Week 24 of Loving Somali: Somali grammar is still beautifully crazy

Obscure is exotic, and exotic is beautiful.
Obscure is exotic, and exotic is beautiful.

Today was a good Somali day, in spite of some challenges over the past few weeks. I listened to a brief news podcast. (I found that SBS Australia has news podcasts in lots of languages, including obscure ones. Samoan or Assyrian, anyone?) I didn’t understand much and I didn’t have time to look up words, as I was driving.

I spent a long time translating a news article from ”War Somali”. It took about 90 minutes to translate a 74-word article, including the headline. Time-consuming, but I ran across a couple of tough grammatical features that my book doesn’t cover.

Imagine a language where you take all the nouns and put them together, and then you take all the pronouns and prepositions and put them together, along with some adverbs. The latter also form contractions, so the original pronouns and prepositions are not transparent. Your job then is to intuit which preposition belongs with which noun or group of nouns. Genitive constructions are not marked, so you also have to intuit which nouns go with which other nouns. In the meantime, I’m still seeing some prepositions among the nouns.

I can understand why my book hasn’t tackled this yet. I need to spend some time searching for more information and working with my tutor. If I can figure this issue out, then I’ll certainly be way ahead of where I am now.

Any suggestions on how to figure this out? Do you know any resources that explain these issues?
What baffles you about your language?

Photo credit: KyL 2014 / Foter / CC BY-NC


12 thoughts on “Week 24 of Loving Somali: Somali grammar is still beautifully crazy

  1. Rachel

    I can’t believe I hadn’t directed you to SBS earlier! It completely slipped my mind… Here, it doesn’t even occur to us that we wouldn’t be able to watch the news or listen to the radio in any given language – one of the first things someone says when they find out you’re learning a language is “you can watch the news in (language) at 11am on Tuesdays”. SBS broadcasts in 74 languages on radio, and anywhere between 60 and 100 languages on television each week (the variable in television is movies, etc, in languages that they don’t have news in). Unfortunately, “my” language, Gaelic, got dropped from the SBS list in 2003 to make room for “your” language, Somali, along with Amharic, Tagalog, and Malay.

    When you consider how close Australia is to Samoa, having that language makes perfect sense – after all, we’ve got Maori. I can’t explain Assyrian, though!

    I’m kicking myself for not mentioning SBS earlier.


    1. Thanks, Rachel. I’ve actually known about SBS for a while. I was using it for Farsi back in the day. Sorry to hear about Gaelic being dropped! That’s sad to hear. I can’t imagine being the manager having to axe whole language programs at SBS. But Malay should probably be in the mix because of the geography.

      Assyrian would say to me that there are a lot of refugees from Iraq and maybe Syria in Australia at the moment. Is that true?


      1. Rachel

        Probably. Australia takes in a lot of refugees (a point of major debate), and I have noticed a rise in middle-eastern-looking people around about recently, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Iraqis and Syrians were in the mix there. I know there’s a fairly large Farsi-speaking community in Adelaide.

        The problem with Gaelic (and Welsh and Irish, which were dropped at the same time), is that SBS generally tries to cater for people who maybe don’t speak English that well. So Malay and Amharic and Somali are more important languages to have news in than Gaelic, which had mostly been on there because it *had* been the majority language of parts of Australia in the late 19th century and was spoken in NSW until the 60s, but by 2003, the majority of Gaelic-speakers were Australian-born and spoke Gaelic as the second language (plus the usually UK immigrant suspects). On the other hand, most or all of the Somali speakers were refugees and were still learning English.

        Languages like German, which had its peak in Australia at about the same time as Gaelic, are still on SBS because there are a lot of people coming from Germany and Austria today who, obviously, would tend to speak German as their first language (whereas only 1.5% of Scotland speaks Gaelic, so probably a similar percentage of Scottish immigrants); likewise Greek, Italian, and Vietnamese will probably be on television for a while longer, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Could you give a few example words or phrases that illustrate your frustration here? I’m not sure I fully understand. These posts on Somali are very interesting, by the way. I’ve never known anyone to study this language, so it’s neat to read about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand how odd this sounds. Here’s how to say, “How do you say X in Somali?”
      Maxaa af soomali lagu yiraahdaa X ?
      Literally this means, “What language Somali one-in says X.” So you see, the preposition and pronoun get smushed together, and the preposition is separated from its noun.

      Normally “in” is ku, not gu. When it gets clumped together with the pronoun (technically, a clitic cluster), it undergoes that change.

      I have another discussion on this topic in another post, but I can repeat the 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.” You have to just know that “with” goes with “rope” and “from” goes with “well.”

      Does this make sense?


      1. That’s very interesting. It looks like these are best treated as clitics (like you say), since they can attach onto other words, but also function by themselves. Calling them “prepositions” is just loosely comparing the semantics – they don’t behave grammatically like English prepositions at all. At least the syntax looks clear – it seems like there are a limited number of sentence positions where you can find these clitic groups, and my guess is that all the clitics in the single phrase are “drawn” to that location. Or is it more complex than that? This is just a guess from reading only the short links you have there, and no previous experience with Cushitic.

        I know what you mean about “unscrambling in real time”. We have the impression that sentences are flat, and you can parse them one word at a time, but there’s actually a ton of hidden structure that you need to learn. Learning a language with a completely different word order and morphology is a real challenge.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Some of them are more like prepositions, like “ku”, since it is associated with a particular noun. Some are deictic adverbs, like “soo”, which relate to the interlocutors and not to a noun.

      There is precedence for little words like these forming a clitic cluster in a particular location. BCS (formerly known as Serbo-Croatian) forms a cluster in the second position of the sentence (either phonologically or syntactically) of pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and the question marker. (I did an honors thesis on this way back in undergraduate studies.)

      But how would a die-hard Minimalist put these prepositions in a tree? What rule brings these items together here? Even worse, some prepositions don’t come to this cluster. Stay tuned…


  3. Sounds like you’re solving a logic problem every time you read a sentence. Seeing it as beautifully crazy instead of frustratingly crazy helps, I’m sure!


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