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Somali Language and cultures May 2006

I am Abdurrashid, and I train Somali interpreters. My fondness for Somali language and culture prompted me to write this article. I hope that – through the information I am here including – to be able to give you a brief idea about this beautiful language, where it is spoken, its different dialects, its script, and its grammar. Since language lives through literature – oral and written – I would also like to talk briefly about Somali poetry and songs. In addition, I will introduce you to the very private world of Somalis: the body language they use to communicate among themselves, which might confuse people who do not belong to their culture. Here you go…

Somali belongs to a group of languages called “lowland” Eastern Cushitic spoken by peoples living in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Eastern Cushitic is one section of the Cushitic language family, which in turn is part of the greater Afro- Asiatic stock. It is most closely related to the Afar and Oromo Languages, and distantly related to Arabic and other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Amharic. Since the arrival of Islam, though, Somali has been heavily influenced by Arabic, as a large number of words have been borrowed from the latter. It has also borrowed some words from other languages like English and Italian, particularly during colonial times.

Somali is spoken mostly in Somalia and Djibouti. It is found in eastern Ethiopia, and sparsely in the north-eastern regions of Kenya. Yet, Somali speakers are found all over the world because of the Somali civil war. There are Somali communities in East African countries, Middle East, the whole of Europe, North America and Australia, just to mention a few. Somali speakers are estimated around 15 to 25 million around the world.

Somali presents two main variations: Mahatiri and Maay. The first is the most widely used in Somalia and some in parts of Somalia’s neighboring countries. It is also the language of media. The term Mahatiri also applies to several sub-dialects, the speakers of which can understand each other easily. One of those dialects is “Coastal Somali” or Banaadiri, which is spoken on the Banaadir Coast (from Adale to the south of Baraawe) and its immediate hinterland. As for the latter, (otherwise known as Maay-Maay), it is spoken chiefly by members of the Rahanweyn clan. Maay is not readily intelligible to speakers of Mahatiri and vice versa. Yet, some Maay speakers learn to speak Mahatiri through social interaction, urbanization, schooling, and internal movements.

In southern Somalia, several small ethno-linguistic dialects like Jiiddu, Dabarre, Garre, Mushunguli and Tunni are to be found. Speakers of Maay find it difficult to understand speakers of these dialects. On the other hand, most of the speakers of those languages can speak either Mahatiri or Maay.

The Somali language had no official written alphabet before 1972 (apart from occasional proposals, such as Osmania script created in the 1920s). The government later introduced the Latin alphabet apparently to promote literacy. This renders Somali different from the languages spoken in neighboring areas, which either still


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