Somali is classified within the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family, specifically, Lowland East Cushitic
in addition to Afar
Somali is the best-documented Cushitic language,
with academic studies of the language dating back to the late 19th century.
Somali is the second most widely spoken Cushitic language after Oromo
As of 2020, there were approximately 18.63 million speakers of Somali, spread in Greater Somalia
of which around 7.8 million resided in Somalia.
The language is spoken by an estimated 95% of the country's inhabitants,
and also by a majority of the population in Djibouti.
Constitutionally, Somali and Arabic
are the two official languages
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
("The October Star") was nationalized, renamed to Xiddigta Oktoobar
, and began publishing in Somali.
The state-run Radio Mogadishu
has also broadcast in Somali since 1943.
Additionally, the regional public networks the Puntland TV and Radio
and Somaliland National TV
, as well as Eastern Television Network
and Horn Cable Television
, among other private broadcasters, air programs in Somali.
Somali is recognized as an official working language in the Somali Region
Although it is not an official language of Djibouti
, it constitutes a major national language there. Somali is used in television and radio broadcasts,
with the government-operated Radio Djibouti
transmitting programs in the language from 1943 onwards.
The Kenya Broadcasting Corporation also broadcasts in the Somali language in its Iftin FM Programmes. Afsoomali is spoken in North Eastern Kenya
The Somali language is regulated by the Regional Somali Language Academy
, an intergovernmental institution established in June 2013 in Djibouti City
by the governments of Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia. It is officially mandated with preserving the Somali language.
Distribution of Somali dialectal groups in the Horn of Africa
Somali linguistic varieties are broadly divided into three main groups: Northern
. Northern Somali
) forms the basis for Standard Somali.
It is spoken by more than 85% of the entire Somali population,
with its speech area stretching from Djibouti
, Somali Region
, Northern Frontier District
to most parts of Somalia
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
Lamberti subdivides Northern Somali is into three dialects: Northern Somali proper (spoken in the northwest; he describes this dialect as Northern Somali in the proper sense), the Darod group (spoken in the northeast and along the eastern Ethiopia frontier; greatest number of speakers overall), and the Lower Juba group (spoken by northern Somali settlers in the southern riverine areas).
Speech sample in Standard Somali (an Islamic discourse containing many Arabic loanwords)
Northern Somali (Nsom) dialect subgroups
There are other languages that are spoken in Somalia which are not necessarily Afsoomali. They may be a mixture of the Somali Languages and other indigenous Languages. Such a Language is Maay and is principally spoken by the Digil and Mirifle (Rahanweyn
or Sab) clans in the southern regions of Somalia.
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
Maay is not mutually comprehensible with Northern Somali, and it differs in sentence structure and phonology.
It is also not generally used in education or media. However, Maay speakers often use Standard Somali as a lingua franca,
which is learned via mass communications, internal migration and urbanization.
Maay is not closely related with the Somali language in sentence structure and phonology is spoken by Jiddu
varieties 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 but are not Somali. 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.
The degree of divergence is comparable to that between Spanish
Of the Digil varieties, Jiddu is the most incomprehensible to Benadir and Northern speakers.
Despite these linguistic differences, Somali speakers collectively view themselves as speaking a common language.
These assumptions however has been contested by a more recent study by Deqa Hassan that tested the mutual intelligibility between Af-Maay and Af-Maxaa speakers (Northern Somali).
The study found that Af-Maay is partially mutually intelligible to Af-Maxaa (Northern Speakers) and that intelligibility increases with increased understanding of Standard Somali. Which implies understanding of standard Somali (Northern Somali) increases the chance of understanding Af-Maay. This accounts for the most significant linguistic factor that ties both language variations together. Furthermore Af-Maay is categorized as a Type 5 dialect for the overlapping common cultural history it shares with Af Maxaa speakers which explains its somewhat mutual intelligibility.
The consonants /b d̪ ɡ/ often weaken to [β ð ɣ] intervocalically.
The retroflex plosive /ɖ/ may have an implosive quality for some speakers, and intervocalically it can be realized as the flap [ɽ].
Some speakers produce /ħ/ with epiglottal trilling
/q/ is often epiglottalized
The language has five basic vowels
. Each has 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. Vowels harmonize within a harmonic group, so all vowels within the group must either be front or back. The Somali orthography does not distinguish between the front and back variants of vowels, however, as there are few minimal pairs.
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
Andrzejewski (1954) posits that Somali is a tonal language,
whereas Banti (1988) suggests that it is a pitch accent language.
Somali is an agglutinative
language, and also shows properties of inflection
. Affixes mark many grammatical meanings, including aspect, tense and case.
Somali has 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
Changes in pitch are used for grammatical rather than lexical purposes.
This includes distinctions of gender, number and case.
In some cases, these distinctions are marked by tone alone (e.g. Ínan
, "boy"; inán
Somali has two sets of pronouns: independent (substantive, emphatic) pronouns and clitic (verbal) pronouns.
The independent pronouns behave grammatically as nouns, and normally occur with the suffixed article -ka/-ta (e.g. adiga
This article may be omitted after a conjunction or focus word. For example, adna
meaning "and you..." (from adi
Clitic pronouns are attached to the verb and do not take nominal morphology.
Somali marks clusivity
in the first person plural pronouns; this is also found in a number of other East Cushitic languages, such as Rendille
As in various other Afro-Asiatic languages, Somali is characterized by polarity of gender
, whereby plural nouns usually take the opposite gender agreement
of their singular forms.
For example, the plural of the masculine noun dibi
("bull") is formed by converting it into feminine dibi
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.
Somali is a subject–object–verb
It is largely head final
, with postpositions
and with obliques preceding verbs.
These are common features of the Cushitic and Semitic Afroasiatic languages spoken in the Horn region (e.g. Amharic
However, Somali noun phrases are head-initial, whereby the noun precedes its modifying adjective.
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.
Somali uses three focus
, which generally mark new information or contrastive emphasis. Baa
require the focused element to occur preverbally, while waxa(a)
may be used following the verb.
Somali language books on display.
can be divided into those derived from other Afroasiatic languages (mainly Arabic), and those of Indo-European
extraction (mainly Italian).
Somali's main lexical borrowings come from Arabic, and are estimated to constitute about 20% of the language's vocabulary.
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
Soravia (1994) noted a total of 1,436 Arabic loanwords in Agostini a.o. 1985,
a prominent 40,000-entry Somali dictionary.
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.
In addition, the majority of personal names are derived from Arabic.
The Somali language also contains a few Indo-European loanwords that were retained from the colonial period.
Most of these lexical borrowings come from English
and are used to describe new objects or modern concepts (e.g. telefishen-ka
, "television"; raadia-ha
There are as well 300 directly Romance
loans, such as garawati
for "tie" (from the Italian cravatta
Indeed, the most used loanwords from the Italian are "ciao" as a friendly salute, "dimuqraadi" from Italian "democratico" (democratic), "mikroskoob" from "microscopio” (microscope), "Jalaato" from "gelato" (ice cream), "baasto" from "pasta" (pasta), "bataate" from "patate" (potato), "bistoolad" from "pistol" (pistol), "fiyoore" from "fiore" (flower) and "injinyeer" from "ingegnere" (engineer).
Somalis call their calendar months as Soon, soonfur, siditaal, carafa....but these changed recently[when?]
. Furthermore, all the months in Somali language are now loaned words from the Italian, like "Febraayo" that comes from "febbraio" (February)
Additionally, Somali contains lexical terms from Persian
that were acquired through historical trade with communities in the Near East
and South Asia
"cucumber" from Persian
Some of these words were also borrowed indirectly via Arabic.
As part of a broader governmental effort to ensure and safeguard the primacy of the Somali language, the past few decades have 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.
writing script for Somali.
and research in Somalia uncovered ancient inscriptions
in a distinct writing system
In an 1878 report to the Royal Geographical Society
of Great Britain, scientist Johann Maria 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."
According to Somalia's Ministry of Information and National Guidance, this script represents the earliest written attestation of Somali.
Besides Ahmed's Latin script, other orthographies that have been used for centuries for writing the Somali language include the long-established Arabic script
and Wadaad writing
According to Bogumił Andrzejewski
, this usage was limited to Somali clerics and their associates, as sheikhs preferred to write in the liturgical Arabic language. Various such historical manuscripts in Somali nonetheless exist, which mainly consist of Islamic poems (qasidas
), recitations and chants.
Among these texts are the Somali poems by Sheikh Uways and Sheikh Ismaaciil Faarah. The rest of the existing historical literature in Somali principally consists of translations of documents from Arabic.
Since then a number of writing systems have been used for transcribing the Somali language. Of these, the Somali Latin alphabet
, officially adopted in 1972, is the most widely used and recognised as official orthography of the state.
The script was developed by a number of leading scholars of Somali, including Musa Haji Ismail Galal
, B. W. Andrzejewski
and Shire Jama Ahmed
specifically for transcribing the Somali language, and uses all letters of the English Latin alphabet except p
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.
Days of the week
Months of the year
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Wikivoyage has a phrasebook for Somali
Last edited on 30 April 2021, at 05:09
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