broader English accent. Usually an Irish accent is clear, but if a Scottish accent is more upper class, it just sounds English to me. Ironic that I’m writing about differences among Swiss German dialects when distinct English accents still don’t strike my ear clearly, eh?


      1. Rachel

        I suppose I shouldn’t comment, I can barely tell the difference between different sorts of American (or Canadian). It just seems odd to me that someone can’t tell the difference between Scottish and English… they’re so different! Well, there’s a fuzzy area in the Lowlands/ the North if you’re not familiar with it, but telling a southern English accent from Scottish? A ‘cultured’ Scottish accent can sometimes be harder to spot – everything tends towards RP when it becomes ‘cultured’ – so I suppose the R-thing would be a good way to tell – again, it’s what you’re familiar with. I can tell the difference between Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, but only worked out last year how to pick southern verses northern American and still haven’t worked out Canadian. I can often pick what part of Scotland someone’s from (vaguely), but get even more vague when it comes to England.

        With regards to the US thing – that sounds to me like just vocalising the T (to turn it into a D). Because US Rs are always there, sometimes it sounds like they’re swamping the vowel! When I pronounce the D (“fodder”) with my accent, it feels much the same as pronouncing the R in “fuireach”, but “butter” feels completely different. Also when I try to pronounce it the American way it feels different because of the R.


      2. I remember when I heard a Norwegian say that this one Texan guy was hard to understand because he had such an “American” accent. I was offended! I have an American accent; he has a Texan accent! I didn’t realize it was hard for some foreigners to hear the difference.

        Maybe a better example of the “flap” would be “battle.” The American “r” doesn’t get mixed up in there.


  2. Would Americans really think it rude to be given a drink without asking for one? Uh oh…I think I may accidentally insult any American who ever comes for a visit. Ha! Between my French Canadian culture and my husband’s Filipino culture, anyone who walks through our door should expect to be plied with food and drink. One thing that I learned in Eastern Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) is that it’s considered rude to eat all of the food on your plate. We spent the first few weeks bewildered at the amount of food on our plates, and feeling really guilty that we couldn’t finish all of it.


    1. Rachel

      Oops… I hope not! Where I am, the first thing you do when guests arrive is to offer them somewhere to sit and something to drink! This applies even when the guests are American…

      I must admit I have trouble with the food thing (although, for me, it’s with Russians). I find it very difficult to leave food on my plate, even if I’m so full I can barely fit it in. It’s considered somewhat rude here to leave food on the plate, because it means you didn’t like it! It’s tricky to swap over from the licking-plate-clean-is-a-compliment mindset to the leaving-food-on-plate-is-a-compliment mindset.


      1. Yes, I’m coming from the Slavic point of view, too. When I was in Ukraine, I was in my early 20s so I could eat a lot and recover quickly from overeating; I don’t know how well I’d do now.

        We usually ask guests if they want something to drink, but not always. I hate having to ask. My good friend in high school was a German exchange student. I used to go to his house often and would help myself to drinks usually. That’s common here. When my friend’s family came from Germany, however, it shocked them. His dad would mention it to me years later. I went to their house and he offered me a drink “unless you’d like to get it yourself, American style!” He laughed at his joke quite a bit. It was absurd to him.


      2. Rachel

        It seems ruder to me just to get it myself! I’d only do that if I know the person really, really well – I have one friend that I’ve known since we were four that I’d be comfortable helping myself to a drink in her house. Several others I would get it myself, but definitely ask first. (And I’m talking about getting a glass and filling it out of the tap). I have to admit, though, I didn’t notice that in the US! (I think I was too distracted by so many other food issues, like vegetables, refills, and the colour of cheese).


      3. Rachel

        Yes, the other thing was the colour of butter… Even margarine is dyed yellow here, but in America it was white and looked more like lard. But we were fascinated by the two-tone cheese – you know, speckled orange and yellow.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Iska warren! I have spent many years involved with the Somali culture and community and can hear what you are talking about. One thing I know for sure is that I love interacting with Somalis for their sense of humour, openness and willingness to welcome you. Really they will treat you as an equal immediately, particularly if you are a white person you are to be treated as a brother or sister without question. However, one thing Somalis are not good at is treating each other in the same vein.

    Also I agree about the language being a mixture of the different cultures around them. Actually many Somali anthropologists argue that in fact all these words came from the Somali culture first, then spread out.

    In terms of food, they eat a lot of camel meat in particular and as for slicing the Sunday roast? no chance! meat is always ripped from the bones with your hands. In fact the whole concept of carving the meat into slices is completely alien to them….even considered a ‘bizarre western practice’! Camel milk is the mainstay and honestly for me I’m not crazy about camel’s milk, there is something not very palatable about drinking a bodily fluid from an animal who has been baking in the sun for a month without water…..just saying.


    1. I have been treated very well by Somalis, but their life is very different in Minnesota than in other places. First, they all come as refugees, which affects day-to-day life. Second, they have to deal with Minnesotans, who tend to misunderstand hospitality completely. I’m sure they are shocked in a terrible way when their work friends say, “Let’s get together,” and they never get a call from those “friends.”

      Baked milk and meat ripped from the bone–very descriptive! I imagine that in Somali you have to get used to a lot of things baked in the sun.

      I had no idea that camel’s milk is a mainstay. There must be some place I can find some in Minneapolis. However, how fresh *that* milk would be is a question.

      Do they make camel yogurt? I tend not to like straight milk, but I love yogurt. Maybe my wife could make camel yogurt?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not sure about camel yoghurt, I would suspect they wouldn’t go for it….but then maybe Minnesota Somalis may be different.

        I know in New Zealand (where I am from), there are also a lot of refugees, but unfortunately they don’t integrate into the NZ culture much, they tend to stick to their own traditions and culture.

        Unfortunately our social culture is very alcohol driven, and they don’t get into that much, so the thought of going to someone’s home or meeting in a bar after work is completely out of the question if only for that reason….


      2. Good point. Here Somalis tend to congregate in cafes to drink coffee. There is a Starbucks in the heart of the Somali community, where I heard a Somali commenter note in disdain that the civil war has been resolved multiple times a day.

        For learning my language, I need to take some regular trips there. Idle talk is precisely what I need. I haven’t gone there yet, though.


      3. Iska warren! (or e-warrah! – that’s short form like – hi) When you say ‘gone there yet’ do you mean the cafe’s or Somalia? I’m sure you would be strongly welcomed to both places. I love talking with Somalis, particularly men, as often they not only are well educated and have had interesting lives, but they have a great sense of humour too. They will love the fact that you are learning Somali!

        Yes I know what you mean when you say that the men say that the civil war problems have been solved many times a day there…here too…that is unfortunately the problem, there is a lot of talk with only a little action.

        However saying that – to me Somalia is moving 5 steps forward and four steps back…..but things have certainly had a shift in the last 12-18 months, so hopefully in 5 years we will see something more significant.

        By the way I have been 4 times! (Can’t remember if I mentioned that or not).

        So camel’s milk is illegal huh? Interesting…but that won’t stop the Somali’s for them ‘legal or illegal’ doesn’t come into their language as they have been living in a lawless country for years so have forgotten the restrictions. Black market? Yes it’s probably run by Somali’s, particularly if it is something harnless like camel’s milk!


  4. So happy to be of help, Richard. As I mentioned,as a heritage language learner its very helpful to learn from you. To respond to your two questions (and perhaps @itsEscapism can add to this):

    (1) From my understanding, the ‘r’ and ‘dh’ distinction is dialectal. For example, in what is known as Standard Somali or the dialect af Maxaa Tirii, the word sit is ‘fariiso’. In the dialect of the northern region (Somaliland), the word used is ‘fadhiiso’.

    (2) The difference in meaning between the two questions is ever so slight: if you are directing your question to an individual, you will typically say ‘maxaan ku keena’, which translates to mean ‘what can I bring you’. Maxaan keena is more general, and translates to mean ‘what do I bring?

    Hope this is helpful!


  5. Pingback: Week 17 of Loving Somali: And…or…and… | Loving Language

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