Monday, May 29, 2017
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The Somali Language

By Mohamed Abdikadir (Stanza)

The official language of Somalia and Somali people is the Somali language and it belongs to the Cushitic Afro-Asiatic languages. It is written from left to right in Latin characters. It is a language that is rich in literature, as national and international linguists discovered through multiple linguistic and literary studies. The official orthography of the Somali language was declared in 1973 by the Supreme Revolutionary Council, under the auspices of President Bare–the then Somali military ruler. From that time, no real changes have been made to the Somali script.

The Somali language is divided into two parts: Hadal iyo Howraar–prose and poetry, which is also known as Tix iyo Tiraab. Tix means poetry and Tiraab means prose. Tix and Howraar are synonyms; while Tiraab and Hadal are their antonyms. It shares this categorisation with all the standardised languages in the world. Sarbeeb (idiom), murti (wisdom) and maahmaah (proverb) belong to the Tiraab branch of the modern Somali language. There are handful Somali linguists who claim that maahmaah belongs to the poetry branch of Somali language. Their claim is very weak because they are confused by the alliteration that is plenty in the language. As a researcher, I sturdily disagree with them and personally believe that maahmaah belongs to the prose part of the Somali language as idioms. Somali language is among the proverbially rich global major languages as shown by studies.

Somali language is the native mother tongue of the Somali people in the Horn of Africa, regardless of their geopolitical destination. The closest language to Somali language is the Oromo language which is spoken by the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. I believe that the two languages diverged due to chronological metamorphosis as a result of some foreign exposure and influences. The similar genesis of these two languages needs farther studies and analysis which I recommend to be done for linguistic benefit and literary gains for African studies.

Comparison of Somali language Grammar with Other Languages

The adjective of the Somali language comes after the noun it describes like the Arabic language. For example, in Somali we say: gabadh quruxsan. In Arabic they say بنت جميلة   and in English they say: beautiful girl. As you can see, the word quruxsan is an adjective which adds more meaning to the noun gabadh (gabar) which is a noun that the adjective describes. But when dealing with numbers, the Somali quantifiers precede the noun. For example, in Somali language, we say: hal qof ah. In English they say: one person. In Arabic they say: شخص واحد and in Kiswahili they say: mtu mmoja. In number modification, the Somali and English share grammatical structure because their numeral modifiers precede the noun while Arabic and Kiswahili share grammatical forms because their numeral modifiers are placed after the noun they modify or denote. Further studies are needed for the common linguistic appreciation of the speakers of the above said languages, especially the Somali grammatical structures and syntactic analysis.

Alliteration of the Somali language

Somali is an alliterative language, both in prose and poetry, for example, in prose when comparing two things Somalis use alliteration as in marasho iyo masruuf (dressing and feeding). Dhib iyo dheef (adventure and achievement). Kas iyo kama’ (intentional and accident). Bar iyo beer (livestock and farming). Lur iyo laxaw (plight and pain). Abti iyo aysin (maternal relatives and paternal relatives). Laf iyo lud (bone and flesh). Mag iyo mowlalaxa (compensation and blood money). Bur iyo biyo (solid and solvent). Galti iyo guri (upstart and aborigine). Maskax iyo muruq (mind and muscle). Minjo iyo madax (followers and leaders). Kun iyo kow (thousands and one). Gar iyo gardarro (logic and illogic), etc.

Alliteration is called ‘xaraf-raac’ in Somali language and it is mainly used for easy remembrance. It is employed a lot by Somali elders when they are resolving and reconciling brewing conflict between two parts. It flowers their rhetoric influence.

This in mind, alliteration is also a sign of linguistic and literary richness, as a result of that, Somali is a very rich language that can compete with the major global languages, if it is developed by its speakers in the Horn of African nations. Both prose and poetry is alliterative in Somali language, as we have seen above. The first thing that can allow a Somali amateur critic to notice an error in a Somali poem is the misusage of the alliterative sound in it. This is a simple justification

The alphabets of the Written Somali language

Somali language has got twenty six letters. Out of the twenty six letters, twenty one are consonants that are known as ‘Shibbaneyaal’ and five are vowels which are known as ‘shaqallo.’ The Somali alphabets are scientifically categorised into shaqal (vowel) and shibbane (consonant.) There are two phonemes that are considered to be semi-vowels for some Somalis and they are /w/ and /y/.

Shibbanayaasha–Consonant Letters:


Shaqallada– Vowel Letters:

A E I O U.

Somali vowels are divided into two categories which are known as ‘shaqal-gaab’ (short vowels) and ‘shaqal-dheer’ (long vowels.) The above written shaqallo are shaqal-gaab but if they are doubled they are shaqal-dheer: AA EE II OO UU.

Somali Names with initial short vowels syllables:

Amran (name of a Somali girl), Ebyan (name of a Somali girl), Ibraahim (name of a Muslim man), Ollag (neighbour), and Ustar (type of an ancient riffle).

Somali Names with initial long vowel syllables:

Aabbe (father), Eebbe (God), Iidle (Somali male name), Oogga (dawn), and Uunka (creatures).

Phonetic Transcription of the Somali Consonants:

/ba’/, /ta’/, /ja’/, /xa’/, /kha’/, /da’/, /ra’/, /sa’/, /sha’/, /dha’/, /ca’/, /ga’/, /fa’/, /qa’/, /ka’/, /la’/, /ma’/, /na’/, /wa’/, /ha’/, /ya’/.

Bar /bar/, Baar /bar/, Kul /kul/, Kuul /kul/.

Phonetic Transcription of the Somali short vowels:

/a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/.

Ab /ab/, Il /il/, Og /og/, Ul /ul/.

Phonetic Transcription of Somali long vowels:

/aa/ /ee/ /ii/ /oo/ /uu/.

Aar /aar/, Een /een/, Iin /iin/, Oon /oon/, Uur /uur/.

The phonemes that are not found in Somali language:

/P//TH//V//Z/. These phonemes are aliens to Somali speakers. The name Paul is pronounced and written as Bool. The name Kauthar is pronounced and written as Kowsar. The name Val is written and pronounced as Faal. The name Zeinab is pronounced and written as Seynab. These missing phonemes influence the Somali students badly, when they start learning English as a second language at schools.

The Somali Letters which Confuse Foreigners

The phonemes C and X confuse foreign learners of Somali language. The pronunciations of these phonemes discourage many foreign students from learning Somali language. The name Abdi is written as Cabdi in Somali language. Hassan is written as Xasan in Somali language, so, the Somali /c/ stands for /a/ in English and the Somali /x/ stands for /h/ in English in terms of phonetics. In such case, one can claim that the Somali language is richer than the English language in phonemic pronunciation, because the phoneme /a/ plays its separate role and the phoneme /c/ plays its own role in Somali language; but in English they play one role. See the following examples to distinguish the phonemic sounds of the above said two letters that confuse alien learners of Somali language, as been mentioned before.

Cabdi is a Somali proper name written as Abdi in English. Aadan is a Somali proper name written as Aden in English. As you can see the initials of both names are one for the Englishman but separate for the Somali man. The phoneme (C) in Somali language is pronounced like the Arabic phoneme ع)) and the phoneme (X) is pronounced as the Arabic phoneme ح)). The phoneme (H) is pronounced in Somali as the Arabic phoneme ه)). As you can see, Somali language has X and H which are two different phonemes as in Xasan and Habboon. The Englishman will have the same initials for the two names as in Hassan and Habon. From this proof, one can firmly claim that Somali and Arabic languages have strong phonemic relationships. We can also claim that the Somali language is a regular language which is more organised compared or contrasted to other modern global languages. In English, the phoneme Z and the phoneme X sometimes have the same initial sounds as in Xerox and xenophobia. Under such situation, English can be said to be an irregular language which is outsmarted in phonemic organisation by the Somali language, as has been shown above. Without lionizing my mother tongue, I can personally state that the Somali language is a rich language that actively defended itself against the influence of the Arabic, English, French, and Italian languages which all tried to marginalize it, in one way or another, due to its uniqueness. It survived and held its positions over the years and it is still flourishing in its place.

The Seven Somali Consonants Which Are Doubled

In both Somali prose and poetry, there are seven consonants that are stressed by doubling them when they fall in the centre of two syllables. These letters are: /M//N//L//G//R//D//B/ and they are known for the acronym‘Ma nala garaad baa?’ See the examples to differentiate the right from the wrong: Amaah (wrong). Ammaah (right). Manaal (wrong). Mannaal (right). Galad (wrong). Gallad (right). Toga (wrong). Togga (right). Qorax (wrong). Qorrax (right). Wadan (wrong). Waddan (right). Rabi (wrong). Rabbi (right). If one wants correct use of Somali writing, one has to master these words.

NB: There are no homophones in Somali language because there is a rule which says, ‘Write as you pronounce and pronounce as you write,’ but unfortunately, the ‘civil-war-Somali-generations’ violate this rule and misspell words without knowing when to stress the above words correctly. They misuse their precise intonations unknowingly. Most of the Somali students who schooled in Somalia after the fall of the Somali central government don’t know the rules of the Somali language, because they were not taught the rudimentary rules of the Somali language at their weak schools.

When the country lost its national central authority in 1991, the Islamic movements in Somalia such as Al-Islah and Al-Itihad Al-Islam tried their best and founded basic schools with different syllabuses in the war-torn nation. Most of the Islamic schools had depended on the Arab world for funding and for syllabus; therefore, Somali pupils were taught the geography, history and literature of the Arab world. They were intellectually Arabized because there was no any other option for the schools since the lost nation had had no strong government to finance its academic syllabus and educational institutions nationwide. Somali youngsters in those schools almost lost half of their culture and they crammed the GHC–geography, history and civics of the Gulf States. They lost their rich Somali literature, geography and history. Most of the Somali school administrators and teaching staffs were educated at tertiary institutions in the Arab world, due to that, the medium of instruction for all those schools in the country became the Arabic language. We can say that was the time of Arabic language proliferation in the country as far as the history of Somalia is concerned, but it didn’t succeed in replacing Somali language. Learning Arabic is good for all Muslims as Arabic is the language of the Holy Qur’an. Despite this, it is the collective moral duty of the Somali people to protect their respective language.

Mohamed Abdikadir (Stanza)

The author is a published poet and novelist. Three of his books were published by Sudan Currency Printing Press in Khartoum with the endorsement of Sudanese authority and they are: ‘The Beaming Blood’ (novel), Single Kiss (poetic anthology in English) and Haldoor (poetic anthology in Somali). He holds Master Degree in Diplomatic Peace and Development Studies from Bahri University in Sudan and Bachelor Degree in English Language and Comparative Literature from Juba University in South Sudan. Currently, he is a lecturer of Conflict Resolution and Peace-building at Nugaal University Faculty of Community Development and Leadership

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