Somali language in the world
The exact number of Somali speakers is unknown. The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya. There are about 8 million Somali speakers in and around Somalia, but combined with a large international diaspora, a reasonable estimate could be between 10 to 16 million speakers worldwide.
What is Somali ?
The Somali language (Somali: Afsoomaali, Arabic: الصومالية) is a member of the East Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Its nearest relatives are Afar and Oromo. Somali is the best documented of the Cushitic languages, with academic studies dating before 1900.
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.
Somali dialects are divided into 3 main groups : Northern, Benaadir and Maay.
Development of the Somali language
Before independence, very little has been written about the Somali language. The very first comments on the Somali language, dating from 1844, were made by European colonizers. At the colonial administration level, the languages which were used were English in the North (Somaliland) and Italian in the South. The literate population used to write in Arabic.
In the years after independence, the Somali language has gone through three major phases : writing research, language development and literacy campaigns. A few months after independence and the unification of Somaliland and Somalia, a Commission of the Somali language was created to find an acceptable writing system. The results and suggestions of the Commission and those of the Commission of the UNESCO that was later formed submitted two reports to the Somali government of that time. Both reports examined a number of options: different transcripts in Latin, Arabic and Osmaniya alphabet, and the advantages and disadvantages of each system. But the political factions in presence prevented the government from deciding in favor of one system or another.
A few months after the revolution, the regime of Siad Barre took the problem head on. The revolutionary government gave each of the three factions a year to submit textbooks for all subjects in lower grades of primary school - grades 1 to 4 - using their own resources. Only the faction that was in favor of the Latin transcription finished work on time.
Thus, on October 21, 1972, the transcription in Latin letters was officially adopted.
Then three stages of development quickly succeeded :
1. Make Somali the official language once the spelling was accepted.
2. Two years later, make Somali the medium of instruction in primary and secondary schools.
3. Make Somali a minor area of study at university.
Three literacy campaigns popularized the use of writing. For civil servants and the urban population, it took 6 months to teach them to read and write. For the rural population, there was nearly a year of intensive teaching to which all pupils of the major classses in the primary and secondary schools and the majority of civil servants participated as teachers and inspectors.
These campaigns reached their climax with a literacy rate of 75% of the population. Somalia won the UNESCO literacy medal in 1975.
The current status of the Somali language is significant. This is the official language in Somalia and Somaliland (northern Somalia), and one of the languages spoken in the Republic of Djibouti, parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. Most education systems of these countries teach it, either as a subject or use it as a medium of instruction, or both. There are more than 20 radio and television broadcast stations in Somali worldwide. Because refugees are on their soil, several European countries teach their language to Somali children. A few universities, such as the School of Oriental and African Studies of London (SOAS), the Swedish Academy in Uppsala and the University of Rome have research programs in this language.
Somalis being almost exclusively Sunni Muslims the language contains many words of Arabic origin, both as regards the vocabulary of modern institutions, such as government and economy, as the oldest Arabic terms to discuss international trade and religion.
Somali also contains old Qahtani words, common to the Cushitic and Semitic languages, and a number of loan words from Persian, and the former colonial languages English and Italian.