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Paramountcy of Alliteration in Somali Literature

By Maxamed Daahir Afrax

Alliteration, in Somali xarafraac, is a uniquely important feature in Somali literature. Scholars have observed and commented on the role of xarafraac as one of the two structural tools that regulate Somali poetry, the other one being miisaan (metre). However, what has not been noticed in the scholarship on Somali literature is the fact that xarafraac is used as a paramount stylistic device in virtually all forms of Somali literature, poetry and prose. Aside from poetry, alliteration is used in proverbs, oral narratives, traditional oratory and words of wisdom, including those that seem to be of remarkable antiquity. It is even used in modern prose fiction as well as playwriting.   

The type of Somali alliteration is that of initial sounds or the so-called head rhyme. Consonants alliterate with identical consonants while all vowels alliterate with each other. It is interesting that the use of alliteration makes Somali verse shares characteristic with old English poetry rather than with the poetry of the neighbouring cultures of Swahili, Arabic, Oromo, Amharic, Harari and Saho; while the lines (or half-lines) in verses composed in all these languages are linked by an end rhyme, in Somali poetry lines are alliterated with each other by an initial sound which must begin with at least one word in each line in a short-lined verse or each half-line in the case of a long-lined one, as mentioned. However, unlike old English poetry, in Somali versification the same alliterative sound must be used throughout the whole poem. Alliterative words must be lexically substantial, i.e. they must be verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs.

In the case of the poetry,  Departure from the rules of alliteration is called deelqaaf, meaning stray or wandering, which is immediately disdained by the Somali listener. The literal meaning of the word Deelqaaf is composing lines whose supposedly alliterative words begin with a mixture of deel (d) and qaaf (q), instead of keeping on one; which means failure to meet the requirements of alliteration. Deelqaaf is disdainfully rejected by the Somali poetry recipients, especially those whom Cabdullaahi Diiriye Guuled calls ‘gabay-ruug’, lit. ‘poetry-chewers’, meaning poetry-minded. Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’ too, in one of his poems, states that people intuitively recognize when a line is unmetrical: Dhegtaa diidda meeshay xarfuhu dalab ku yeeshaane  (The ear rejects where letters twist).

To illustrate the extensive use of xarafraac in Somali traditional oral literature, even in children’s literature, let us cite an example of a googaale,  a popular form of verbal game played by children in most Somali regions as a pastime activity and as an intelligence test among children. It is in question and answer format: 

Q.        Wax dooxan
            Oo dabran
            Oo daaqa ?
A.        Sikiinta.

It freely translates:
Question:      My stomach is taken out,
                       I am tied up,
                       Yet I can graze.
                       Who am I?
Answer:       Razor

The combination of brevity and alliteration (in d) gives this piece an aesthetic beauty and makes it pleasant to the ear. Alliteration is also considered as a useful aid to oral memory.

Among modern literary forms other than the poetry, it is in the drama that alliteration features most prominently.  Xarafraac is used in aspects such as poetic dialogue, the naming of characters and the titling of plays. I will discuss all these in detail in the next chapter on Xasan Sheikh Muumin’s play, Shabbeelnaagood. Here, suffice it to cite some examples of plays with alliterative titles. These include, Miyi iyo Magaalo, ‘Country and town’ (Cabdullaahi Yuusuf Farey, 1959); Daadoy iyo dalnuurshe, ‘Daadoy and Dalnuurshe’ (Aweys Geeddow, c.1967);  Sir Naageed lama Salgaaro, ‘Tricks of women cannot be reached’ (Shiikh Mayow Halaag, 1976); Qaran iyo Qabiil, ‘State and clan’ (Cabdi Miigane, 1985).

Xarafraac is also used in modern prose fiction writing, albeit at a lesser degree. As part of my data collection, I have investigated a variety of novels and short stories in most of which alliteration is used to varying extents. When I looked at some of my own prose fiction works, among others, I was surprised to find an unexpectedly frequent use of xarafraac in my own novels Maana-faay and Galti-macruuf. Here is a sample extract from Maana-faay:

Muddo la sii mushaax. Mugdi la sii jibaax. Maana laga yaabi. Maaweelo lagu dey. Miro looga dhalin waa. Mar dambay bidhaani muuqatay.

They cruise a bit further. They indulge driving through the dark forest. Maana-faay gets more scared. They try to entertain her. It doesn’t work. At last, a  glimpse of light twinkles in the distance (Maxamed, 1997: 45) .    

The six short sentences in the passage are held together by a pattern of alliteration; they all begin with m sound and this gives the ear a pleasant sense of patterning. As far as I can recall, I did not make any conscious effort to use alliteration in my fiction writing. Yet there is it; it may be the product of the inner workings of the sub-conscious mind which tends to take over in moments of emotional and dramatic intensity in the literary creation process.

In this passage we are in a moment of dramatic build-up in the development of the plot where Maana-faay, the female chief protagonist, undergoes a new, exiting but frightening experience. She is a totally inexperienced school girl from very traditional family. She is in an evening ride to the unknown with two stranger playboys and a female friend of hers whom the boys used to trap Maana-faay by deceitful tactics; they needed a second girl to have a group of two couples to indulge in a night of pleasure-seeking extravaganza in a romantic suburban compound outside the city of Mogadishu. Maana-faay’s fears accelerate when she realises that the car is getting out of town into a suburban forest, through increasingly scaring landscapes, a world she had never imagined to venture getting into. This is the moment of intensified excitement being captured in the passage. The fast pace of the writing style and its alliterative patterning can be seen as corresponding to the increasing tension and the imagined fast heartbeat of the innocent school girl suddenly caught in this kind of situation. 

Maxamed Daahir Afrax
Email: [email protected]


Andrzejewski, B.W., “Alliteration and Scansion in Somali Oral Poetry and their Cultural Correlates”, LASO: Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, XIII,1, (1982a), pp. 68-83.
—–, B.W. and Lewis, Somali Poetry: An Introduction, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 964.
Antinucci, Francesco and Axmed Faarax Cali “Idaajaa”, Poesia Orale Somala: Storia di una Nazione, Roma: Comitato Tecnico Linguistico per l’Universita Nazionale Somala, 1986.
Banti, G., ‘Tradizione e innovazone nella letteratura orale dei Somali’, Africa, 51/2 (1996) 174-202. Cerulli, Enrico, Somalia: Scritti Vari Editi ed Inediti (3 Vols.), Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1964.
Kirk, J. W., A Garammar of the Somali Language, Cambridge: 1905.
Maxamed Daahir Afrax., Maana-faay, London: Learning Design, 1997. (First edition, 1981).
—–, “Between Continuity and Innovation: Transitional Nature of Post-independence Somali Poetry and Drama 1960s – the Present” (PhD Thesis), SOAS, University of London, 2013.
Orwin, M, A literary analysis of a poem by the Somali poet Axmed Ismaaciil Diiriye “Qaasim”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 63/2, (2000) pp. 194-214.

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