Week 20 of Loving Somali: Connect with language, connect with people

Languages connect me to others
Languages connect me to others

Last week I had a terrible yet fascinating experience with Somali language and culture. A young son of Somali parents tragically died near us. In community solidarity, my family went to the local mosque for the funeral. At the funeral were hundreds of Somalis, plus a handful of non-Muslim community members.

My main reason for going was solidarity with the family and community, but I would have liked an opportunity to chat in Somali. The crowds of people constantly moving and the fact that very few people would look me in the eye didn’t allow me to practice my Somali, but that was not a big deal considering my purpose for coming. I greeted a few people in Somali, and thanked them. Beforehand I learned the Somali idiom used at funerals, Allaha u naxariisto “God have mercy.” This is a direct translation of the Arabic الله يرحمه Allah yirxamhu.

I can’t separate language love from solidarity with the people who embody the language. My daughter asked, “Do you really want to go to the funeral or do you just want to practice your Somali?” For me, the two go together. I don’t just want the language—I want to see and connect with the people. For me, studying language and culture separately is nonsense; one always includes the other. As a language-lover I always want to connect, even if I don’t use my language.

Language love helps me to focus on connecting with the people around me rather than be self-conscious. At the end of the prayers, my daughters wanted to offer flowers to the family. Everyone was filing out, and we couldn’t find a good opportunity. We saw the non-Muslims moving out through the crowd, not really interacting with anyone. It was a somber occasion, and definitely chaotic compared to a Christian or Jewish funeral. Nevertheless, I took the flowers and my daughters and said, “Follow me.” Using mostly English and some Somali, the crowd passed us from one person to the next till we found ourselves by the family. One of the boy’s sisters kissed my daughters and thanked us. Used to working through a crowd of people I want to love but don’t understand great, I found and connected to the people we were looking for.


My Somali teacher generously taught me this week about “verbal nouns.” In English gerunds serve this purpose in the context of, for example, “I like eating meat.” He gave me the example, Boggan wuxuu kaa caawin barashada af Soomaaliya, literally, “This [web] page will help you learning Somali language.” In Somali one adds the definite article to the verbal noun, making it even more “noun-y” than the English gerund.

These make reading Somali hard. When I see a definite article, I have to think further whether this is a noun or a verb.

This structure reminds me of Somali’s cousin language, Arabic, which uses verbal nouns instead of infinitives. Ancient Hebrew used this construction, too, though Modern Hebrew innovated a true infinitive, probably due to Indo-European influence via Yiddish, German, and Slavic languages.


What did I do to practice my language this week? Not a whole lot, unfortunately. My current challenge is more, deliberate interactions to practice my language. So difficult when my couch is calling to me.

I’ll start at work this week, in sha allah

How do your languages connect you to others?

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Photo credit: ajusticenetwork / Foter / CC BY-ND



5 thoughts on “Week 20 of Loving Somali: Connect with language, connect with people

  1. “For me, studying language and culture separately is nonsense; one always includes the other.”

    I completely agree; in fact, I think they’re inextricably intertwined. Language, with its patterns and the way certain concepts are expressed is a window into a culture’s priorities and overall thought process.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachel

    Are verbal nouns in Somali exactly the same as the noun, or do they change slightly?

    Gaelic has “verbal nouns”, too, which I keep thinking of as “gerunds”, no matter how hard I try: for example, “Tha mi ag’ ionnsachadh”: “I am at learning”. “Tha mi ag’ ithe biadh”: “I am at eating food”. But that changes a bit from the plain noun itself, though. (Isn’t it interesting how this way of phrasing things persisted in English until quite recently? We still say “I am a-sleep” and “I am a-wake” [without the hyphens], and sing with this phrasing: “Here we come a-carolling…”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear from you again! It’s been awhile!

      Somali verbal nouns take a special suffix on the base form of the word, plus an article. Can you put articles on Gaelic verbal nouns/gerunds? In English we can: “If the fighting doesn’t stop, I’ll have to stop it!”

      I didn’t know about the “at” that goes with the gerund. My wife’s grandmother, 90 years old, born and raised in Montana, says the “a” all the time with gerunds. “They were just a-talking and a-carrying on!” Everyone thinks it’s cute. I’ve been killing myself trying to figure out where that comes from. You make great sense! Thank you!


    2. I just found a couple examples of archaic expressions with this construction. I read in Matthew 25:44 in the King James Bible, “when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” “An hungered” and “athirst”–one with a space and one without–seem to follow the “asleep” construction. So how do you think these are related to the gerund expressions? Also, I’m stumped as to why they say “athirst” but not “anaked”.


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