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af Soomaali
Spoken natively in Somalia
 Somaliland (not recognized internationally)
Somali communities in the Middle East, Europe and North America
Native speakers10-16 million native speakers and maybe 500,000 second language speakers.  (date missing)
Language family
Writing systemLatin, Arabic, Osmanya script,
Official status
Official language in Somalia
Language codes
ISO 639-1so
ISO 639-2som
ISO 639-3som

The Somali language (Somali: [Afsoomaali] error: {{lang}}: text has italic markup (help), Arabic: الصومالية‎) is a member of the East Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Its nearest relatives are Afar and Oromo. Somali is the best documented of the Cushitic languages,[1] with academic studies beginning before 1900.

Number of speakers

The exact number of speakers of Somali is unknown. One source estimates that there are 7.78 million speakers of Somali in Somalia itself (including Somaliland) and 12.65 million speakers globally.[2] A population estimate made by the Dutch Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht puts the Somali population somewhere between 10 and 15 million.[3] Combined with a large international expatriate community, it is difficult to get a specific number of Somali speakers, but somewhere between 10 and 16 million worldwide seems a reasonable estimate. According to Gordon (2005), approximately 13 million people speak Somali, but upwards of 25 million individuals are commonly estimated to speak the language.[1]

Geographic distribution

The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Somaliland,[4] Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, and by the Somali diaspora.

Official status

Culture of Somalia
Pottery  · Textile
Music  · Wood carving
Literature · Mythology
Writing systems · Poetry
Dance  · Dress
Games · Cuisine
Society · History
Islam · Festivals · Institutions
Science and Technology
Maritime · Medicine · Astronomy · Media
Cinema · Coinage
See also
Education · Politics
Symbols · Military

Somali has been the national language of Somalia since 1972, gaining official status with standardization (Standard Somali) and the adoption of the Latin alphabet, developed under orders of then president Siad Barre. Shire Jama Ahmed's script became The Official Somali Language Script. For nine years, The Somali Language Committee sifted through 18 competing scripts. The Committee was first commissioned in 1961 by Aden Abdulle Osman Daar, Somalia's first post-colonial president.

After the collapse of the central Somali government in the Somali civil war in the 1990s, Somali has remained an official language or de facto national language of the various regional governments such as Somaliland and Puntland.


Map of Somali language distribution

Somali dialects are divided into three main groups: Northern, Benaadir and Maay. Northern Somali (or Northern-Central Somali) forms the basis for Standard Somali. Benaadir (also known as Coastal Somali) is spoken on the Benadir Coast from Cadale to south of Marka, including Mogadishu, and in the immediate hinterland. The coastal dialects have additional phonemes which do not exist in Standard Somali.

The Digil and Mirifle clans (sometimes called Rahanweyn) live in the southern areas of Somalia. Recent research (Diriye Abdullahi, 2000) has shown that, although previously classified with Somali, their languages and dialects are incomprehensible to many Somali speakers. The most important language of the Digil and Mirifle is Maay. Other languages in this category are Jiido, Dabare, Garre, and Central Tunni. Of all these, Jiido is the most incomprehensible to Somali speakers. One important aspect in which the languages of the Digil and Mirifle differ from Somali is the lack of pharyngeal sounds. The retroflex /ɖ/ is also replaced by /r/ in some positions.

Sounds and phonology

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Somali has 22 consonant phonemes, with at least one in every place of articulation described on the IPA chart, except epiglottal. It has five basic vowel sounds, each having a front and back variation, as well as long or short versions, giving distinct 20 pure vowel sounds. It also exhibits three tones: high, low and falling.


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Somali is an agglutinative language, using a number of markers for case, gender and number. Characteristic differences between Somali and most Indo-European languages include multiple forms of most personal pronouns, the use of particles to signify the focus of a sentence, extensive use of tone to denote differences in case and number, and gender polarity (the gender of many words is different in the singular and plural forms).


Somali contains a number of loan words from Arabic, Persian, and the former colonial languages English and Italian. Somalis are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims and the language has taken much religious terminology from Arabic. From the pastoral epoch there are Arabic loan words for objects of settled living such as the Somali albaabka (the door), from the Arabic الباب al baab, which displays the same inclusion of the definite article as do many European words derived from Arabic.

A large number of neologisms were created after Somali became the official language to express concepts used in government and education.

Writing system


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14th century Somali-Arabo stone tablet from the Ajuuraan Period.

An ancient script seems to have been used to write Somali.[5] Since then a number of writing systems have been used for transcribing the language. Of these, the Somali Latin alphabet is the most widely-used, and has been the official writing script in Somalia since the government of former President of Somalia Mohamed Siad Barre formally introduced it in October 1972.[6] The script was developed by the Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed specifically for the Somali language, and uses all letters of the English Latin alphabet except p, v and z. This alphabet has 21 consonants and 5 vowels. There are no diacritics or other special characters except the use of the apostrophe for the glottal stop, which is not word-initial. There are three consonant digraphs: DH, KH and SH. Tone is not marked; front and back vowels are not distinguished. Capital letters are used at the beginning of a sentence and for proper names.

Starting from 1960, debate about which writing system to use for transcribing the Somali language dragged on for nine years. No fewer than a dozen linguists were tasked with developing a workable script. Eventually, Shire Jama Ahmed's refined Somali Latin script was adopted, an alphabet which he used to publish pamphlets and small Af Soomaali drillbooks in his own printing press. Ahmed argued that even though most people were in favor of using the Arabic script, it was more practical to use Latin primarily due to its simplicity, the fact that it lent itself well to writing Somali since it could cope with all of the sounds in the language, and the already widespread existence of machines and typewriters designed for its use.[7]

Besides Ahmed's Latin script, other orthographies that have been used for centuries for writing Somali include the long-established Arabic script and Wadaad's writing.[8] Indigenous writing systems developed in the twentieth century include the Osmanya, Borama and Kaddare scripts, which were invented by Osman Yusuf Kenadid, Sheikh Abdurahman Sheikh Nuur and Hussein Sheikh Ahmed Kaddare, respectively.[9]

Modern history

Before the arrival of the Italians and British, educated Somalis and religious fraternities either wrote in Arabic or used an ad hoc transliteration of Somali into Arabic script referred to as Wadaad's writing. Most of the renowned Somali rebel leader Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's missives, including a letter he wrote to a scholar who betrayed him to the colonial powers, were in Arabic. Qur'anic schools (madrassas) were ubiquitous throughout Somalia, so children were exposed to the Arabic alphabet from a very young age. Material first discovered in 1940, mainly ancient letters and tomb inscriptions, demonstrates that the Somali language, like the Urdu and Persian languages, had long been written with the Arabic alphabet. However, this was likely not codified, and questions remain about the extent of its use.

A number of attempts had been made from the 1920s onwards to standardize the language using a number of different alphabets. Pamphlets explaining the new standardization were released to the public in a soccer stadium in Mogadishu on October 10, 1972.

The first comprehensive dictionaries were produced in 1976, the Qaamuus kooban ee af Soomaali ah and Qaamuuska Af-Soomaaliga. On the orders of the Barre regime, civil servants were required to pass language proficiency exams, and a vast literacy campaign was launched wherein students were sent to rural areas to teach others the new script. By 1978, the majority of Somalis were reportedly literate. This would go down historically as one the fastest developments of mass literacy anywhere in the world.

See also


  1. A software tool for research in linguistics and lexicography: Application to Somali
  2. Ethnologue: Somalia
  3. SOMALIA historical demographic data of the whole country Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht
  4. Somaliland is a de facto independent state, but has not been recognized internationally. The international community officially considers it to be part of Somalia.
  5. Ministry of Information and National Guidance, Somalia, The writing of the Somali language, (Ministry of Information and National Guidance: 1974), p.5
  6. Economist Intelligence Unit (Great Britain), Middle East annual review, (1975), p.229
  7. Andrew Simpson, Language and National Identity in Africa, (Oxford University Press: 2008), p.288
  9. David D. Laitin, Politics, Language, and Thought: The Somali Experience, (University Of Chicago Press: 1977), pp.86-87


  1. Diriye Abdullahi, Mohamed. 2000. Le Somali, dialectes et histoire. Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Montréal.
  2. Saeed, John Ibrahim. 1987. Somali Reference Grammar. Springfield, VA: Dunwoody Press.
  3. Saeed, John Ibrahim. 1999. Somali. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Further reading

  1. L.E. Armstrong. 1964. "The phonetic structure of Somali," Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen Berlin 37/3:116-161.
  2. C.R.V. Bell. 1953. The Somali Language. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
  3. Jörg Berchem. 1991. Referenzgrammatik des Somali. Köln: Omimee.
  4. G.R. Cardona. 1981. "Profilo fonologico del somalo," Fonologia e lessico. Ed. G.R. Cardona & F. Agostini. Rome: Dipartimento per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo; Comitato Tecnico Linguistico per l'Università Nazionale Somala, Ministero degli Affari Esteri. Volume 1, pages 3–26.
  5. Elena Z. Dobnova. 1990. Sovremennyj somalijskij jazyk. Moskva: Nauka.
  6. Annarita Puglielli. 1997. "Somali Phonology," Phonologies of Asia and Africa, Volume 1. Ed. Alan S. Kaye. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. Pages 521-535.

External links

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