|Native to||Somalia, Somaliland,1 Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen, Kenya|
|Region||Horn of Africa|
|Native speakers||17 million (2006–2009)2|
|Writing system||Somali alphabet (Latin script)
Wadaad writing (Arabic script)
|Official language in||Somalia|
|Recognised minority language in|| Djibouti
|Regulated by||Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education|
Primary Somali speech area
Somali //3 (Af-Soomaali) is an Afro-Asiatic language, belonging to that family's Cushitic branch. It is spoken as a mother tongue by ethnic Somalis in Greater Somalia and the Somali diaspora. Somali is an official language of the Federal Republic of Somalia, a working language in the Somali region of Ethiopia, and a national language in Djibouti. It is used as an adoptive language by a few neighboring ethnic minority groups and individuals.
Somali is classified within the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, specifically as Lowland East Cushitic along with Afar and Saho.4 Somali is the best-documented Cushitic language,5 with academic studies of it dating back to the late 19th century.6
The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, and by the Somali diaspora. It is also spoken as an adoptive language by a few ethnic minority groups and individuals in these areas.
As of 2006, there were approximately 16.6 million speakers of Somali, of which about 8.3 million resided in Somalia.8 The language is spoken by an estimated 95% of the country's inhabitants,6 and also by a majority of the population in Djibouti.9
Following the start of the civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s, the Somali-speaking diaspora increased in size, with newer Somali speech communities forming in parts of the Middle East, North America and Europe.8
Constitutionally, Somali and Arabic are the two official languages of Somalia.10 Somali has been an official national language since January 1973, when the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) declared it the Somali Democratic Republic's primary language of administration and education. Somali was thereafter established as the main language of academic instruction in forms 1 through 4, following preparatory work by the government-appointed Somali Language Committee. It later expanded to include all 12 forms in 1979. In 1972, the SRC adopted a Latin orthography as the official national alphabet over several other writing scripts that were then in use. Concurrently, the Italian-language daily newspaper Stella d'Ottobre was nationalized, renamed to Xiddigta Oktoobar ("The October Star"), and began publishing in Somali.11 The state-run Radio Mogadishu has also broadcast in Somali since 1943.12
Additionally, Somali is recognized as an official working language in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.13 Although it is not an official language of Djibouti, it constitutes a major national language there. Somali is used in television and radio broadcasts,146 with the government-operated Radio Djibouti transmitting programs in the language from 1943 onwards.12
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|Culture of Somalia|
Somali linguistic varieties are divided into three main groups: Northern, Benadir and Maay. Northern Somali (or Northern-Central Somali) forms the basis for Standard Somali,15 particularly the Mudug dialect of the northern Darod. It is today spoken in an area stretching from northern Somalia to parts of the eastern and southwestern sections of the country.16 This widespread modern distribution is a result of a long series of southward population movements over the past ten centuries from the Gulf of Aden littoral.17 Northern Somali has frequently been used by famous Somali poets as well as the political elite, and thus has the most prestige out of the Somali dialects.18
Benadir (also known as Coastal Somali) is spoken on the central Indian Ocean seaboard, including Mogadishu. It forms a relatively large group. The dialect is fairly mutually intelligible with Northern Somali.19
Maay is principally spoken by the Digil and Mirifle (Rahanweyn or Sab) clans in the southern regions of Somalia.15 Its speech area extends from the southwestern border with Ethiopia to a region close to the coastal strip between Mogadishu and Kismayo, including the city of Baidoa.19 Maay is not mutually comprehensible with Northern Somali or Benadir, and it differs considerably in sentence structure and phonology.20 It is also not generally used in education or media. However, Maay speakers often use Standard Somali as a lingua franca,19 which is learned via mass communications, internal migration and urbanization.20
Maay is closely related with the Jiido, Dabarre, Garre and Tunni languages that are also spoken by smaller Rahanweyn communities. Collectively, these languages present similarities with Oromo that are not found in mainstream Somali. Chief among these is the lack of pharyngeal sounds in the Rahanweyn/Digil and Mirifle languages, features which by contrast typify Somali. The retroflex /ɖ/ is also replaced by /r/ in some positions. Although in the past frequently classified as dialects of Somali, more recent research by the linguist Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi has shown that these varieties, including Maay, constitute separate Cushitic languages. They may thus represent traces of an Oromo substratum in the southern Rahanweyn confederacy.21
The consonants /b d̪ q/ often weaken to /β ð ɣ/ intervocalically.25 The retroflex plosive /ɖ/ may have an implosive quality for some speakers, and intervocalically it can be realized as the flap /ɽ/.25 Some speakers produce /ħ/ with epiglottal trilling.26 /q/ is often epiglottalized.27
The language has five basic vowel sounds. Each possesses a front and back variation as well as long or short versions. This gives a distinct 20 pure vowel sounds. It also exhibits three tones: high, low and falling.
The syllable structure of Somali is (C)V(C). Root morphemes usually have a mono- or di-syllabic structure.
Pitch is phonemic in Somali, but it is debated whether Somali is a pitch accent or tonal language.28 Abdullahi (2000), the most recent work exclusively on the subject, proposes that Somali is not a tonal language.29
|Subject pronouns||Object pronouns|
|3. Sing. m.||isagu||uu||isaga||(u)|
|3. Sing. f.||iyadu||ay||iyada||(u)|
|1. Pl. (inclusive)||innagu||aynu||innaga||ina/inoo|
|1. Pl. (exclusive)||annagu||aannu||annaga||na/noo|
Somali evinces an old prefixal verbal inflection restricted to four common verbs, with all other verbs undergoing inflection by more obvious suffixation. This general pattern is similar to the stem alternation that typifies Cairene Arabic.31
Changes in pitch are used for grammatical rather than lexical purposes.32 This includes distinctions of gender, number and case.32 In some cases, these distinctions are marked by tone alone (e.g. ĺnan, "boy"; inán, "girl").33
Somali has two sets of pronouns: independent (substantive, emphatic) pronouns and clitic (verbal) pronouns.34 The independent pronouns behave grammatically as nouns, and normally occur with the suffixed article -ka/-ta (e.g. adiga, "you").34 This article may be omitted after a conjunction or focus word. For example, adna meaning "and you..." (from adi-na).34 Clitic pronouns are attached to the verb and do not take nominal morphology.35 Somali marks clusivity in the 1st person plural pronouns; this is also found in a number of other East Cushitic languages, such as Rendille and Dhaasanac.36
As in various other Afro-Asiatic languages, Somali has gender polarity whereby plural nouns usually take the opposite gender agreement of their singular forms.3738 For example, the plural of the masculine noun dibi ("bull") is formed by converting it into feminine dibi.37 Somali is unusual among the world's languages in that the object is unmarked for case while the subject is marked, though this feature is found in other Cushitic languages such as Oromo.39
Somali is a subject–object–verb (SOV) language.8 It is largely head final, with postpositions and with obliques preceding verbs.40 These are common features of the Cushitic and Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in the Horn region (e.g. Amharic).41 However, Somali noun phrases are head-initial, whereby the noun precedes its modifying adjective.4240 This pattern of general head-finality with head-initial noun phrases is also found in other Cushitic languages (e.g. Oromo), but not generally in Ethiopian Semitic languages.4043
Somali uses three focus markers: baa, ayaa and waxa(a), which generally mark new information or contrastive emphasis.44 Baa and ayaa require the focused element to occur preverbally, while waxa(a) may be used following the verb.45
Somali's main lexical borrowings come from Arabic, and are estimated to constitute about 20% of the language's vocabulary.47 This is a legacy of the Somali people's extensive social, cultural, commercial and religious links and contacts with nearby populations in the Arabian peninsula. Arabic loanwords are most commonly used in religious, administrative and education-related speech (e.g. aamiin for "faith in God"), though they are also present in other areas (e.g. kubbad-da, "ball").46 Soravia (1994) noted a total of 1,436 Arabic loanwords in Agostini a.o. 1985,48 a prominent 40,000-entry Somali dictionary.18 Most of the terms consisted of commonly used nouns. These lexical borrowings may have been more extensive in the past since a few words that Zaborski (1967:122) observed in the older literature were absent in Agostini's later work.48 In addition, the majority of personal names are derived from Arabic.49
The Somali language also contains a few Indo-European loanwords that were retained from the colonial period.11 Most of these lexical borrowings come from English and are used to describe new objects or concepts (e.g. televishen-ka, "television"; raadia-ha, "radio").50 There are as well some Romance loans, such as garawati for "tie" (from the Italian cravatta), and bilyeti-ga for "ticket" (from the French billet).50
Additionally, Somali contains lexical terms from Persian, Urdu and Hindi that were acquired through historical trade with communities in the Near East and South Asia (e.g. khiyaar for cucumber, from the Persian khiyar).50 Some of these words were also borrowed indirectly via Arabic.5051
As part of a broader governmental effort to ensure and safeguard the primacy of the Somali language, the past few decades has seen a push in Somalia toward replacement of loanwords in general with their Somali equivalents or neologisms. To this end, the Supreme Revolutionary Council during its tenure officially prohibited the borrowing and use of English and Italian terms.11
Archaeological excavations and research in Somalia uncovered ancient inscriptions in a distinct writing script.52 In an 1878 report to the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, scientist J.M. Hildebrandt noted upon visiting the area that "we know from ancient authors that these districts, at present so desert, were formerly populous and civilised[...] I also discovered ancient ruins and rock-inscriptions both in pictures and characters[...] These have hitherto not been deciphered."53 According to Somalia's Ministry of Information and National Guidance, this script represents the earliest written attestation of Somali.52
Since then a number of writing systems have been used for transcribing the language. Of these, the Somali Latin alphabet is the most widely used.54 The script was developed by the Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed specifically for the Somali language, and uses all letters of the English Latin alphabet except p, v and z. There are no diacritics or other special characters except the use of the apostrophe for the glottal stop, which does not occur word-initially. There are three consonant digraphs: DH, KH and SH. Tone is not marked, and front and back vowels are not distinguished.
Besides Ahmed's Latin script, other orthographies that have been used for centuries for writing Somali include the long-established Arabic script and Wadaad's writing.55 Indigenous writing systems developed in the twentieth century include the Osmanya, Borama and Kaddare scripts, which were invented by Osman Yusuf Kenadid, Sheikh Abdurahman Sheikh Nuur and Hussein Sheikh Ahmed Kaddare, respectively.56
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- Not internationally recognized. See List of sovereign states
- Somali reference at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
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- Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Volume 22, "Mr. J. M. Hildebrandt on his Travels in East Africa", (Edward Stanford: 1878), p. 447.
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