Book Review: Literature of Somali Onomastics and Proverbs

Liban Ahmed

Feb. 11, 2007
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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.


Literature of Somali Onomastics and Proverbs
‘With Comparison of Foreign Sayings’232 pp. Gobaad Communications and Press

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’
( “errorless; righteous”) but the  female proper name  Duda’(“ pessimist) changes from a noun to verb for the mere drop of  an apostrophe after the last letter( i. e.  Duda). Duda is  verb used in an imperative context  for more than  one person,  as the following example will show:

 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.

Somali proverbs in the book (chapter 3) were rendered into clear and concise English. Translating proverbs is a hefty task. Some Somali proverbs reflect the level of thinking of ancient Somalis. One of my favourite proverbs – and fortunately it is this book, is Maan rag waa muducyo afkood. Anwar writes the  same proverb except  the first word  which,  according to his version, is male ( guesswork)  as in male rag waa mudaciyo afkood( ‘ men’s thoughts can be as sharp as the point of a needle’) This translation does not capture the meaning of the proverb. It is a proverb that shows familiarity with psychological make-up of Somali men. Since Somalis are a patriarchal society, it is men who go to the war and adjudicate the disputes, to mention but few of the male dominated tasks within the Somali context.  Their egos are likened to ‘the sharp point of needles’. It is difficult and time-consuming to stick the sharp ends of two needles to each other. It is compromise, patience and the will to move on that were placed on high pedestal rather the ego needs of few individuals. Arranging the Somali proverbs on alphabetical order could help the reader look up a given proverb in the dictionary.

The last chapter is about foreign proverbs. They show the cultural contexts of proverbs as well as shared outlook on aspects of life. Without explanatory notes, surface meaning of the many foreign proverbs   cannot show the underlying meaning that proverbs generally have.

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

Liban Ahmad

(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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