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Number of Speakers: According to Gordon (2005), approximately 13 million people speak Somali, but upwards of 25 million individuals are commonly estimated to speak the language. The exact number of speakers is unknown because of the recent civil wars and the resultant waves of migration.

Key Dialects: There are three main dialects of Somali: Northern Somali, Benaadir (coastal Somali), and Af-Ashraaf (Ashraaf). Northern Somali is the primary dialect and is the basis for standard Somali.

Geographical Center: Somalia and independent Somaliland (northern Somalia)

Somali is perhaps the best documented and most thoroughly studied Cushitic language. It is spoken by roughly eight million people in Somalia and independent Somaliland (northern Somalia), where it is the official language. Outside Somalia, it is spoken by approximately five million people in a number of countries, including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Italy, Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Speakers of Somali are typically multilingual in Arabic and Italian. Alternate names of the language are Af-Soomaali and Af-Maxaad Tiri.

Somali is an Eastern Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Related languages include Afar and Oromo.

There are three primary regional dialects of Somali: Northern Somali, Benaadir Somali, and Af-Ashraaf Somali. Northern Somali is the main dialect and is highly intelligible to speakers of Benaadir Somali, but is considerably less intelligible to speakers of the Af-Ashraaf dialect.

A roman orthography was officially adopted in 1972 and remains the writing system of Somali today. Prior to this script, an Arabic-based alphabet known as Osmania was the primary writing system of Somali. Designed by Cismaan Kenadiid in 1922, its dissemination was very limited. The current romanized Somali alphabet uses no additional letters, although sounds particular to Somali are represented by a number of digraphs (e.g. kh, sh, dh, aa, and ee) as well as letters which are assigned new values (e.g. q for the glottal stop and c and x for voiced and unvoiced pharyngeal fricatives respectively).

The Somali phoneme inventory consists of between seven to ten vowels and twenty-two to thirty-one consonants, depending on the analysis. Numerous diphthongs are attested, vowel harmony is widespread, and vowel length is contrastive. The syllable structure of the language is (C)V(C)(C) [items in parentheses are optional] and most words have a di- or trisyllabic structure (root morphemes and affixes are usually mono- or disyllabic). Somali is a tone language (n.b. this is debated by some Somali scholars) with some properties of a stress system. Tone is both lexical (serving to distinguish the meanings of different words) and morphological (serving to distinguish different inflectional forms of the same word). The latter (inflectional) function of tone is the more prominent of the two roles. This is notably atypical of most African tone languages. The Somali tonal system consists of an inventory of three basic tones: high, low, and falling. At most one high tone may surface within a word. Some Somali phonologists postulate the existence of a fourth mid tone. Concerning stress, vowels rather than syllables are assigned stress. Although certain words are completely unstressed and morphology affects stress assignment to a considerable degree, the typical locus for stress is on the final or penultimate vowel of a word. Nonetheless, stress is often associated with tone. High tones receive strong stress (“accent”), falling tones bear weak stress, and low tones often have no stress.

Morphologically, Somali is an agglutinative language. That is, grammatical information is encoded morphologically by way of affixation to roots and stems. Affixation in the language is exclusively suffixal (prefixes are not attested). Nouns inflect for definiteness (definite, indefinite), gender (masculine, feminine), number (singular, plural) and case (nominative, accusative, genitive, vocative). Verbs inflect for person (first, second, third), number (singular, plural), gender (masculine, feminine), mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, conditional), aspect (perfect, imperfect), tense (present, past, future), and polarity (affirmative, negative). Reduplication is productive, both as an inflectional and derivational morphological operation. Unlike other Afro-Asiatic languages, there are neither word-deriving prefixes, nor word-internal inflections. Aside from borrowing or lexicalization, the most productive means of word derivation in Somali is word composition or compounding, a process that distinguishes Cushitic languages from other Afro-Asiatic languages. Incorporation of nominal elements (e.g. nouns and adjectives) with verbs is also productively attested in the language.

The Somali vocabulary is predominantly Cushitic in origin. Its characteristic feature is the abundance of collective nouns and its lack of corresponding individual nouns. Another notable feature of the Somali lexicon is the relatively small number of color terms, some of which are borrowed from Arabic and English. Borrowings can be divided into two groups: those of Afro-Asiatic origin and those loaned from Indo-European languages. The majority of the Afro-Asiatic loan words are Arabic, while Indo-European borrowings come from the languages of former colonizers, namely, English, French, and Italian. Occasional Indo-Iranian borrowings are also attested.

Syntactically, Somali is an object-verb language, as is typical of Cushitic languages. However, many of the word-order properties of the language resemble those of the Semitic languages to a greater degree than those of the Cushitic languages. For example, prepositions rather than postpositions are attested and adjectives, relative clauses, and genitives follow the head noun. The basic clause order is SOV. Subjects and verbs agree in person, number, and gender. All non-embedded sentences are marked with a sentence-type identifying morpheme, which encodes the pragmatic/semantic usage and function of the sentence (e.g. question, request, command, statement, actual vs. hypothetical state of affairs, etc.). Information structure is prominently reflected in the syntax by means of discourse-related particles, word order, and a variety of construction types. For this reason, Somali is known as a “discourse configurational language”.

Somali is the official language of Somalia and Somaliland (independent northern Somalia) and figures prominently in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, where it is an important second language. Ever since 1972, most of the education systems of these countries both teach and use Somali as the medium of instruction. Over twenty radio and television stations (both local, regional, and overseas) broadcast programs in Somali. In addition to the BBC Somali Service and Radio Mogadishu, other carriers include Radio Moscow, Radio Cairo, and the national radios of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Radio programs in Somali are specifically focused on introducing new native words into the vocabulary to replace the existing borrowed ones. Because of a growing number of Somalian refugees in Europe and abroad, several European countries teach the Somali language both to Somali children and to non-Somalis at the university level. Somali has both a written and an oral literature. Its written literature includes a substantial body of poetry known as “classic Somali poetry” and a rich amount of culturally influential proverbial writings.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the present-day occupants of Somalia had occupied the horn of Africa around the time of 100 A.D. The Somalis descend from a highly developed pastoral nomadic stock. Over time, the original inhabitants of Somalia divided into two groups: the pastoral group who settled in the interior, and the trading group who occupied the coast. Today, the Somalis are divided into six major clans or families. The Dir, Darood, Isaaq, and Hawiye clans, which comprise 70% of Somalia’s population, are nomadic. The Digil and Rahanwayn clans are agricultural people who constitute roughly 20% of the country’s population. The remainder of the population is comprised of various ethnic groups. Over the course of its history, Somalia has been subject to various rulers, including the Omanis, the Zanzibaris, the Sharifs of Mukha, and the Ottoman Turks. Civil wars have left the country in the present state of social and political disarray.

Abraham, Major R.C. 1962. Somali-English Dictionary. London: University of London Press.

Armstrong, Lilias E. 1964. The Phonetic Structure of Somali. Westmead: Gregg International Publishers.

Coulmas, Florian. 1996. Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Dubnov, Helena. 2003. A Grammatical Sketch of Somali. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Saeed, John Ibrahim. 1993. Somali Reference Grammar (Second Revised Edition). Kensington, MD: Dunwoody Press.

Saeed, John. 1999. Somali. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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