What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali

Today I am sharing an article I had published yesterday at The Smart Set: What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali.

Its about, well, read the title. Yeah, that.

I’m so happy with the feedback I’ve already received from the Somali and Djiboutian community about the piece – Waad mahadsan tihiin! It is a deep honor to be welcomed into your culture and language and to be received with warmth and encouragement.

The Smart Set published Big Knife Thursdays back in late July. As a follow-up, guess what Henry got for his thirteenth birthday? A big knife. A big, machete-style knife. Maggie already had one. Oh boy.

Here’s a clip from the piece about learning Somali.

somali2

There are 16 ways to form a sentence using the same six words in Somali. The man cuts his beard with a razor. His beard with a razor the man cuts. With a razor the man his beard cuts. With a razor cuts the man his beard. And on and on.

It doesn’t work in English.

Somali uses small changes, a ‘u’ at the end of a word instead of an ‘i.’ Waa, or waxaainstead of baa which affects the placement and stress and subject and object of words in the sentence but which means nothing by itself.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native speakers.

Somali also has words specific to the life of camel-herding nomads, words with no direct translation into English. Words for the Ethiopian women who carry bundles of sticks on their hunched-over backs. Different words for different genders of camels, different ages, whether or not a camel has given birth.

This makes Somali a challenging language to learn for non-native, non-nomadic, non-camel-herding speakers.

Click here to read the rest of What I Learned When I Failed to Learn Somali.