Facts About Somali: Diaspora, Loanwords and Dialects

Somali is the native tongue of the Somali people from the Horn of Africa. It’s an official language of Somalia and Somaliland, a national language of Djibouti, and a working language in parts of Ethiopia.

As a language spoken by over 21 million people, its place in Africa and in the wider world is undeniable, and it’s important for anyone interested in linguistics or culture to learn a little about it.

The following facts discuss the distribution, history, structure, and use of Somali. They’re only a brief introduction into the depths of a fascinating language and culture.

A Few Facts about the Language Somali

1. Somali is a Cushitic language originating from the Afro-Asiatic language family

The family tree below traces Somali back to its origins, following only the branches from the roots that are relevant to this language. Those languages marked with a cross beside their name are now extinct. Any language with a (?) by its name is under dispute for classification by linguists.

2. Somali is officially written with the Latin alphabet, but four other writing systems are regularly used.

These are an Arabic script called Wadaad, and three Somali scripts named Osmanya, Borama, and Kaddare.

The Somali alphabets are generally considered quite accurate as phonetic representations of the language. The Latin alphabet doesn’t accurately reflect quite a few sounds that are regularly used. 

Nonetheless, the official alphabet is as follows. Each letter represents one sound, except vowels which can be two. Long vowel sounds are made by doubling the letter, and diphthongs are made with Y or W as the second (or third) letter.

LetterSounds likeLetterSounds like
A glottal stop, like the pause in uhohQLike cuttle
BBatKKing
TTickLLike
JJacketMMen
XHamzaNNo
KHLike lochWWind
DDogHHat
RBurrYYellow
SSnakeARat or bath
SHShineERed or may
DHLike BundtILee or hit
CAardvarkOUh or wrought
GGunULoose or good
FFull

3. Somali speakers in the Somali diaspora exist all over the world

Some of the biggest Somali diasporic communities exist in:

  • Africa
    • Libya (around 4,500 people)
    • South Africa (anywhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people)
    • Yemen (around 200,000 people)
  • Asia and the Middle East
    • Pakistan (around 3,500 people)
    • Saudi Arabia (around 4,000 people)
    • The United Arab Emirates (around 11,000 people) – most of these hold western passports
    • Turkey (around 7,500 people)
  • Australasia
    • Australia (around 18,000 people)
    • New Zealand (around 3,500 people)
  • Europe
    • Austria (around 9,000 people)
    • Belgium (around 7,000 people)
    • Denmark (around 21,000 people)
    • Finland (around 35,000 people)
    • Germany (around 47,000 people)
    • Ireland (around 2,500 people)
    • Italy (around 8,000 people)
    • The Netherlands (around 53,000 people)
    • Norway (around 71,000 people)
    • Sweden (around 80,000 people)
    • Switzerland (around 8,000 people)
    • The United Kingdom (around 600,000 people)
  • North America
    • Canada (around 91,000 people)
    • The United States of America (around 300,000 people)

4. Pronouns in Somali all have a subject and object form, and short and emphatic forms.

First person plural has an inclusive form (‘we’ including the addressee) and an exclusive form (‘we’ not including the addressee). 3rd person singular is split into 

PersonNumberSubjectObject
EmphaticShortEmphaticShort
1stSingularAniguAanAnigaI(i)
Plural inclusiveInnaguAynuInnagaIna / Inoo
Plural exclusiveAnnaguAannuAnnagaNa / Noo
2ndSingularAdiguAadAdigaKu(u)
PluralIdinkuAadIdinkaIdin / Idiin
3rdSingular masculineIsaguUuIsaga(U)
Singular feminineIyaduAyIyada(U)
PluralIyaguAyIyaga(U)

5. There are three main groups of Somali languages or dialects

These groups are:

  • Northern (Central) Somali or Af-Maxaa
    • The basis of Standard Somali
    • Spoken by most Somalis (60 – 85%)
    • Most poetry is written in Northern Somali
    • Contains many Harari loan words
    • Divided into three dialects
      • Proper Northern Somali spoken in Djibouti and Somaliland
      • Darod spoken in northern Somalia and the Somali region of Ethiopia, as well as Ethiopia’s border regions
      • Lower Juba spoken in southern Somalia over the last 150 years.
  • Benadiri (Coastal) Somali or Af-Reer Xamar
    • Spoken by the Benadiri people
    • Used in the southern Banaadir coast of Somalia and in the nearby hinterlands
    • Split into Northern and Southern Benadiri
  • Af Maay or Maay or Af-Maay Maay
    • May be a dialect of Somali or its own Somali language (this is under debate)
    • Mostly spoken in Southwest Somalia and the southeastern border of Ethiopia
    • Not completely mutually understandable with Benadiri
    • Somewhat mutually understandable with Northern Standard Somali
    • Not really used in education or in media
    • Speakers tend to also use Northern Standard Somali
    • Has very different structure and phonology than the other two groups
    • Rich in oral poetry

6. Somali contains loanwords from Arabic and Indo-European languages

The most influential Indo-European language is Italian, followed by English. Arabic loanwords make up 20% or so of Somali vocabulary. However, there has been a push toward replacing Indo-European loanwords with either Somali equivalents or Somali neologisms.

7. Somali months sound very similar to their English equivalents, while days differ significantly

Months
EnglishSomali
JanuaryJeenuwari
FebruaryFeebruwari
MarchMaaj
AprilAbrill
MayMay
JuneJuun
JulyJuulaay
AugustOogas
SeptemberSibtambar
OctoberOktoobar
NovemberNoofambar
DecemberDiisambar
Days
EnglishSomali
SundayAxad
MondayIsniin
TuesdaySalaasa or Talaado
WednesdayArbacaa or Arbaco
ThursdayKhamiis
FridayJimco
SaturdaySabti

8. Somali is a subject-object-verb (SOV) language

The English sentence “I read Somali” would transliterate as “I Somali read”.

Final Thoughts

Somali is the 71st most spoken language of the 6,500 or so languages operative in the world today, ranking higher than languages like Hungarian, Swedish, and Greek. Languages are a window into the culture of an entire people and knowing them is the first step to knowing people.

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