Somali grammar

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Somali is an agglutinative language, using a large number of affixes and particles to determine and alter the meaning of words.


As in other related Afroasiatic languages, Somali nouns are inflected for gender, number and case.

Affixes change according to a number of rules. The definite article is a suffix, with the basic form being -ki or -ka for masculine nouns and -ti or -ta for feminine nouns. The k or t is the actual article marker, although it can change depending on the preceding consonant, with the following vowel determined by the case of the noun. Articles do not change for singular or plural.


Absolutive case[edit]

The basic form of a Somali noun is in absolutive case. In this case, the article maintains the vowel -a.

Somali English
buug (a) book
buugga the book
gacan (a) hand
gacanta the hand

Nominative case[edit]

The subject of a sentence takes nominative case. In this case, the article takes the vowel -u. If the subject of the sentence includes multiple nouns, only the last takes the nominative ending for the article.

If there is no article, a tonal change signifies nominative case, although this is not represented in the orthography. Some feminine nouns take the suffix -i in nominative case without an article.

Somali English
nin man
nin-ka the man
nin-ku... the man... (followed by a verb)
nin-ka iyo wiil-ku... the man and the boy...

Genitive case[edit]

Genitive case is generally indicated through a tonal change. Some feminine nouns take an ending, -eed, -aad or -od, depending on the final consonant of the root word.

Somali English
áf (a) language
carab Arab (people)
áf carabi Arabic language

Vocative case[edit]

Vocative case is indicated either through a tonal change or with the suffixes -ow (m. sg.), -ohow (m. pl.), -eey/-aay/-ooy (f. sg.) or -yahay (f. pl.).


Gender is not marked in nouns without the definite article. The gender of nouns does not follow any particular rule and is not generally obvious.


Nouns form their plural in three ways, including reduplication. Many nouns exhibit gender polarity, whereby they change gender in the plural form, e.g. buug-ga (the book) is masculine in the singular, but buugag-ta (the books) is feminine.


There are both subject and object forms for each personal pronoun, with each form further divided into short and emphatic forms.

  Subject pronouns Object pronouns
Person Emphatic Short Emphatic Short
1. Sing. anigu aan aniga i(i)
2. Sing. adigu aad adiga ku(u)
3. Sing. m. isagu uu isaga (u)
3. Sing. f. iyadu ay iyada (u)
1. Pl. (inclusive) innagu aynu innaga ina/inoo
1. Pl. (exclusive) annagu aannu annaga na/noo
2. Pl. idinku aad idinka idin/idiin
3. Pl. iyagu ay iyaga (u)


Somali verbs consist of a stem to which suffixes are added. Verbs in indicative mood exist in four tenses, present, present continuous, past and past continuous, in addition to a subjunctive mood form for present and future tense. Verbs in Somali conjugate mainly through the addition of suffixes, although a very small number of common verbs use a conjugation using prefixes.

Infinitive and verbal nouns[edit]

The infinitive is created through the suffix -i or -n depending on verb class, e.g. keeni (to bring) and siin (to give). The infinitive is used in present tense only with the modal verb karid (to be able). Verbal nouns are formed with the endings -id, -n and -sho, e.g. keenid (the bringing), siin (the giving) and barasho (the learning) and are used and declined as per normal nouns.

Pareto principle[edit]

According to Ahmad (2013), the Pareto principle is in effect with regard to Somali grammar. When applied to Standard Somali, the adjective and verb, which collectively represent around 20% of Somali grammatical categories, would thereby constitute about 80% of both spoken and written Somali. This is due to the fact that tenses have an effect on both grammatical categories.[1]

Indicative mood[edit]


Present tense refers to an action which may or may not be happening at present. It may be used to express something which happens habitually or repeatedly. The present tense conjugation of keen (to bring) follows:

Person Present English
1. Sing. (waan) keenaa I bring
2. Sing. (waad) keentaa you bring
3. Sing. m. (wuu) keenaa he brings
3. Sing. f. (way) keentaa she brings
1. Pl. (waan) keennaa we bring
2. Pl. (waad) keentaan you (pl.) bring
3. Pl. (way) keenaan they bring

Past tense is used to describe a completed action in the past with a discrete duration. The conjugation of keen (to bring) is:

Person Form English
1. Sing. (waan) keenay I brought
2. Sing. (waad) keentay you brought
3. Sing. m. (wuu) keenay he brought
3. Sing. f. (way) keentay she brought
1. Pl. (waan) keennay we brought
2. Pl. (waad) keenteen you (pl.) brought
3. Pl. (way) keeneen they brought

nb: The final -ay can also be pronounced and written -ey.

Present continuous[edit]

The present continuous tense is formed with the suffix -ay- / -na- (depending on dialect) and the endings from the present tense. The present continuous forms of keen are:

Person Form English
1. Sing. (waan) keenayaa I am bringing
2. Sing. (waad) keenaysaa you are bringing
3. Sing. m. (wuu) keenayaa he is bringing
3. Sing. f. (way) keenaysaa she is bringing
1. Pl. (waan) keenaynaa we are bringing
2. Pl. (waad) keenaysaan you (pl.) are bringing
3. Pl. (way) keenayaan they are bringing
Past continuous[edit]

Past continuous is formed with the suffix -na / -ay and the past tense endings: keen+ay+ey = keenayey = I was bringing. Is it used to describe actions in the past which happened over a period of time: Intuu akhrinayey wargeyska wuu quracanayey. = While he was reading the newspaper, he was eating breakfast.

Person Form English
1. Sing. (waan) keenayey I was bringing
2. Sing. (waad) keenaysey you were bringing
3. Sing. m. (wuu) keenayey he was bringing
3. Sing. f. (way) keenaysey she was bringing
1. Pl. (waan) keenayney we were bringing
2. Pl. (waad) keenayseen you (pl.) were bringing
3. Pl. (way) keenayeen they were bringing

Future tense is formed with the infinitive of the required verb and the present tense of doon (to want):

Person Form English
1. Sing. (waan) keeni doonaa I will bring
2. Sing. (waad) keeni doontaa you will bring
3. Sing. m. (wuu) keeni doonaa he will bring
3. Sing. f. (way) keeni doontaa she will bring
1. Pl. (waan) keeni doonaa we will bring
2. Pl. (waad) keeni doontaan you (pl.) will bring
3. Pl. (way) keeni doonaan they will bring

Subjunctive mood[edit]

The subjunctive is used only in subordinate clauses and certain prepositional phrases. The present subjunctive differs from the indicative only in that the vowel in the endings changes from a to o. Future subjunctive uses the infinitive plus the present subjunctive form of doon.


Somali has several strategies to indicate where the intention or the interest or the focus is located in the phrase: a topic-comment or focus construction. The words baa, ayaa, and waxaa put the focus on nouns and noun phrases.


  1. John baa baxay - John Focus (baa) went out
  2. John ayaa baxay - John Focus (ayaa) went out
  3. Waxaa baxay John - Focus (waxaa) went out John

Thus, the words baa, ayaa, and waxaa unconsciously raise the question of who went out? Therefore the noun.

Somali also has the word waa which puts the focus on verbs and verb phrases.


John wuu baxay - John Focus (wuu) meaning has, or 'way' if female, in which case the last word would change to 'baxday'. Eg: Sarah way baxday

Waa is different from other previous one we have just seen, because it raises the question of what did John do? Therefore the verb.

Sentences in Somali are typically of the order Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). Nouns have different tonal markings for number, gender (masculine and feminine), and case or role in the sentence.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ahmad, Liban. "The Standard Somali Grammar and Pareto Principle". Retrieved 12 June 2013.


  1. Andrzejewski, B.W. The Case System in Somali. London: 1979.
  2. Andrzejewski, B.W. The Declensions of Somali Nouns. London: 1964.
  3. Bell, C.R.V. The Somali Language. New York: 1969.
  4. Kirk, J.W.C. A grammar of the Somali language, with examples in prose and verse, and an account of the Yibir and Midgan dialects. Cambridge [Eng.]: 1905.
  5. Saeed, John I. Somali Reference Grammar. Kensington, Md.: 1993.
  6. Saeed, John I. Syntax of Focus & Topic in Somali. Hamburg: 1984.
  7. El-Solami-Mewis, Catherine. Lehrbuch des Somali. Leipzig, 1987.