Somali phonology

Somali phonology

This article describes the phonology (ie the sound system) of the Somali language. For other details on Somali (grammar, writing system, etc), please see 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.


When needed, the conventions for marking tone on written Somali are as follows:
*acute accent - high tone
*grave accent - low tone
*circumflex - falling tone

Tones on long vowels are marked on the first vowel symbol.

In Somali, the tone system distinguishes grammatical not lexical differences. Differences include singular and plural, masculine and feminine. One example is ínan ("boy") and inán ("girl"). Although this appears in English to be a lexical difference, in fact it is part of a masculine-feminine pattern which also differentiates words 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 2 moras and can bear 2 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 3 possible "accentual patterns" in word roots.

Phonetically there are 3 tones: high, low and falling. Rules:
#On a long vowel or diphthong, a sequence of high-low is realised as a falling tone.
#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.


The following syllable structures occur:

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

Clusters of 2 consonants do not occur word-initially or word-finally, ie they only occur at syllable boundaries. The following consonants can be geminate: IPA|/b/, IPA|/d/, IPA|/ɖ/, IPA|/g/, IPA|/ɢ/, IPA|/m/, IPA|/n/, IPA|/r/ and IPA|/l/. The following cannot be geminate: IPA|/t/, IPA|/k/ and the fricatives.

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

IPA|/tʃ/ does not occur syllable-final in native Somali words but it does in Arabic loans.

Phonological processes


*The voiced stops (IPA|/b/, IPA|/d/, IPA|/g/ and IPA|/ɢ/) are devoiced in word-initial and word-final position. Between 2 vowels they become fricatives.
*The voiceless stops IPA|/t/ and IPA|/k/ are realised as IPA| [d] and IPA| [g] in syllable-final position.
*IPA|/m/ is realised as IPA| [n] in syllable-final position.
*IPA|/tʃ/ appears to have fairly free variation between IPA| [tʃ] and IPA| [dʒ] .
*Between vowels, IPA|/h/ is usually voiced to IPA| [ɦ] .
*All vowels are nasalised before or after a nasal consonant.


When a vowel occurs in word-initial position, a glottal stop (IPA| [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 IPA|/t/ or IPA|/k/ occurring at the end of a syllable or being geminate.


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

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