Somali phonology

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This article describes the phonology of the Somali language.


Common Somali has 22 consonant phonemes. Its consonants cover every place of articulation on the IPA chart, though not all of these distinctions are phonemic.

Somali consonant phonemes[1][2]
Labial Dental/Alveolar Post
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn
Nasal m n
Stop voiceless t k q͡ʡ ʔ
voiced b d ɖ ɡ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ χ ħ h
voiced ʕ
Approximant l j w
Trill r

/ɖ/ is a voiced retroflex plosive. Some phoneticians say that it has an implosive quality for some speakers. It is sometimes realised as a flap [ɾ] between vowels.

The voiceless stops /t/ and /k/ are always aspirated.

/χ/ is often realized as more front [x]. All words with this phoneme are loanwords from Arabic. These words may be "Somalized" by replacing /χ/ with /q͡ʡ/.

/ʕ/, the voiced pharyngeal fricative, may have creaky voice.

/r/ is often pronounced with breathy voice and may be partially devoiced. Between vowels it may be a single tap.


Somali has five vowel articulations which all contrast breathy voice and harsh voice as well as vowel length.[clarification needed] There is little change in vowel quality when the vowel is lengthened.

There are five diphthongs which also occur in front and back, long and short versions, except for /ɞi/ which does not appear to occur in the back series.

Somali monophthongs
Front series Back series
short long short long
Close front unrounded /
Near-close near-front unrounded
i ɪ ɪː
Close-mid front unrounded /
Open-mid front unrounded
e ɛ ɛː
Near-open front unrounded /
Open back unrounded
æ æː ɑ ɑː
Open-mid central rounded /
Open-mid back rounded
ɞ ɞː ɔ ɔː
Close central rounded /
Close back rounded
ʉ ʉː u
Somali diphthongs
First element is front First element is back
short long short long
æi æːi ɑɪ ɑːɪ
æʉ æːʉ ɑu ɑːu
ei eːi ɛɪ ɛːɪ
ɞi ɞːi ɔɪ ɔːɪ
ɞʉ ɞːʉ ɔu ɔːu


Somali has tonic accent with one high-tone mora per word.

The tone system distinguishes grammatical rather than lexical differences. Differences include singular and plural, masculine and feminine. One example is ínan ('boy') and inán ('girl'). This reflects a pattern that marks grammatical gender, such as daméer ('male donkey') and dameér ('female donkey').

The question of tonality in Somali has been debated for decades. The modern consensus is as follows:

In Somali, the tone-bearing unit is the mora rather than the vowel of the syllable. A long vowel or a diphthong consists of two morae and can bear two tones. Each mora is defined as being of high or low tone. Only one high tone occurs per word and this must be on the final or penultimate mora. Particles do not have a high tone. (These include prepositions, clitic pronouns for subject and object, impersonal subject pronouns and focus markers.) There are therefore three possible "accentual patterns" in word roots.

Phonetically there are three tones on long vowels: high, low and falling. Rules:

  1. On a long vowel or diphthong, a sequence of high-low is realised as a falling tone.
  2. On a long vowel or diphthong, a sequence of low-high is realised as high-high. (Occasionally it is a rising tone.)

This use of tone may be characterized as pitch accent. It is similar to that in Oromo.

Stress is connected with tone. The high tone has strong stress; the falling tone has less stress and the low tone has no stress.

When needed, the conventions for marking tone on written Somali are as follows:

Tones on long vowels are marked on the first vowel symbol.[dubious ][contradicted by 'donkey' above]


The syllable structure of Somali is (C)V(C).

Root morphemes usually have a mono- or di-syllabic structure.

Clusters of two consonants do not occur word-initially or word-finally, i.e., they only occur at syllable boundaries. The following consonants can be geminate: /b/, /d/, /ɖ/, /ɡ/, /ɢ/, /m/, /n/, /r/ and /l/. The following cannot be geminate: /t/, /k/ and the fricatives.

Two vowels cannot occur together at syllable boundaries. Epenthetic consonants, e.g. [j] and [ʔ], are therefore inserted.

/tʃ/ does not occur syllable-final in native Somali words but it does in Arabic[dubious ] loans.

Phonological processes


  • The voiced stops (/b/, /d/, /ɡ/ and /ɢ/) are devoiced in word-initial and word-final position. Between two vowels they become fricatives.
  • The voiceless stops /t/ and /k/ are realised as [d] and [ɡ] in syllable-final position.
  • /m/ is realised as [n] in syllable-final position.
  • /tʃ/ appears to have fairly free variation between [tʃ] and [dʒ].
  • Between vowels, /h/ is usually voiced to [ɦ].
  • All vowels are nasalised before or after a nasal consonant.


When a vowel occurs in word-initial position, a glottal stop ([ʔ]) is inserted before it.


Trisyllabic roots with the form (C)VCVCV and a short second vowel elide this vowel to become (C)VCCV except if it would result in /t/ or /k/ occurring at the end of a syllable or being geminate.


Phonological changes occur at morpheme boundaries (sandhi) for specific grammatical morphemes. There may be assimilation or elision. One unusual change which can occur is /lt/ to [ʃ].

Coalescence also occurs. This is a kind of external sandhi in which words join, undergoing phonological processes such as elision. In Somali it is sometimes obligatory and sometimes it is dependent on the speech style.

Vowel harmony

Roots have front-back vowel harmony. There is also a process of vowel harmony in strings longer than a word, known as "harmonic groups".


Intonation (as opposed to tone, see above) does not carry grammatical information although it may convey the speaker's attitude or emotion.


  • Saeed, John Ibrahim. Somali. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, B.V., 1999.