The expression what is in name? and its Somali equivalent magac bilaash uma baxo(1), tell that a name is conferred on someone not solely for reasons of identification. Somali proper and common names are not only descriptive; they are imbued with meanings about seasons, conditions of birth (unrelated to disability or trait) and time of the year the child was born. For a society whose language acquired a written form only three and half decades ago, proper Somali names that have not been borrowed from Arabic language give us an insight into how ancient Somalis thought about life, their customs, creativity and unjust social hierarchies that still retain influence to discriminate members of the Somali society. Those thoughts revolved in mind as I was reading the interesting dictionary, Literature of Somali Onomastics and Proverbs . The title of the dictionary gave me the impression that it is a review of literature on Somali onomastics and proverbs.
Apart from the short introduction on Somalia and Somali language, the book contains four chapters on indigenous names, Arabic or Islamic Names, Somali proverbs and non-Somali proverbs.
In the first chapter, the compiler listed Somali proper and common names and nicknames with their English translations alongside. It is the chapter that shows the challenges facing researcher interested in Somali Onomastics. According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “Onomasticsis the science or study of the origin and forms of proper names of persons or places.” Many Somali common names in the book—clan names, for example—once had proper name status. Some proper Somali names will acquire common name status in the future. This linguistic reality guides any researcher selecting names for inclusion in a dictionary of proper and common names. Anwar Maxamed Diiriye, the lexicographer of the dictionary under review, is alive to this challenge. Some common names are clan names, and their meanings are not easily understandable. To define them by the meanings they once had is a reasonable approach despite the obligation it places on the compiler to include all Somali clan names. If Anwar has included clan names such as Abgaal, Dududble Gaaljecel, Kaskiqabe, why didn’t clan or sub-clan names such as Fiqishinni, Bagadi and many more feature in the dictionary? This oversight is offset by the inclusion of clan and sub-clan names such as, Biciidyahan, Cawlyahan, and Ugaaryahan, three names that Anwar defines as hunters. Those three clan and sub-clan names demonstrate the cultural evolution of Somali society. Hunting has long been described --- albeit orally--as the calling of an oppressed Somali social group—the Madhibaan meaning “harmless; very decent one”—despite being a survival skill for which members of any social group will go great lengths to acquire it in a land beset by scarce resources and recurrent droughts. Those are issues for discussion that Literature of Somali Onomastics and Proverbs brings to light.
A word about trickiness involved in spelling some proper Somali names. Anwar paid sufficient attention to female proper names such as Baahila’( ‘hungerless’), Gefla’
Duda oo dalka iskaga taga! ( get angry and leave the country!)
Unlike the proper names that metamorphosed into common names, some names have offensive connotations Two of those names are Hayin (‘docile; simple, tames’) and Heellan ( ‘loyal; obedient’). They are not names or nicknames that one can utter within the earshot of the persons to which they refer. Should one consider them as proper names?
In chapter two, Anwar lists names of ‘Arabic an Islamic root.’ The names in the chapter emphasise the strong link Somalia has with the Arabic speaking and Islamic world. As a matter of fact, the borrowed names are fast displacing indigenous names. One seldom comes across a Somali whose name and that of his /her father— Muuddey Gacal, Qamaan Bulxan, Dude Samatar, Bilan Odawaa, Madoobe Nuunoow, for example-- are pure Somali names let alone someone whose name, that of his/her father and his/her grandfather are all Somali names ( Xareed Duubi Deero and Diiriye Dalal Faahiye, for example). If this trend goes on, Somali names will disappear with all the cultural significance that brought them to life, and that will, I would argue, have an adverse impact on the self-esteem of future Somali generations.
Literature of Somali Onomastics and Proverbs is a timely addition to the literature on Somali proper and common names. Anwar deserves credit for the energy and creativity he had put into compiling the dictionary from which young and old Somalis and non-Somalis interested in Somali onomastics will benefit
(1) Literally name is not given without a purpose. It is also the title the first book on Somali Onomatsics by the linguist and lexicographer Abdirahman Farah Barwaaqo.
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