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The case of Somali language

By Professor Abdalla Omar Mansur

When the Somali language was transcribed and became the national language in 1972, it was used extensively as the medium of instruction and administration. The way in which all this was realized became a model for imitation and emulation by other countries of the African continent. But after the collapse of the Somali state, this language that had gained such an important role for Somalis lost most of its prestige.

Professor Abdalla O. Mansur

Before 1972, the languages of instruction and administration in Somalia were Italian and English, respectively adopted in the previous Italian and British colonies. They had such a prestige for the Somali urban population that the relevance of the mother tongue and the art of oral tradition were declining.

In 1972, when the national orthography was established, Somali became the official language of the state. After the launch of an important literacy campaign across the country, Somali immediately became the language of administration and the medium of instruction in schools. The new role assumed by the Somali language gave the entire population an access to their national heritage and cultural identity.

New concepts, old terms

The use of the native language at all levels and in all contexts was possible since Somali acquired a very large number of technical and scientific terms to be able to express new concepts unfamiliar to the Somali culture. They adopted a system of neologism − contrary to what Western languages usually do by using Greek and Latin − restoring many archaic Somali terms in disuse.

Those terms, closely related to traditional culture, were given new meanings in some way related to the original one; the result was the creation of a new terminology that was accessible to the majority of the Somali people, at the time still without a high degree of education. In this way, the Somali vocabulary was enriched and it became possible to produce immediately many textbooks for all schools from primary to high schools.

Furthermore, the introduction of the writing system built a bridge between the nomadic culture and the urban one, not only because of the restoration of words and concepts belonging to the traditional culture, but also for the fact that it became possible to create a rich written literature drawn from the native cultural oral heritage. So the introduction of a writing system for the Somali language facilitated the collection of a cultural heritage of great value: the Somali oral literature such as poems, short stories, and proverbs.

In this way, from 1972 until 1990, the Somalis walked on a track of modernisation and of standardisation of the language, achieving tangible progress. One of the comments that B.W. Andrzejewski (1977) made after 5 years Somali had become the official language of the state, was this:

… one might venture to use the term “The Somali miracle” if one considers the sudden transformation of the country from national illiteracy to a leading position in the whole Africa as far as concerns the use of the patrial [native] language in education and public life, a transformation which has taken only five years”.

He continues:

… Somali has already become, in this respect, a model for imitation and emulation by other countries of the African continent, and several African educationalists showed great interest in her achievements at the international seminar on language and education in Africa, held in Kinshasa last December. Recently a delegation from the Niger Republic visited Mogadisho to discover what the best policy would be for the use of patrial language in schools and adult education”.

Civil war hurt the development of language

But what is the situation now? After the collapse of the state in 1991, the civil war − having destroyed everything, not having saved any state structure − has even damaged the path towards development of the Somali language. As a consequence Somali is losing its important role both at home and abroad:

A. Inside the country

i) The schools which have been reactivated are teaching only in Arabic or English.

ii) English is the vehicular language for administration in all fields.

iii) The names of the schools, hotels, various agencies and other activities and the terminology in advertising are foreign names or hybrid ones (Somali-English).

iv) It has become common to say the numbers in English, especially phone numbers, dates, time, as if numbers did not exist in the Somali language. 

B) Among the Somali diaspora:

i) Of the thousands of Somali children outside Somalia, most do not speak Somali, some speak it badly and just a few speak it quite well, thanks to their wise parents who value their cultural identity and want to maintain it.

ii) Adults often mix Somali with English, both in formal and informal speeches. If the adults, especially parents behave this way, what can one expect of their children?

iii) The names of the Somali televisions both at home and abroad are in English, regardless that they broadcast only in Somali: Horn Cable TV (HCTV), Universal TV, Royal TV, Somali National TV (SNTV), etc.

iv) Some Somalis prefer to write to their Somali friends or even in Somali newspapers in English rather than Somali.

All these examples show that foreign languages have gained a lot of prestige among the Somalis, both inside and outside the country, while the prestige of the mother tongue is declining. This proves that many Somalis are losing what is called “language loyalty”:

To be loyal to one’s language is generally evidenced by a desire to retain an identity that is articulated through the use of that language, and to adhere to cultural practices associated with that language. Language loyalty leads people to work toward maintaining the language in question even under adverse conditions. Language maintenance consists of strategies that groups use to keep the language to which they are loyal alive; language persistence is the result.” (Szecsy 2008)

If one ignores his/her language, he/she is in fact losing his/her identity and this is so not only at the individual level, but also at the national level, because the deepest feeling of identity is linked to the sharing of a common language. In fact the Somali language is the most important cohesive factor in our community.

On one hand, there are other factors such as religion or somatic aspects that characterize Somalis, but we also share them with others, non-Somali people. On the other hand, there are customs such as ways of dressing or traditional dances that are not common to all Somalis, but vary from region to region.

Read more: The case of Somali language

Professor Abdalla Omar Mansur
Email: [email protected]

The author was Head of Italian Department of Somali National University (1980−1990). After the collapse of the Somali state he has been teaching Arabic and Somali languages at the Università Roma Tre and he is an active member at the Centro Studi Somali (Università Roma Tre). He has published and co-published several books and papers on Somali language and culture such as Qaamuuska Af Soomaaliga, co-editor Professor Annarita Puglielli, Roma 2012 and Le lingue Cuscitiche e il Somalo, Studi Somali N. 8, Roma 1988. 

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