In spring term 1998, Linguistics 202/502 will focus on Somali.

Somali is a Cushitic (and thus Afro-asiatic) language spoken by about nine million people, mainly in Somalia (including the now effectively independent region known as Somaliland), Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Standard Somali is based on northern dialects, and is said to be fairly close to the coastal Benaadir dialect of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The course consultant, Fouzia Musse, is a native of Mogadishu. The written standard, created in 1972, uses roman characters.

Available resources include a good reference grammar, several language textbooks, several dictionaries, and many publications on specific topics.  Those who plan to participate in 502/202 during spring term 1998 should consider buying Saeed's grammar and the Zorc and Osman dictionary.

A fair amount of written Somali can be found on the net. Here is the index of a large site containing many papers in English about Somali culture, politics and language. In addition, an electronic (text) corpus annotated (semi-automatically) with morphosyntactic categories has been offered by its compiler, Doug Biber.  It includes some speech transcriptions as well as written material, and should make it possible to do interesting studies of focus-marking in Somali.

A few linguistic points of interest

These are some examples of topics that seem in advance likely to be worth investigating.


The Somali orthography distinguishes five vowels, with phonemic length variation for each. There are also front and back variants of each of the five vowels (presumably differing in the Advanced Tongue Root feature), with all roots of major lexical categories lexically marked as front or back.  Affixes and clitics "tend to agree with neighboring lexical categories" However, the ATR feature is not marked in the orthography, perhaps because "the range of vowel harmony depends on the speed and formality of the utterance and when the speaker chooses to pause. Moreover the use of vowel harmony over extended stretches seems to vary somewhat from speaker to speaker."


Somali is a tone language, with tonal variation marking case, gender, number, and verbal inflection. For instance (all examples are in the standard orthography, thus not marking ATR):

nin   "a man"  subject case           nin   "a man"  absolutive case
 L                                     H

ey    "a dog"    ey      "dogs"
HL               HH

inan  "a boy"  absolutive case        inan     "a girl"  absolutive case   or
H L                                   L H              "a boy"        genitive case

inan  "a boy"  subject case

Tone is not notated in the orthography, perhaps because it not lexically constant -- that is, a given word will appear in many tonal forms depending on its inflection and context of use. It seems to be an open question whether there are tonal markings in the lexicon: tone is generally predictable from from morphosyntactic context, but only if the "declension" or "conjugation" of a word is known. Here is a fuller description of the tonal properties of nouns. In any event, it seems that there is never more than one LH or HL transition in a word, so that the system has a quasi-accentual character as well.


Somali has a rich phonology and morphology, including many cross-word sandhi and coalescence phenomena. For instance:

 L L H   HL    LL   L   H    H     LL LL    H L
hadiyad baa    uu  ku   u   ka    keenay   Cali
present FOCUS  he  you  for from  brought  Ali
"he brought a present for you from Ali"   -->

 L L H   HL         LL H           LL LL    H L
hadiyad buu        kaaga          keenay   Cali

Of the seven basic noun declensions, five reverse gender with plurality (i.e. masculine singular and feminine plural, or vice versa), a phenomenon known as gender polarity.


Somali is an example of a "discourse configurational language," in which there is obligatory syntactic and morphological marking of aspects of discourse structure. There is interesting interaction among focus, relativization and subject-verb agreement. Subordinate clauses of all types are case marked, with the case marking showing up on the verb.

There are interesting preverbal clusters of prepositions and pronouns.


There is a rich (oral) tradition of quantitative metered verse, with many meters and genres of poetry, both sung and spoken. These remain very popular, and can be found on the net as well as circulating on cassette among Somalis around the world.

Some discussions of Somali verse can be found here, here, herehere, here, here and here.