The Somali language has a unique history of varied linguistic influences, including Arabic, English and Italian. A great deal has been documented about the Somali language, and records of the Somali language date to before 1900, making it one of the best-documented Afro-Asiatic languages.
Classification of the Somali Language
The Somali language is classified as a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. The Cushitic branch comprises approximately 40 distinct languages spoken primary in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea, and is further subdivided into the North, Central, South and East Cushitic branches.
Somali belongs to the East Cushitic branch, and it is most closely related to the Afar and Oromo languages. The Somali language is one of the most widely spoken of the Cushitic languages.
Dialects of the Somali Language
Three primary dialects exist within the Somali language: Benaadir, Maay, and Northern or Northern-Central.
Benaadir, also known as Coastal Somali, can be found on the Benaadir Coast, while the Maay dialect is spoken primarily by the Digil and Mirifle clans of southern Somalia. The Northern-Central dialect serves as the basis of the modern standard Somali language.
Early Somalian History
The area of present-day Somalia has a history dating from antiquity. Parts of Somalia belonged to the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum from the 2nd to 7th centuries AD. In the 7th century AD, Arab tribes came to settle along the coast bordering the Gulf of Aden and established the Sultanate of Adal.
It is believed that throughout the 9th century, the Somali people migrated into this area from present-day Yemen. When the Sultanate of Adal disintegrated in the 1500s, it divided into a number of small independent states, many of them ruled by Somali chieftains.
Written Somali Language: Use of an Arabic Script
Over the centuries, a number of various writing systems have been used to express the Somali language in writing. It is believed that an ancient Somali script existed, but it is long lost and little is known of it. Thanks to the history of Arab rule in present-day Somalia and the prominence of Islam in Somalia, the most widespread and influential writing system in the early years was one based on an Arabic alphabet.
Evidence for the long-standing Islamic influence in Somalia has been found in ancient Somali tomb inscriptions written using an Arabic alphabet. In more modern times, many Qur’anic schools were established in Somalia, teaching children to read and write the Arabic script from an early age.
European Colonization in Somalia
The first European colonial power to take root in Somalia was Britain, who took possession of a port at the Gulf of Aden in 1839 in order to protect British trade routes. In response to Egyptian and Turkish claims to parts of Somalia, a British protectorate known as British Somaliland was established over Somalia in 1887.
In the 19th century, Italy also developed an interest in Somalia. Various treaties with native Somali sultanates and the British resulted in Italy’s obtaining some land and power along the Somali Coast. A power struggle between Italy and Britain for control of Somalia lasted for years and did not come to an end until after the World War II.
In 1950, Italy agreed to a UN trusteeship and was awarded control over the disputed territory, which was then named Somalia. The country gained independence in 1960.
Introduction of a Latin-based Somali Script
Early Somali language made use of an Arabic script, and it was not until the arrival of Italian and British colonial powers that a Latin-language alphabet was introduced to the Somali language. In addition, a number of indigenous writing systems were developed in the early 20th century.
Today, a Latin-language Somali alphabet is the most widely used script. Developed under the government of former Somalian President Mohamed Siad Barre, the modern Latin-based script was designed by linguists specifically for the written Somali language, making use of all 26 letters of the English-language alphabet except for z, p and v.
Establishment of Somali as an Official Language
Somali gained official status in 1972 when it was declared the national language of Somalia. At this time, a process of standardization was also undertaken, as was the development of a Latin-language alphabet with which to write the Somali language. The first comprehensive dictionary of the modern standardized Somali language was published in 1976 in accordance with a widespread literacy campaign.
Civil War in Somalia
Civil war in Somalia in the 1990s resulted in the collapse of the Somali government. A series of regional governments were instituted in this period of turmoil. Throughout the turmoil of these years however, Somali remained the de facto official language of the country.
Outside Influences on the Somali Language
Many Somalis today are Sunni Muslims. Due to the historical influence of Islam in Somalia, the Somali language has borrowed words from the Arabic language, both religious and other terms. The Somali language also contains a significant number of loanwords from the Persian language, and the former colonial languages of English and Italian.
After Somali attained official language status in the 1970s, many new words were created and introduced to the language. The majority of these new Somali terms were used to express concepts in the fields of government and education.
The Somali Language Today
Somali is the national language of Somalia. It is also spoken in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, as well as by Somali communities in the Middle East. An estimated 7 million native Somali speakers live in Somalia while an estimated 10 to 16 million native Somali speakers exist globally.
Arabic is still prominent in Somalia and is a second official language in the country. It is spoken primary in the north of the country and along the coast. Many Somalis also speak English or Italian thanks to Somalia’s colonial history.
Somali Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Af-Soomaali, Af-Maxaad Tiri, Common Somali, Standard Somali
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Cushitic, East, Somali.
Official Language of: Somalia
Spoken by Approximately 10,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
Learn About Other Languages