How to Speak Somali Without Saying a Word

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How to Speak Somali Without Saying a Word

I’m not Somali, I’m a Somali-language learner. I relied heavily on Colloquial Somali in my early years. I’m bound to make mistakes in the following post. Please feel free to correct me but no internet-haters, okay? I promise I won’t come around your blog and tell you what a terrible person you must be if you make an English mistake or cultural error, okay? Deal? Also, remember I started learning Somali in Somaliland and have continued in Djibouti so I speak a mix. Anyway, here goes…

Somali is a lively, vibrant, guttural language with loads of gestures. Before I studied it, it seemed like every group of Somalis I saw speaking together were on the verge of a brawl. Probably they were just talking about tea or camels or football. One of my favorite things about Somali is that it is a great language to get angry in. The forceful sounds and exaggerated hand movements are perfect for when this timid introvert loses her temper.

Once I was, rightfully, upset. I started to explain my situation in English but the English-speaking staff where I was didn’t get it. I switched to French and they began to sense my frustration. But it was only when I turned on the full throttle Somali that they grasped the true nature of my anger and did something to improve things.

Speak Somali without saying a word…


Using one finger, like in America, is how you call a dog. Point your palm down, fingers open, then cup your fingers closed – not in a fist – with the thumb outside the fingers.



Necessary/required/you have to

Push the side of the nose with one finger. My arm probably shouldn’t be out so far to the side but the kids were getting tired of taking pictures so I kept it.


Qasab/you have to


Over there

Point with either chin or tongue


waa kaa/there it is



Touch thumb and fingers and shake it slightly back and forth




Full (or a lot or crowded or packed)

Hold the hand in a fist with the thumb out and brush the thumb under the chin, flicking it out


buux/full (as corrected by Liiban, thanks!)


This is an insult men give to women. ‘Nuf said.

Instead of taking a new shot without the hair in my face, I left it in. That’s how this one makes me feel – frizzy.




Touch the temple with the index finger, all other fingers splayed open, and twist the hand at the same time as pulling it away from the forehead.




Don’t you dare

Grab the lobe of one ear between the thumb and space between the first two knuckles of the index finger and shake it. The Somali word for this sort of sounds like what a pirate might say. Argh. The ‘c’ is an ayn, not at all related to the English ‘c’.


car/don’t you dare



I’m never good at this and all my Somali-smile pictures have a goofy upturn on one side of my lips

We are all thrilled, for reals, to be at this wedding

If you are learning a new language, don’t forget about the non-verbals.

What are some gestures your language uses?

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By |April 10th, 2013|Categories: somalia|Tags: , |64 Comments


  1. richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad April 10, 2013 at 7:04 am - Reply

    we share a lot of the same NVs. 🙂

    our kids are much more natural with these than we are. they can even do this clicking of the tongue that happens way in the back of the throat.

    also, to agree folks here do a quick, sharp intake of breath… i’m always worried that i’ve surprised or offended or hurt someone, but that ‘s not the case at all.

    zarma (the local language i’ve been learning) also sounds like a brawl and the ladies at church always laugh at me because i don’t speak it emphatically and loudly enough!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 10, 2013 at 7:26 am - Reply

      We have the intake of breath too – it means something akin to ‘uh-uh’ or an acknowledgment that you are listening.

  2. yonas April 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    most of my friends r Somaliyan
    but I can’t understand all of them with full mins b/c they came from
    From Shansi
    and so on
    they have different voice
    so what can I Do ?

  3. Amy April 10, 2013 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    This is so great! I teach a culture class for international students at an American university, and we do a unit on non-verbal communication. I’m totally going to use this post next semester in the unit. Thank you!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 11, 2013 at 4:35 am - Reply

      Great! That would be a fun class to sit in on – to hear, or see rather, what various cultures and languages use to communicate.

  4. d.l. mayfield April 10, 2013 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    i used some (not all!) of these gestures today at the Franklin library tutoring center. so fun! also, i got to work with a man from djibouti and i said the 2 words i knew in french. it was awesome, and it made me think of you!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 11, 2013 at 4:43 am - Reply

      Not too many Djiboutians in Mpls, so that is pretty cool!

  5. Heather Caliri April 11, 2013 at 2:59 am - Reply

    The “where” gesture in Somali looks a lot like the WTF gesture in Argentine Spanish. When the new pope spoke Italian I could understand him perfectly except for not knowing the words 🙂

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 11, 2013 at 4:50 am - Reply

      Uh-oh – trouble for Somali-speakers looking for the toilet in Argentina! I find those kinds of culture things fascinating. And loved your words about the pope!

    • Cultures connection March 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm - Reply

      Yes That’s right, I’m actually living in Argentina and i agree! this is quite similar. I guess this is a gesture that have crossed the ocean with the Italian migrants and that is now deeply a part of the Argentinian culture!!

  6. Ahmed April 11, 2013 at 5:53 am - Reply

    It is very interesting know how other people are being fascinated by our mother tongue. I am glad that you are able to master over these gestures, but I hope there are more gesture for you to learn and I am sure you will. I haven’t before notice how amusing these gestures are until I read your article and it increases my curiosity to explore more on non-verbal component of the Somali language. thank you Rachel.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 11, 2013 at 6:28 am - Reply

      I know for certain that there are more gestures for me to learn, even some I know that I didn’t post here. But learning Somali is such a challenge! I’m glad for the little bit that I have grasped. As you explore more of the non-verbal aspects of Somali, I’d love to hear from you.

  7. Chantelle April 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Richelle is right we have many similar jestures in Niger but for us the thumb off the chin is actually a great insult to someone, not meaning full at all! I still have my Somali language book from when I lived in Djibouti myself. Now I speak Tamasheq and have forgotten all my Somali 🙁


  8. Charko April 11, 2013 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    hi, I’m Djiboutian and confirm your gestures. That’s exactly it.
    sorry for my english …. if I wrote wrong

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 12, 2013 at 6:16 am - Reply

      No problem, thanks for commenting! And your English is great.

  9. Mike Neterer April 15, 2013 at 3:37 am - Reply

    Rachel, this is great! I had to share on the SALT FB page. How about “iskumid” (same) shown by holding your index fingers in parallel? Have you seen that? Keep up the good writing. Say hi to your husband for me!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 15, 2013 at 5:10 am - Reply

      Yes, they do that here too. I forgot about it. Hello to all the Minneapolis folks!

  10. Carol Van Ess April 15, 2013 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    They use a lot of the same gestures in Kenya and Tanzania. I still point with my chin when talking to Africans. And we always use the downward ‘come’ gesture at SALT.

  11. suzanne April 16, 2013 at 12:04 am - Reply

    In the Caribbean we do a lot of hissing and a lot of finger-wagging to say, “No.” People hiss to get someone’s attention or to get a crowd to quiet down (like American “shh”). I’d say that after nine months I am used to the constant hissing (motorcycle taxi drivers, bus attendants, strangers on the street, friends, waiters, teachers, everyone hisses!!) but have yet to actually do it myself. Still feels foreign.

    When I was teaching in Paraguay over half of my students were Korean and I had learned that same gesture for “come.” I guess in Asian cultures the American up-turned finger gesture is also for calling dogs. Even though the up-turned crooked finger is totally acceptable here (in the Dominican Republic), I still find myself summoning children with the down-turned hand out of habit.

    These aspects of language are so interesting! Things you don’t think about when first learning a language but become so evidently different when immersed in a new culture.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones April 16, 2013 at 4:38 am - Reply

      Super fun to hear how other cultures do these things, love the hissing! Maybe eventually it will feel normal to you and you’ll start doing it in other countries…

    • Eric Stone March 22, 2016 at 4:30 pm - Reply

      The downturned vs. upturned “come” gesture applies in Indonesia as well. Asian origin or Arabic origin?

  12. Kali July 19, 2013 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    This is really neat! It is easy to forget how much we communicate in every culture without words…thanks for sharing at “Juntemos Jueves”! Glad to have a new blog to follow. 🙂

  13. Phyllis August 5, 2013 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    In Russian there’s a drinking/drunk/alcohol gesture. It’s like flicking the side of your neck.

  14. Norski August 14, 2013 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    Hi there,

    really interesting article. I was wondering if you might be able to help me? I am writing a thesis about anti- Somali racism in the UK (unfortunately there seems to be alot of it). One of my (British) research participants described how Somali boys at the school in which she works make a certain noise at girls. She made the noise herself, but given the context of her other comments, i am inclined to believe that it was purely an exaggerated approximation she used to justify her Somali stereotyping. She made a loud opening and shutting tongue clicking/slapping sound. Do you know this sound and can you tell me a bit more about how it should sound and what it really means among Somali people? It will help me expose anti- Somali racism in the UK. Thank you!

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  16. gwen dvorsak September 30, 2013 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    learned nonverbal communication in culture class while in the Peace Corps too. Some of those gestures are the same down in Guatemala……small world, isn’t it?!!

  17. Faisa October 17, 2013 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Hello iam a somalilander ! And this actually made me laugh hahaha i never actually thought abt these gestures but yeahhh thats excatly how we used them !!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones October 17, 2013 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Glad you liked it Faisa! One of the best parts of learning Somali has been the hand gestures – really fun.

  18. create business sign November 1, 2013 at 5:49 am - Reply

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article!

    It is the little changes that make the most significant changes.

    Thanks a lot for sharing!

  19. aamir December 1, 2013 at 10:09 am - Reply

    lool this is hilarious. I’m from Mogadishu, southern Somalia and yeah its quite true some of these gestures are used when a bit frustrated or having some heated up convo 😀 Somali is diverse and sometimes we mainstream Somalis and them Djibs can’t understand each other because of their french oriented culture and the thick more like nomadic accent:D anyway, af somali wad ku hadli karta ayan filayaa lolz

  20. marian February 12, 2014 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    wow cool i speak somail

  21. desertfriend March 10, 2014 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel, I am happy for you it must be challenging but exciting to learn af – somali mashallah

    I just wanted to share with you some interesting points with you about somali language & culture.
    If you want to learn classic or standard af somali used for broadsating news etc learn western somali dialect and also if you like our xido iyo dhaqan (culture) and dhaanto traditional dance its from that region too, the dialect is similar to somaliland but great efferts our done in jijiga city of ethiopia to revive somali culture.

    why not check out the Dhaanto dance, just type in Axmed Budul in you type, this dances need to be performed by a group of people, enjoy it

    I hope I was informative rachel, I dont know much about our hand gestures its pretty much the same lol, good luck.


  22. desertfriend March 11, 2014 at 12:00 am - Reply

    sorry I made a error I ment to write type in youtube Axmed Budul for dhaanto dance, sorry

    • Rachel Pieh Jones March 12, 2014 at 5:04 am - Reply

      Thanks, great to hear your encouragement about learning Somali! It isn’t easy but it has been good.

  23. khadar March 14, 2014 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    waaw i like it the way you use somali

  24. Saed March 15, 2014 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    Speaking Somali with sign language: this is very intriguing. But Rachel, you didn’t tell us all. There is no way you can learn these gestures without mastering the verbal part of the Somali language. I suspect you know Somali more than me. Anyway, this is brilliant and innovative attempt.

  25. Abdirizak Bihi March 16, 2014 at 2:43 am - Reply

    I liked your article. I taught Somali Language in Minneapolis, MN for a long time. I also teach Somali culture at the local universities and institution.

    Though, Somali language has been rated one of the richest languages, I agree with you, its getures are equally important. Somali songs are full of gestures where the singer is passionately trying to convey her love, sadness, happiness or her/his political point. Youtube Somali songs or hees Soomaali.

    here are some

    Thanks and good luck

  26. Jibril March 26, 2014 at 3:17 am - Reply

    your absolutely right i have to be aware of my surrounding as my language is becoming international i salute you with your dedication and passion of exploring our language

  27. Nerman May 26, 2014 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel- I am from Djibouti and I am actually amazed the way you used gestures to translate it into words. I agree with you Somali language is not quite easy but I am sure that your tactics will work with locals. 🙂 Good job

  28. Leyla May 30, 2014 at 3:13 am - Reply

    Hello Rachel,

    Great article and gestures. As a Somali person in west I am always glad to see western point of view about our language and culture. However, I could not help but to be curious what is your purpose of learning Somali if you don’t me asking? Is it Christianity spreading (missionary reasons), Political (planning to work as a diplomatic Bridger), or just a personal growth and fascination of other cultures? Mahadsanid walal (Thank you).

    • Rachel Pieh Jones May 30, 2014 at 4:23 am - Reply

      Leyla, not sure if you will stop by to read the comments again or not, but – good question. I live in Djibouti and used to live in Somaliland. My husband is a professor here and I figure, if I’m going to spend a decade in a place, I’d better learn how to communicate! I’ve also learned French, another of the main languages spoken here. For forming friendships, learning culture, understanding the place I live…learning language has been so important and helpful.

      • Leyla May 31, 2014 at 9:44 pm - Reply

        I sure did stop by again lol. Rachel, I wish you and your family the best. Somalis are misunderstood group of folks in west. Many western have put labeled on us after they have met many refugees with after shock of civil wars not to mention the racism that already exist in west societies (Not all are racists). I am glad you are in our land so you will know Somalis and our culture in our native-land. In fact we are very hospitable people that respect family values. In addition, Somalis are believers and love God. I see that you are close to god and love Jesus that’s wonderful (We believe in Jesus too as a prophet of God). Enjoy your experiences and do not forget to try Hilib Geel and Caano Geel (Camel milk and meat). My best regards.

        • Rachel Pieh Jones June 2, 2014 at 3:51 am - Reply

          Thanks so much Leyla, this is really encouraging. I agree – many in the west have given Somalis a negative label. Part of why I write what I do is to show a non-violent side, a more realistic picture of real people doing beautiful things. I have tried caano geel and hilib geel, though it was years ago. My neighbors told me without them I couldn’t learn Somali. :O)

  29. hiba August 27, 2014 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Am Somali Kenyan born..i know my mother tongue but once a relative visited us from Somalia and i couldn’t understand if she was actually speaking Somali and her vocabulary was very heavy and with this amazing accent.. she introduced me some place in Nairobi that is inhabited by Somali people from either the diaspora or from Somalia, for me it was a culture shock and how diverse they are it was easy to adjust especially negotiating with them in Somali language because Eastleigh is a commercial hub in Nairobi where you can shop everything with reasonable prices..Now am moving to Djibouti for work and am wondering how different the language is from the Somali language i speak in Kenya, and i speak no French, will able to survive English or with Somali?

  30. Ahmed September 24, 2014 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Not only Djiboutians do this but all Somali spears know this and use it.
    There are also many more that you did not experience.
    I will tell one you.
    UF : when something bad smells.
    You catch your nose with little finger and nose.

  31. […] I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some […]

  32. Samatar March 3, 2015 at 6:03 am - Reply

    Magnifique haha!! About Full/buux you can also use wa daaf or uu buuxa mean the same things ”full” !! If you write ”buux” buux is a somali name like my name or others, you can say WARYA BUUX ii KAALEY HUNNO ! (hey Buux come to me please !) or BUUX CAR KAALEY XALKAN HADA NIINE TIHIID (buux come here if you’re a men) , buux/bouh!! But the others pictures, are so perfect// Wish you good luck, it’s easy ! don’t be afraid, it’s much easier than English , give 100% of you and one day you’ll speak somali and you can walk in djibouti without help, buy something in the souk without help !!

    And sorry for my English lol

  33. Houssein March 3, 2015 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Very good:) I do speak four languages and willing to learn more …As i always say its not about the language its about the people:) Good luck

  34. hassan ali mohamed May 13, 2015 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    hello rachel I’m from somalia specially the southern really you are doing great job for introducing our gestures what is in your article use every somali speaker there is no limit after that I’m going to add one gesture that is :::When you shake your head side to side do you what it means!? it means No No in somali language we say I IIIIIH

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  36. mohamed September 19, 2015 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Actually Rachel i know u are much much more better than some Somalis when it comes to (Somali language) they only know how to speak it with different dialects but for sure they can’t translate/describe the real meaning of the Somali gestures as u have explaining to us in your article and thanks for that.

    there’s a saying, which says “the more u read the more u know” read a lot and a lot u will know more insha Allah (if Allah wills ).

    and don’t give a sh*t every random person asks you, why and the reason behind learning Somali language.

    language is a language which can be learned by every individual/everyone, so no question to asked about that.

    Are people asked why they learn English by the English native speakers? the answer is “NO”so as well as Somali now. thanks for your article once again.

  37. ashozyaayeen September 25, 2015 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    plz add some more

  38. Moursal October 9, 2015 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    As a natural somali speaker I want to congratulate you for your analytic sense. This is huge tribute to Somali’s culture.
    “Before I studied it, it seemed like every group of Somalis I saw speaking together were on the verge of a brawl” that’s definitely so True.
    One more time congratulations.

  39. […] learn a little language. Doesn’t have to be a lot. But why not learn some greetings, some leave takings, how are you, […]

  40. Mohamed June 22, 2016 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    Ive seen all of these actions but never really took a moment to realize there actual meanings. This was so helpful! Thanks Rachel.

  41. Mike August 6, 2016 at 3:26 am - Reply

    I wish the somalis here in Mpls devoted as much time to learning English as you do their language.
    Then again, they don’t seem to appreciate anything America offers.

  42. Muhamett Somali August 22, 2017 at 10:46 am - Reply

    if you are not a real somali…
    I am a real somali person Live in Mudug ( The Best region that Somali Languages Speak) , Somali languages is so funny language ..It has More Than 4million Vocabularies..May there a word that have similarly other 7 words meaning each other ..
    its writting system is so near to english i mean somali is a latin as writing system , somali writing is so easy.
    if are somali or studied this language u can learn the most hard languages such as arabic and chines easily.
    Enlish ,arabic , Somali has similarly words in meaning..E.g in somali Shaambo( Shampo) and arabic is Also.

    I’m sure somali Grammar is best language to learn ,have u seen somalis in your City ..say Only “Please Speak Somali Language in 1 minute , i’m sure u will be Happy To listen that words..
    Somali is so easy ..but there are some words that The Learners cant Said as best E.g the word “X” in somali is hard for learners Except arabs bcoze of Arabic has Similar Pronounced word .

    Read For This Passage.

    Waan ku soo booqday , Hase ahaatee waan ku waayey , waxaad tahay qof Xun , maxaa yeelay waad i wacaday mana aadan isugi
    Hahaa thanx u

    • Marija November 16, 2017 at 12:18 am - Reply

      Waryaa.Is ka warran??:))Ma nabad baa?:DMy name is Marija,i am fascinated by Somalia and by the Somali language.I started learning Somali very recently because i love how your language sounds.But i dont think Somali is easy.On the other hand,i think your language is very,very,very difficult,complex,and very,very,very weird ,especially,grammatically:D.And i see your language quite more weird and strange than Arabic or Amharic,for example,especially,grammatically:D,but at the same time,fascinating.:D

  43. Dianne Wildman March 1, 2018 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    Love the non-verbal lesson, Rachel, thanks. I was in the Peace Corps in Micronesia back in the Pleistocene Age. I learned Chamorro, the language of the Northern Mariana Islands. I love languages and tried hard to become fluent but realized I needed the non-verbals too. Examples: “Where it is?” Point with the chin, not the fingers. “Do you want to come with us?” (or any yes or no question…):
    Don’t move the head, just use the eyebrows – a quick lift – for yes. For no – make a scrunched up angry eyebrows face for just a split second and do a tiny head shake, almost a spasm. That’s just an ordinary no though for a moment it looks like a mini-declaration of war. Someone mentioned intake of air for affirmations. I saw (I mean, heard) that too, though I first noticed it in Switzerland as an exchange student. My French-speaking mother gasped so much that at first I thought she was asthmatic. She was just politely answering my questions. The list goes on in any language, any culture, which is just another reason to live abroad. Your fan, Dianne

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