Somali language

Somali language

nativename=af Soomaali
states=Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen, Kenya and the Somali community in the Middle East, Europe and North America.
speakers=12-20 million native speakers and at least 500,000 second language speakers.
script=Arabic,Osmanya script,Latin

Somali ( _so. "Af Soomaali", _ar. الصوماليه) is a member of the East Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, as well as by the Somali diaspora around the world -- an estimated total population of between 10 and 16 million speakers.

In 1972, Somali was declared the official language of Somalia. It is used in education, administration and the media.


Somali is an Afro-Asiatic language, of the East Cushitic branch. It is most closely related to Afar and Oromo. Compared with other Cushitic languages, Somali is relatively well-documented, with academic studies of the language dating from around 1900.

Geographic Distribution

The exact number of speakers of Somali is unknown. One source estimates that there are 7.78 million speakers of Somali in Somalia itself and 12.65 million speakers globally. [ Ethnologue: Somalia]] A population estimate made by the Dutch Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht puts the Somali population somewhere between 10 and 15 million. [ SOMALIA historical demographic data of the whole country] Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht] Combined with a large international expatriate community, it is difficult to get a specific number of Somali speakers, but somewhere between 10 and 16 million worldwide seems a reasonable estimate.

Official status

Somali was the national language of Somalia from 1972, gaining official status with standardization (Standard Somali) and the adoption of the Latin alphabet, developed under orders of then president Siad Barre. After the collapse of the central Somali government in the Somali civil war in the 1990s, Somali has remained an official language or "de facto" national language of the various regional governments such as Somaliland and Puntland.


Somali dialects are divided into three main groups: Northern, Benaadir and Maay. Northern Somali (or Northern-Central Somali) forms the basis for Standard Somali. Benaadir (also known as Coastal Somali) is spoken on the Benadir Coast from Cadale to south of Marka, including Mogadishu, and in the immediate hinterland. The coastal dialects have additional phonemes which do not exist in Standard Somali.

The Digil and Mirifle clans (sometimes called Rahanweyn) live in the southern areas of Somalia. Recent research (Diriye Abdullahi, 2000) has shown that, although previously classified with Somali, their languages and dialects are incomprehensible to many Somali speakers. The most important language of the Digil and Mirifle is Maay. Other languages in this category are Jiido, Dabare, Garre, and Central Tunni. Of all these, Jiido is the most incomprehensible to Somali speakers. One important aspect in which the languages of the Digil and Mirifle differ from Somali is the lack of pharyngeal sounds. The retroflex IPA|/ɖ/ is also replaced by IPA|/r/ in some positions.


Somali has 22 consonant phonemes, with at least one in every place of articulation described on the IPA chart, except epiglottal. It has five basic vowel sounds, each having a front and back variation, as well as long or short versions, giving distinct 20 pure vowel sounds. It also exhibits three tones: high, low and falling.


Somali is an agglutinative language, using a number of markers for case, gender and number. Characteristic differences between Somali and most Indo-European languages include multiple forms of most personal pronouns, the use of particles to signify the focus of a sentence, extensive use of tone to denote differences in case and number and gender polarity, a phenomenon where the plural form of a word is the opposite gender of the singular.


Somali contains a number of loan words from Arabic and Persian, as well as from the former colonial languages English and Italian. As the Somalis are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, Somali has borrowed much religious terminology from Arabic, although there are also Persian or Arabic loan words for everyday objects (e.g. Somali "albab-ka" (the door), from the Arabic الباب "al baab").

A large number of neologisms were created after Somali was made the official language in 1972, to cope with concepts used in government and education.

Writing system

The Somali Latin alphabet used since 1972 was developed specifically for the Somali language using all letters of the English Latin alphabet except P, V and Z. There are no diacritics or other special characters, although it includes 3 consonant digraphs: DH, KH and SH. Tone is not marked, front and back vowels are not distinguished, and a word-initial glottal stop is not shown. Capital letters are used at the beginning of a sentence and for proper names.

A number of other scripts have been used for writing Somali in the past, most notable of which is Osmanya, which served as the official writing script in Somalia for quite a number of years. The Borama script and Wadaad's writing were also used to write down the Somali language.


Before the colonial period, educated Somalis and religious fraternities either wrote in Arabic or used an ad hoc transliteration of Somali into Arabic script. Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's letter to a scholar, betraying him to the colonial powers, was in Arabic. The Qur'an was taught throughout Somalia, so children were exposed to the Arabic alphabet from a young age. Material discovered in 1940, mainly ancient letters and tomb inscriptions, demonstrates that the Somali language was written with the Arabic alphabet, like the Urdu and Persian languages. But this was not certainly "codified", and questions remain about the extent of its use.

A number of attempts had been made from the 1920s onwards to standardize the language using a number of different alphabets. Pamphlets explaining the new standardization were released to the public in a soccer stadium in Mogadishu on October 10, 1972.

The first comprehensive dictionaries were produced in 1976, the "Qaamuus kooban ee af Soomaali ah" and "Qaamuuska Af-Soomaaliga". Civil servants were required to pass language proficiency exams and in the "rural literacy campaign" students were sent to rural areas to teach others the new script. Reportedly, by 1978 the majority of Somalis were literate, the fastest development of literacy in the history of Africa, although in recent times the civil war and resulting breakup of central control of Somalia has seen a decline in literacy and a stagnation of cultural development in the language.

ee also

*Afro-Asiatic languages
*Osmanya script
*Borama script
*Wadaad's writing


*Diriye Abdullahi, Mohamed. 2000. "Le Somali, dialectes et histoire". Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Montréal.
*Saeed, John Ibrahim. 1987. "Somali Reference Grammar." Springfield, VA: Dunwoody Press.
*Saeed, John Ibrahim. 1999. "Somali". Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Further reading

* L.E. Armstrong. 1964. "The phonetic structure of Somali," "Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen Berlin" 37/3:116-161.
* C.R.V. Bell. 1953. "The Somali Language". London: Longmans, Green & Co.
* Jörg Berchem. 1991. "Referenzgrammatik des Somali". Köln: Omimee.
* G.R. Cardona. 1981. "Profilo fonologico del somalo," "Fonologia e lessico". Ed. G.R. Cardona & F. Agostini. Rome: Dipartimento per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo; Comitato Tecnico Linguistico per l'Universita Nazionale Somala, Ministero degli Affari Esteri. Volume 1, pages 3-26.
* Elena Z. Dobnova. 1990. "Sovremennyj somalijskij jazyk". Moskva: Nauka.
* Annarita Puglielli. 1997. "Somali Phonology," "Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Volume 1". Ed. Alan S. Kaye. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. Pages 521-535.

External links

* [ Ethnologue report on Somali]
* [ Comprehensive Somali-English Dictionary]
* [ Somali - English Dictionary]
* [ Omniglot page on Osmanya and the Somali Latin alphabet]
* [ Osmanya considered for the Universal Character Set]
* [ PanAfrican L10n page on Somali]
* [ The Somali Language Page: The resources, the links, the information on the Somali language.]


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