Somali Proverbs: A Grammar Lesson

As a language-learner, I love proverbs. They’re an easy way to express complex thoughts and reactions to situations. Of course, you don’t use them in daily conversation, but they’re nice to have in your back pocket. Then, once in a while, during that deep conversation where you really need to express something more, you can pull one out (or understand if someone else pulls one out). Plus, they’re fun as a party trick (and to show some familiarity with a culture).

On top of that, when you can find proverbs translated, they’re a great way to learn a language! In this post, I’m going to sort through some proverbs (which I found here and here), group them together by grammatical features, and hopefully get some practice in Somali!

“[A] waa [B].”

The first common sentence structure I noticed in the proverbs is “[A] waa [B],” which is a simple grammatical structure meaning “[A] is [B].” These are great for language-learning practice, because they’re so straightforward. Once we know the vocabulary, we can understand the whole proverb!

  • Af daboolan waa dehab.
    (af = mouth, daboolan = covered/closed, dehab = gold)
    A covered/closed mouth (ie. silence) is golden.
  • Nin is faanshay waa ri’is nuugtay.
    (nin is = he who faanshay = bragged, ri’is = she-goat, nuugtay = suckled)
    He who bragged is a she-goat who suckled [herself].
  • Rag waa shaah, dumarna waa sheeko
    (men = rag, shaah = tea, dumarna = women, sheeko = stories)
    Men are tea, women are conversation.

“[A] la’aani waa [B] la’aan.”

This type of proverb is grammatically similar to the “[A] waa [B]” type, except that this time, the proverbs are saying “the absence of [A] is the absence of [B].”

  • Aqoon la’aani waa iftiin la’aan.
    (aqoon = knowledge, iftiin = light)
    The absence of knowledge is the absence of light.
  • Naag la’aani waa naf la’aan.
    (naag = woman, naf = soul)
    The absence of woman is the absence of a soul (ie. life).
  • Haween la’aani waa hoy la’aan.
    (haween = woman, hoy = shelter)
    The absence of woman is the absence of shelter (ie. home).

“[A] ma [verb].”

“[A] ma [verb]” means “[A] does not [verb].” The main grammatical feature of these proverbs is going to be the negative present tense. Notice that the object in the sentence (when present) comes right before the “ma” (Somali is a SOV language, with the subject-object-verb sentence order).

  • Sirow ma hodmo.
    (sirow = cheater/liar, hodmo = prosper/succeed)
    A cheater doesn’t prosper.
  • Hadal badan haan ma buuxsho.
    (hadal = talk, badan = a lot/much, haan = vessel, buuxsho = fill)
    Lots of talk doesn’t fill the vessel.
  • Tuug tuug ma xado.
    (tuug = thief, xado = steal/rob)
    A thief doesn’t rob a thief.
  • Far keliya fool ma dhaqdo.
    (far = finger, keliya = only/one/single, fool = face, dhaqdo = wash)
    One finger doesn’t [can’t] wash a face.

Looking at all these proverbs, I realize that the ones I actually understand have the simplest grammatical structures. Hopefully, as I keep learning more about Af-Soomaali, I’ll be able to go back and repeat this exercise with some more advanced grammar!

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