Gender confusions in Somali

Warning: Somali is not a West African language. Still, motivated by various recent conversations and encounters, I’m venturing out of my comfort zone and look at an intriguing phenomenon in an Afroasiatic language of the Cushitic branch spoken in the Horn of Africa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Somali, and many other Cushitic languages with it, are kind of famous among linguists for having gender polarity – a kind of cross-dressing for nouns, where a noun that is feminine in the singular becomes masculine in the plural, and a masculine singular noun turns into a drag queen in the plural. This is how the gender switch supposedly works, based on the form the definite article takes in the two numbers:

Fom Nilsson (2016: 452)

This perspective on Somali nouns has been challenged recently. First of all, other agreeing words don’t follow the presumed polarity pattern. Secondly, the seemingly reversed patterns in the different number forms of nouns themselves can be explained on other grounds: feminine nouns take the article /k/ in the plural, and it gets realised as [h] between vowels; masculine nouns with monosyllabic stems also take /k/ in the plural; and masculine nouns with stems with two syllables or more take the definite article /t/ in their plural forms, realised as [d] between vowels (I simplify somewhat). Here’s another table that gives you an overview of the story:

From Nilsson (2016: 456)

Of course, the story of Somali nouns is more complex than this. If you want the full picture, with plenty of references to previous research on the matter, read this article:

Morgan Nilsson. 2016. Somali gender polarity revisited. In Doris L. Payne, Sara Pacchiarotti & Mokaya Bosire (eds.), Diversity in African languages, 451–466. Berlin: Language Science Press.