Somali is an extraordinarily rich and expressive language, and poetry is a national passion. Though Somali is the official language, it has many dialects. The most prominent is the Digil/Raxanweyn dialect spoken in the south; this language is very different from standard Somali, though most dialect speakers also know both. Many Somalis also speak Arabic, which is taught in schools as part of Islamic instruction. Older or university-educated Somalis may also speak English or Italian. English classes have recently become more popular in cities.

Somalis formerly used Arabic for writing. Although Somali has a long oral history, it had no orthography or writing system until 1972, when a Latin alphabet was adopted. Somali has now replaced English and Italian as the language for government and education.

While English uses images based on farming, ("plant an idea in someone's head" or "stubborn as an ox"), Somalis use images based on camel herding. For example, a fleet of government cars is called a gaadiid, which also means burden-bearing camels. The word laylis means student workbook exercises as well as exercises used to train young camels.

Somali proverbs play an important role in everyday communication, and people tend to use them frequently. Aqoon la’aani waa iftiin la’aan means "To be without knowledge is to be without light." Other proverbs are "An old wound will not go away" and "Think before you act."

Somalis like to shake hands, but may not welcome a handshake from a stranger. Muslims shake hands only with people of the same sex.

English Somali
Hello Iskawavan/Selauyahay
Good morning Subax wanaagsan
Goodbye nabaday
Thank you mahadsanid
You’re welcome adamudau
How are you? Iska warran

  Did you know?
Somalis have three names: their given name, followed by their father’s and grandfather’s names. Because of the clan system, many people have very similar names. Many Somalis also have a nickname (called a naanays) that is based on the individual’s time of birth, birth order, or appearance. For example, a person whose birth was delayed is named Raage.