Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue

A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!
A simple chat with a stranger saved me this week!

Without my languages I feel anxious and unfulfilled. While I don’t have a lot of time for Somali, I feel the need every day to work on my language, even if it’s five minutes of Anki flash cards or four minutes scanning BBC Somali headlines of which I may only grasp a few words.

Fortunately, I found a Somali teacher who will work with me over Skype. He is very knowledgable about the Somali language, and he has experience teaching foreigners. I am very grateful that he is willing to work with me. Part of me still asks: Will this sustain my language love? Will Skype provide the connection I need?

This week, language love came to my rescue and brought me joy in a moment of stress and anxiety. Work was difficult, and took up a lot of time, causing me stress. I missed my language tables as a result, so I didn’t get to experience much language. I had to go work at offices in different areas, where I luckily got to mix with new people. On the way to a meeting I heard a guy working at a food stand speaking Arabic to another man as I was walking by. On the way back to my car after the meeting, I said to him, Ahlan! Masa ilkheir!” (“Hi! Good afternoon!”) Business was slow for him in the mid-afternoon, so he gave me a can of Coke and told me to sit down.
Continue reading “Week 9 of Loving Somali: Language love to my rescue”

Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings

How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?
How do you greet people in Somali? At what time?

This week I noticed some cool facts about time in Somali, namely, how they tell time, name the days, and greet each other. I also found some parallels with other languages I know. I think the latter might help some of my readers. Since I’ve studied a lot of languages, I’m able to see some interesting parallels that may help others to skip some steps in trying to learn these facets of Somali. I find it fascinating when I find some peculiar construction in a language, and then stumble upon it unexpectedly in a totally unrelated language. “This looks familiar!” always gets me excited.
Continue reading “Week 2 of loving Somali: Time and greetings”

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.



Language Learning for Veterans

Afghanistan - March 2012 .. Other views: It's ...
Afghanistan – March 2012 .. Other views: It’s time to bring our soldiers home (Mar. 18, 2012 ) … (Photo credit: marsmet471)

Some veterans look for ways to connect with the former enemy. Former soldiers travel on goodwill missions to the homes of former enemies, to Vietnam, for example. Many classes in Arabic now include students who served in Iraq. I have seen veterans with deep knowledge about the enemy, along with the desire to learn more. Many veterans attempt to connect with former enemies, and language-learning can provide another means for this connection.

Based on anecdotal evidence, I see that veterans are driven to connect with former enemies. I believe they desire to connect with the humanity of the other. Religion and language lie close to the center of the person; they comprise the ways one sees the world, expresses oneself, and connect with others. When one explores these areas as they belong to others, one moves out of oneself and closer to the center of another. Since language lies so close to the center of any person, I believe that teaching languages to veterans would help serve their desire.

One student I taught, who served in Afghanistan, wanted to learn about Islam. He was a dedicated evangelical Christian, and I was teaching a course on comparative religion: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In class he struggled with his presuppositions about Islam: that it is warlike and foreign. Nevertheless, he spent energy reading Muslim texts, and read a good portion of the Quran. He even befriended a Jewish student in the same class who worked on anti-Islamophobia, and the two of them would occasionally clash on their views of Islam. (Their in-class debates sometimes made other students uncomfortable, although they ended in a peaceful cup of coffee after class.) By the end of the class, the student understood Islam in a new, deeper way. Desire to understand Afghans – allies and enemies – drove him to learn about their religion, to move beyond his own prejudices to see more clearly how they think.

 I remember an interview with the movie director, Oliver Stone, speaking lines of Vietnamese he learned in the war there decades before. In speaking of the conduct of the US military, he quoted villagers in Vietnamese, “Please don’t kill me!” That he quoted their words in their language struck me. Why quote them in Vietnamese? The interview audience didn’t know that language. How did he still remember the phrase? He didn’t merely understand this phrase when the Vietnamese spoke it—he learned how to say it himself. The phrase had moved from passive to active memory. It seemed to me that he connected with their anguish through their language. Stone spoke often about the guilt he suffered after serving in Vietnam, and he connected with the suffering of the Vietnamese through their language.

I would like to talk more to veterans who served overseas. Let’s say a veterans group sponsored a course in Vietnamese or Iraqi Arabic or Pashtun, for example. Would the ability to take a class in the language of “the enemy,” preferably led by a native speaker, help them? In what way would it help?

Effects of Livemocha

English: suggest for 50000th Wiki Farsi page
Image via Wikipedia

I had an interesting effect of Livemocha.  It has made me care more about grammar.  To paraphrase the Irish Polyglot , grammar just tells the story of why people talk the way they do.  It helps solve problems.

Farsi has — from my present, beginner’s point of view — an incomprehensible plural system.  I thought I had it down, until I submitted it in Livemocha.  Everyone came down hard on me, eliminating my carefully-placed “ها” plural particles.  What’s up with that?  So I figured out how to say, “When do I write it?” in order to question my new friends.  One responded, saying, “I’ve never thought about it.  I don’t know.”

In another place, I finally learned numerals.  However, Farsi has a (presently, by me) incomprehensible system of quantifiers.  Between the number and noun (always singular–argh!), often (not always) comes some word.  Often it’s the Arabic word عدد meaning “amount.”  So after submitting my exercises, I got slammed again.

First of all, I’m grateful for the Livemocha system and community.  If I were speaking, people would probably prefer to ignore these mistakes of mine.  The way the system is, the community is rewarded for giving me feedback.

Now I’m on a quest!  What in Farsi determines where and when the plural marker and quantifier go?  So to succeed in Livemocha, I will have to find and consult a grammar book.  Pimsleur will not help with this, so I will turn to my “How to Read, Write, and Speak Persian” book. I hope it’s there.  This experience reinforced to me that Livemocha is a great resource, but not enough on its own.