Language of the Month: Somali

     Earlier in March, before the massive shutdowns and shelters in place, I was afforded a weekend getaway to Minneapolis. While I was mostly there for a music convention, of course my linguist eye and ear was out to see and hear what was around me. When one thinks of Minnesota and the Midwest in general, they think phrases like “don’tchaknow,” plenty of German and Nordic influences, and from a non-language perspective, of course the ever pervasive hot dish. But in the past decade, Minneapolis in particular has become a hotbed of immigration and multiculturalism, of these being the most predominant the Somali people and with it, the language Somali.

     In spite of its name, Somali is not exclusive to Somalia. It can also be heard in Kenya, Djibouti, and other areas in eastern Africa. Numbers range from 15 to 30 million speakers, with designation as the official language of Somalia (in addition to Arabic) with services provided in the language in Kenya and other countries. 

     Linguistically, the language features 22 consonant sounds and 5 vowels. The main characteristic of the spoken language is the high number of fricatives and plosives, 8 each. This feature lends to the idea that while in many regards Somali is a tonal language, pitch is naturally evident in a majority of its words and can have an effect on interpretation. 

     Even more interesting than the spoken language is the history of written Somali. The first successful attempt to codify the language used the Arabic script. This reflects Somalia’s rich Islamic heritage, and this written language was mostly used by Islamic clerics and for liturgical purposes. 

     During the early 20th century, two new writing systems developed, reflecting this ongoing Islamic and Arabic heritage and also a desire for everyday people to communicate. The Borama alphabet, named for the region in which it was used, was created and then almost exclusively used by a small circle of Islamic scholars. The other, equally called Somali and Osmanya, reflected the writings of everyday people, and had popularity until the early 1970s when the Latin alphabet was adapted as the official writing system of the language. To see examples of these different scripts, please follow the Omniglot link in Further Reading.

     This rich written history of the language reflects the desire of the people today, to adapt to changes in their lifestyle, sometimes as drastic as moving halfway around the world. The Somali language is rapidly introducing loanwords from English, as it has for centuries used words from both Arabic and Italian, and will continue to evolve as the Somali people bring this wonderful language to their new homes around the world.

Further Reading: