Homepage Chapter 1 - Somali Spelling and Pronunciation


 A - PHONOLOGICAL INVENTORY : 


The Somali phoneme inventory consists of between 7 to 10 vowels and 22 to 31 consonants, depending on the analysis. Numerous diphthongs are attested, vowel harmony is widespread, and vowel length is contrastive.

The syllable structure of the language is (C)V(C)(C) [items in parentheses are optional] and most words have a di- or trisyllabic structure (root morphemes and affixes are usually mono- or disyllabic).

Somali is a tone language with some properties of a stress system. Tone is both lexical (serving to distinguish the meanings of different words) and morphological (serving to distinguish different inflectional forms of the same word). The latter (inflectional) function of tone is the more prominent of the two roles. This is notably atypical of most African tone languages. The Somali tonal system consists of an inventory of three basic tones : high, low, and falling. At most one high tone may surface within a word.

Concerning stress, vowels rather than syllables are assigned stress. Stress is usually placed on the final or penultimate vowel of a word. Nonetheless, stress is often associated with tone. High tones receive strong stress (“accent”), falling tones bear weak stress, and low tones often have no stress.



 B - THE SOMALI ALPHABET : 


Somali is a language close to Arabic through its pronunciation.

Its official spelling dates from 1972. It is written in Latin letters.

The Somali alphabet has 26 letters, of which 21 are consonants and the remaining five are vowels, which can be long or short.

Somali Consonants follow the same order and have the same value as the equivalent letters of the Arabic alphabet, except G. They are preceded by ' (= alif) and followed by the vowels.

', B, T, J, X, KH, D, R, S, SH, DH, C, G, F, Q, K, L, M, N, W, H, Y, A, E, I, O, U.

These letters are spelt as follows :
alef, ba, ta, ja, xa, kha, deel, ra, sa, shiin, dha, cayn, ga, fa, qaaf, kaaf, laan, miin, nun, waw, ha, ya, a, e, i, o, u



 Consonants 


Table of Somali consonants


SpellingArabic letterPhonemeExampleEnglish equivalent
' ' [ ʔ ]go' = bed sheetco-ed
B-b ب [ b ]bad = seabed
T-t ت [ t ]taag = efforttea
J-j ج [ ʤ ]jidh = skinjam
X-x ح [ ħ ]xoolo = cattle 
Kh-kh خ [ χ ]khayr = blessing 
D-d د [ d ]dab = firedo
R-r ر [ r ]ri = goatSpanish : "pero"
S-s س [ s ]salaam = peacesay
Sh-sh ش [ ʃ ]shaah = teashoe
Dh-dh ض [ ɖ ]dhabar = back 
C-c ع [ ʕ ]cunto = food 
G-g غ [ g ]guri = housego
F-f ف [ f ]faras = horsefar
Q-q ق [ q ]qori = wood 
K-k ك [ k ]kursi = chairkiwi
L-l ل [ l ]luul = pearlleaf
M-m م [ m ]malab = honeyme
N-n ن [ n ]naar = hellno
W-w و [ w ]wan = ramweek
H-h هـ [ h ]hooyo = motherhello
Y-y ي [ j ]yar = smallyes

For an English person, the letters Kh, C and X are difficult to distinguish from one another and to pronounce.

  • the letter "Kh" is pronounced like the Arabic letter " kha " (unvoiced fricative velar), or as the Spanish "jota".

  • the letter "C" is pronounced like the Arabic letter " Ain " (voiced fricative pharyngeal sound).

  • the letter "X" is pronounced like the Arabic letter " Hhaa " (unvoiced fricative pharyngeal sound).

We must also differentiate the letters Q and K :

  • the letter "K" is pronounced as in the word "kiwi".

  • the letter "Q" is pronounced like the Arabic letter Qaf, the occlusion is located deeper into the palate, towards the throat.

Other letters :

  • the letter "Dh" is pronounced as "d" in turning the tongue against the palate (retroflex).

  • the letter "G" is pronounced as in the word "go".

  • the letter "J" is pronounced as in the word "jam".

  • the letter "Y" is pronounced as in the word "yes".

The Somalian alif :

  • The ' or Somalian "alif" is a glotal stop that shortens a vowel. Thus the "o" of go' (= bed sheet) should be pronounced as in "dog" not as in "door". We also use it to separate 2 distinct vowels : go'aan (= decision). It is never used at the initial of a word.

 Vowels 

A-a E-e I-i O-o U-u
AA-aa EE-ee II-ii OO-oo UU-uu

No problem : the vowels have the same value as in Spanish or Italian.

Reduplicated vowels are long vowels.

Knowing all this, you can practice those particular letters within the following words :

"C" with long vowels: 1) caano = milk ; 2) caato = thin ; 3) cayaar = game.

"C" with short vowels: 1) calan = flag ; 2) cambe = mango ; 3) cusbo = salt.

And finally : good morning = subax-wanaagsan (= "subah-uanagsan") ; Good night = habeen wanaagsan.


 Diphtongues 

Diphtongues start on a vowel sound to finish on another vowel sound. There are five diphtongues in standard Somali.

DiphtongueExample
aykayn = bush
awawr = camel
eyweyn = big
oyqoys = family
owcadow = ennemy



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