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Somali names and individual identity

By Cabdalla Cumar Mansuur


After nearly half a century since the adoption of a writing system, the personal names of Somali people have not yet been standardized and modernized compared to common international use. For this reason, this paper aims at analyzing the problems that this goal faces and at suggesting some solutions which are consistent with Somali traditions.

1    Spelling inconsistency

Somali personal names today, from an orthographic point of view, are still not standardized and there are various ways to write them. For example, a name of a Somali person, both in and out of his native country, can be written in four different spellings.

Cabdalla Cumar Mansuur

In Somalia, one and the same person is used to write his name into two different ways:

  1. in a Somali spelling (e.g. Nuur Xuseen Cabdirashiid) on his identity card, school report cards, publications in Somali language, etc.;
  2. in an English spelling (e.g. Noor Hussen Abdirashid) in his passport, university diplomas, publications, etc. 

Outside of Somalia, one can possibly write his own name in accordance to the spelling of the ex-colonial host country:

  • Nour Houssein Abdirachid   (French speaking countries)
  • Nur Hussen Abdirascid        (Italy)

This variability of writing of the same name is a huge problem that affects almost all Somalis, hampering the acknowledgment of their documents (identity cards, passports, diplomas, etc.) bearing names written in different ways. For example, if a Somali citizen goes abroad, for studying or something, he loses a lot of time correcting his name, running between the Somali embassy/consulate (when active) and a public office, that requires that all documents be consistent as far as personal data are concerned.

Besides, it is not easy to trace Somali author’ publications, through a catalog or via the Internet, since their name can be written in different spellings, as we have already seen.

Now, let us look at some systems of writing. As is well known, Latin script is the most widespread in the world, being in use in most western countries and in many other countries in Asia and Africa. Nonetheless, the writing systems which are based on Latin script differ considerably in terms of the phonetic rendering of some letters or combinations of letters.

To illustrate this situation, let us look at a single example, the digraph <ch>, with its phonemic correspondence in some European languages, as the following table shows:

ChPolish, Check, German, DutchXRoch, Palach, Batch,
ChItalian, Rumanian,KMichele. Chivu
ChEnglish, Spanish, ?Charles, Sánchez
ChFrench, Portuguese?Charles; Chianho

As is shown, the reading for <ch> varies widely even among European languages. This situation is by no means exceptional as far as letters and combination of letters are concerned, all the more so if other Latin-based orthographic systems are taken into consideration. Nevertheless, in each of these countries personal names are ever and only written consistently in their own orthography, both at home and abroad. So, why don’t Somalis do the same, since they use the same Latin alphabet and have an orthographic system that only has two letters (<c, x>) with a peculiar pronunciation[1]?

The problem is that foreign languages have gained a lot of prestige among Somalis, both inside and outside the country; for this reason, the prestige of the mother tongue is declining. This proves that many Somalis are losing what is called ‘language loyalty’ (Abdalla 2016).

Now, to standardize the spelling of Somali names it is necessary that the Somali people realize that their language is their identity, and to protect this they must get used to write their names, always and wherever they are, in a Somali spelling. First of all, though, the initiative and the commitment of Somali authorities is required to implement this kind of reform. We believe that, from that moment on, our system of writing names will be respected by foreigners, as we have always respected theirs.

2    Anthroponyms

The Somali naming system is based on the genealogical system, consisting of three names:

  1. a personal name;
  2. a father’s name;
  3. a grandfather’s name.

Since a system of name (s)-surname does not exist, the Somali names often resemble to each other; so, it can happen that many people have the same three names. The name Maxamed Cali Axmed, for example, might be the name of hundreds or even thousands of Somalis. Nor is there a unified system of spelling Somali names.

Let’s analyse these problems in some detail.

  1. Varying among different Somali territories, some procedures are employed to avoid homonymity. For instance, in some administrations – such as the judicial one, the registry office and the passport office – the mother’s name is added to the usual names (e.g. Noor Xuseen Cabdirashid, adding his mother’s name,  Faduma Cali). In public education, especially when passing the final exams of middle and high schools, students must declare four names, adding the great-grandfather’s name (e.g. Nuur Xuseen Cabdirashiid Faarax).

  2. When a Somali citizen goes abroad, especially to western countries, in order to have a residence permit or other types of documents, the host country forces him to declare a surname, in accordance with the rules in that country. For the sake of clarity, let us see how Somali names vary according to different countries. Take, for example, a common Somali name, Maxamed Cali Cabdullaahi. To limit ourselves just to a few examples, it will be typically interpreted as follows:
  3. in UK and USA, Mohamed Abdullahi (the 3rd name, Cabdullaahi, will be taken as a surname, while the 2nd name, Cali, will be ignored altogether);
  4. in Italy, Mohamed Ali Abdullaahi (both the 2nd and 3rd names will be taken as a surname);
  5. in Sweden, Mohamed Ali (the 2nd name will be considered as the surname).

These practices do nothing less than complicating the problem of Somali onomastics. As an example, if a father’s first and last name is Mohamed Abdullahi, as we saw above, his son will be called Ahmed Abdullahi. The problem is that, according to Somali tradition, when they go back to their home country with these names, they will be taken to be brothers, both sons of an ‘Abdullahi’, instead of father and son. It is even worse if the “surname” is placed before a person’s given name (e.g. AbdullahiMohamed), as it is happens in many parts of Asia and, in specific occasions, in some parts of Europe and Africa: in this case the grandfather’s name (Abdullahi), is taken in Somalia to be the son’s name, since it is at the beginning.

To reconcile the two systems of names, the one used by the Somalis at home and the one used by Somalis living abroad, one can devise some ways of creating surnames, modernizing the Somali name system without crushing against Somali traditions.

Before this, let’s have a look at the history of the surnames used by most of the world’s population, Muslims and non-Muslims. The use of the surnames, also known as ‘family names’, is an ancient system that kings, and noble families used. In the 11th century, Europe began to adopt a surname for ordinary people, to register the population after the great demographic growth that took place in the cities, where it was becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish individuals only on the basis of their personal name.

Among countries that began using surnames in recent times are the Netherlands (1811), Japan (1870), Thailand (1920), Turkey (1934) and Afghanistan (2014) (Goldstein, J. 2014). They are countries of different areas of the world, with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Roughly speaking, we can classify the most common surnames used in the world into four categories, according to their origin. toponymical: Bush (English, ‘bush’), Yamamoto (Japan, ‘mountain base’), Bukhari (Arabic, ‘of the city of Bukhara’), Jiang (China, ‘river’), Moskva (‘of Moscow’).

  1. professional: Smith, Fabbro (Italian, ‘smith’) Al-Najaar (Arabic, ‘carpenter’).
  2. descriptive (nicknames): Brown, Tolstoy (Russian, ‘fatman’), Rossi (Italian, ‘red-haired, pl.’ ), Al-axmar (Arabic, ‘red’), Doğan (Turkish,  ‘falcon’), Gao (China, ‘high’).
  3. patronymical: the oldest system, that comes into two different types:
  4. clanic: Aala Nahyaan (an arab clan’s name), O’Brien (an Irish clan’s name), Wang (China), Kim (Korea).
  5. father or ancestor: The Arabs use ‘bin/ibn’ meaning ‘son of’: Ibnu Tajmijjah, Bin Laden, and their cousins, some Jews, use ben/bar: Ben Gorjan. In the western world different suffixes or prefixes mean ‘son of’, such as Powell > Ap Hywel (Welsh: ‘son of Hywel’), MacNeill (Gaelic: ‘son of Neil’), Wilson (English: ‘son of William’), Ivanov (Russian: ‘son of Ivan’), Fitzgerald (Gaelic: ‘son of Gerald’), Daud Oğlu (Turkish: ‘son of Daud’)

Some surnames are the result of the abbreviation of one’s genealogy, as the following examples show:

  • Ibnu Taymiyah (Arabic): < Ahmad bin Abdulhalim bin Abdisalam bin Abdalla bin Abilkasim bin Muhammad ibnu Taymiyah;

Read more: Somali names and individual identity

Cabdalla Mansuur
Email: [email protected]


[1] Digraphs <dh> and <kh> are not included here, because they have readings which do not depart substantially from common use. <q> has a slightly more complicated status, since neither /q/ is present in the inventories of European languages, nor is <q> present in isolation, being always followed by <u> (except for Albanian and Maltese). Nonetheless, <q> is commonly read as [k], which is an acceptable approximation to the real sound, not to mention the fact that <q> exists in IPA with the same value and is the standard transcription for /q/ in non-Latin alphabetical languages such as Arabic and other Semitic languages.

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