Somali Pronouns: Anigu v. Waan v. Waxaan?

I’ll admit it — starting off, Somali grammar already makes my brain hurt (in the best possible way, of course). As an English speaker, it’s a lot to wrap my head around, but it admittedly helps that I have already studied some other African languages with similar structures.

The Confusion

A few days ago, I was starting to learn some grammar for the first time. Pronouns in Somali seem to be often listed as anigu/I, adigu/you, isagu/he, iyadu/she, innagu/we-inclusive, annagu/we-exclusive, idinku/you-plural, and iyagu/they. Easy enough, right? I copied these into my notebook, and then started to work on sentences.

I figured I’d start with something easy… I eat, for example. My brain is thinking this sentence is going to start with “aniga” (because that’s the Somali word for I). I find the sentence in Somali, and there it is, staring at me, confusing my brain.

Waan cunaa… WHERE IS THE ANIGU?

The Double Subject: Anigu v. Waan

After reading a bit more about Somali pronouns, I remembered the way my university Swahili teacher would always phrase things, to help us translate more fluently. She’d say sentences like “as for me, I…” and “as for her, she…”

If you’re familiar with Swahili, it’d be common to say something like “mimi ninakula…” (translating literally to “me I eat” (mimi for me, /ni-/ for I, /-na-/ for the present tense marker, and /-kula/ meaning eat). You could also simply say “ninakula.” Mimi means “me” or “as for me,” and while it’s acceptable to include “mimi” in the sentence, it’s also acceptable to omit it.

We’ll switch back to Somali now.

In Somali, a similar double-subject structure applies. The Somali pronouns (anigu, adigu, isagu, iyadu, etc) are the equivalent of the Swahili pronouns (mimi, yeye, wewe, etc). They provide emphasis, but cannot function independently. In order to correctly form a sentence in either language, you need to include a “verbal pronoun.”

For example, look at the Somali sentence “waan cunaa” (I eat). “Waan” is the verbal pronoun, marking the subject as “I.” The sentence could also be written as “anigu waan cunaa,” which would literally translate as “as for me, I eat.” But, the “anigu” is optional, so “waan cunaa” alone is perfectly correct.

This structure is quite common across African languages. In Amharic, you could say እኔ እበላለሁ (with both subjects) or simply እበላለሁ (with only the verbal pronoun). In Zulu, you could say “mina ngiyadla” (with both subjects) or simply “ngiyadla” (with only the verbal pronoun).

Is that a complement? Waan v. Waxaan

So, this is another element of basic Somali grammar which baffled me for a few hours, and then became perfectly clear when I remembered the grammar of other languages.

To start, check out these two sentences:

  • Waan cunaa. I eat.
  • Waxaan cunaa muus. I eat bananas.

Why does waan change to waxaan?! It’s the same subject, right?!

Now, if you’re familiar with Zulu (or Swati, or another similar southern African language), you’ll know that “I eat” translates to “ngiyadla,” while “I eat bananas” translates to “ngidla ubhanana.” The /-ya-/ in the middle of “ngiyadla” is only included when there is no “verb complement.” Generally, that means that the /-ya-/ is included when there’s no object. When we add in the object (in this case, ubhanana), the /-ya-/ disappears.

Back to Somali.

In the sentence “waan cunaa,” there is no verb complement — no object, nothing other than the subject and the verb. Therefore, we use “waan” as the verbal pronoun (meaning “I”). In the sentence “waxaan cunaa muus,” there is a verbal complement (“muus,” or bananas). Now that we’ve added in that verbal complement, the verbal pronoun switches from “waan” to “waxaan.”

It’s interesting, because while it’s similar logic, the pattern is the reverse of Zulu. In Zulu, the verbal pronoun becomes shorter when the complement is added. In Somali, the verbal pronoun becomes longer when the complement is added.

Everybody Else!

Of course, you don’t want to just talk about yourself. So, here is a chart showing the rest of the subject pronouns (optional), verbal pronouns (required), and verbal pronouns (for when there’s a verb complement).

ENGLISHSUBJECTVERBALVERBAL (with complement)
Ianigawaanwaxaan
Youadigawaadwaxaad
Heisagawuuwaxuu
Sheiyadawaywaxay
We (exc.)aanagawaannuuwaxaannu
We (inc.)innagawaynuwaxaynu
Ya’llidinkawaydinwaxaydin
Theyiyagawaywaxay

Again, I am a novice student of Somali, so if there’s anything which needs correction (or elaboration), your comments and feedback are much appreciated!

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