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The Status of Somali Language Term Paper

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Updated: Oct 31st, 2020

The Somali language is the mother tongue for about 95 percent of the population of Somalia, and it is spoken by nearly 9 million people in the north-eastern corner of Africa (Saeed 1). Although Somali remains the most widespread language in the country, it has not always been the official language and obtained this status merely in the early 1970’s. As stated by Warsame, after the country became independent in 1960, English, Italian, and Arabic became its official languages (341).

Then, due to political and ethnic conflicts, the authorities could not come to a consensus regarding the unified script for the Somali language for a significant time. Ultimately, when the final decision on this issue was made in 1972, the Somali government had continually made attempts to improve the status of the Somali language and preserve it. Various language and literacy policies implemented in Somalia before the 1990’s fostered the development of language in the country, but after the collapse of the state, when the existing political structure was destroyed, the position of Somali in the education and communication systems has weakened.

Nevertheless, although the development of Somali in the role of the official language has slowed down after this political turmoil, it remains a significant part of the cultural and social identity of local citizens. Moreover, it can be argued that the standard variation of Somali largely is dominant in the country, and it influences minority dialects and affects their development. Thus, in this paper, the high-quality literature devoted to the issues of the status of Somali language, overall linguistic environment, and language policies adopted in the country will be reviewed. The historical and political background, on which Somali was developing throughout the time, will be analyzed and, based on this, possible developmental trends will be identified and discussed.

Historical Setting

It is observed by Ammon and Hellinger that in the states where ethnic rivalries occurred, Africans tended to prefer using the languages of their former colonial powers as the official languages rather than African tongues if they were not of their own ethnic group (119). It is possible to say that the similar situation can be observed in the case of Somalia. For a long time, Arabic, English, and Italian were the main languages employed in the communication and education system of the state.

The major reason for this was that no unified script for Somali was adopted and, in different periods, it changed. For instance, in the 13th century, the Arabic script was first transferred to the country by Sheikh Yusuf bin Ahmed al-Kowneyn who came to Africa’s horn to teach Quran (Warsame 343). Centuries later, the Latin script was integrated into Somali as well, and the Latin-based orthography has slowly developed along the Arabic ones (Warsame 343). Due to multiple conflicts between Catholics and Muslims, the rulers could not decide to which of the writing systems it is better to adhere. As a result, Arabic and Latin scripts were simultaneously used in different regions of Somalia.

In the 20th century, Somali nationalists tried to develop the Cuusmaniya script because they recognized the uniqueness and value of Somali and aimed to assert the state’s independence by doing so. As stated by Warsame, it was a truly indigenous script and can be considered the most accurate among all ever applied as it captures the Somali sound-consonants and vowels much better than Arabic and Latin scripts do (343). However, the “national” scripts were associated with particular clans and failed to eliminate ethnic and religious tensions and ultimately unify independent Somalia (Hoben 404). Thus, the script committee was established by the independent government in 1960, and only in 1972, it was finally decided to implement Latin as the official Somali script (Hoben 405).

Ammon and Hellinger claim that the choice of the Latin script for Somali provided some opportunities in the establishment of the new roles of the language in education and science, as well as national and cross-national communication and diplomacy (128).

Moreover, as Warsame notes, when selecting this script, the government aimed to avoid drawing political and religious justifications and evaluated every available option merely upon the criteria of utility and efficiency (346). Nevertheless, to promote and maintain the new form of the written Somali language, a lot of efforts and investments were required. The particular campaigns and language policies enacted by the government since the 1970’s will be reviewed in the following paragraph.

Supporting Policies and Campaigns, 1973-1991

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the Somali government implemented a series of rural and urban literacy policies. A lot of new educational materials and the Somali grammar were created using the new standard form of the language and were disseminated among the schools across the county (Warsame 347). Due to these efforts, it was possible to spread the standard Somali through educational practices.

According to Warsame, the major purposes of these nationwide literacy campaigns were the awakening of the population to new ideas, encouragement of individuals to engage in national development, and stimulation of communication (348). Only when the authorities chose Somali as the official language and took action to standardize it, they obtained an opportunity to move towards the formulated objectives. In this way, since 1973, the Somali language started to play a significant role in both social and political spheres.

When trying to eradicate illiteracy in rural, urban, and nomadic population, the Academy of Culture made significant efforts to spread the Somali poetic tradition and propagate modern local literature (Ammon and Hellinger 133). Thus, the Somali language started to obtain a key significance in the cultural development of the country as well. It is worth noticing that the most popular Somali poets and authors used the Northern dialect − Maxaatiri − in their writings and it was this dialect that formed the basis for the development of the standard Somali after the formation of the Somali state (Saeed 4).

Although the language shows a significant dialect variability, the standard Somali based on the Northern dialect is usually used as a lingua franca in the cross-dialect communication on the territories of Somalia. Two other main dialects, Baidoa and Maay, are now used in official media, education, and publishing much rarer than the standard form of the language (Saeed 4).

Mansur observes that the integration of the standard writing system was associated with multiple advantages including the enrichment of Somali through the introduction of new neologism system in it and creation of new terminology that was accessible to people from different walks of life and demographic backgrounds (1). Moreover, the author notes that the new writing system helped establish links between the urban and nomadic cultures because the pieces of the native cultural oral heritage were documented (Mansur 2). In this way, the standard Somali supported the collection of the valuable cultural objects such as poems and proverbs.

Status of Somali After 1991

As stated by Mansur, “the new role assumed by the Somali language gave the entire population an access to their national heritage and cultural identity” (1). However, the scholar suggests that the collapse of the state in 1991 has substantially damaged the path to further development of Somali (Mansur 2). Nowadays, both Somali and Arabic are the official languages in Somalia. For this reason, a lot of Somali children may first learn to read and write in Arabic in many regions of the country.

Nevertheless, although it is difficult to combine Somali and Arabic instruction, both of the languages are used in educational settings, whereas Arabic is primarily used in secondary schools (UNICEF 2). Moreover, many elementary and secondary educational settings in Somalia are managed by international and non-governmental NGOs, which means that children are often instructed in English as well (UNICEF 2).

Nowadays, foreign language and English, in particular, acquired a prestigious status among the members of Somali population both inside and outside the country. Some particular signs of this tendency are the common use of English by the administration representatives, widespread use of foreign or hybrid names for various public and private facilities such as schools and hotels, frequent use of English words in everyday speech, and so on (Mansur 2).

It is possible to say that the utilization of foreign words in Somalia is defined by multiple factors. The colonial past, strong British and Italian influences, globalization, high prevalence of Muslim population, neighboring with Kenya and Ethiopia are among the main ones. Moreover, the use of English and Arabic may provide some economic and political benefits for the country as they largely facilitate the establishment of cross-national contacts.

Nevertheless, it may be argued that the widespread use of foreign languages can be detrimental to Somali. For instance, one of the commonly discussed fears in the public and scholarly discourse is that Somali could disappear as a medium of educational instruction and die out as a result (UNICEF 2; Mansur 3). Nevertheless, there is no substantial evidence to support the given fears. Moreover, UNICEF states that to address the public concerns, in 2013, the Directorate for Education commenced the planning of new literacy and language policies that would strengthen the position of Somali in multiple spheres of performance (2).

However, due to a high level of religious and cultural diversification in the country, as well as the overall global and national developmental trends, it is unlikely that Somali will become the only official language in the state.

Status of Dialects and Standard Somali

As it was mentioned above, there is no substantial threat to the standard Somali language although it continues to be influenced by foreign languages and co-exists with them on the same territory − it is possible to say that the same situation can be observed in many multiethnic countries across the globe. Nevertheless, the transformation of the Maxaatiri dialect into the common language could have an adverse impact on other Somali dialects including Maay.

As it was mentioned previously in the paper, the Northern dialect is the majority language, which turned into a local lingua franca. From the perspective of the linguistic self-defense framework, the evolution of majority languages can be regarded by minority linguistic groups as a form of cultural imperialism (Ouedraogo 34).

As Ouedraogo claims, in order to cope with the unfavorable influence of lingua francas on minority languages, the speakers of the latter prefer to maintain the status quo rather than support the policies that would advance the development of majority languages (34). The similar situation could be observed in Somalia regarding the historical confrontation of Arabic, English, Italian, and Somali. However, when speaking of Somali dialects only, it seems that speakers do not have any other choice than to accept the dominance of the standard language.

As Mansur claims, the Somali dominant ruling class has always spoke the Northern dialect and large volumes of literature were produced in the given variation of the language (5-6). Thus, the primary role of Maxaatiri in Somalia is determined by historical and political preconditions, as well as the quantitative measures such as the number of speakers, etc. The situation with Somali dialects is not unique and similar cases can be observed across the globe. For example, since the Parisian dialect is considered the standard one in France, French citizens who speak other dialects, such as Meridional French, have to accept the dominance of the Metropolitan dialect (Mansur 5). Similarly, the speakers of Somali minority languages have to accept the fact that the use of one form official language is convenient and advantageous for the state.


The findings of the literature review make it clear that by integrating the language in various literacy and writing campaigns and mobilizing a great number of people in order to reduce the illiteracy rates, the Somali authorities managed to achieve significant results in the development of standard Somali and preservation of cultural and literary heritage. It is possible to say that the selection of a unified script for the Somali language was largely motivated by the desire to achieve the national integration.

Although the outcomes in the achievement of this goal are rather questionable, the overall efforts undertaken throughout the second half of the 20th century demonstrate that the government was perfectly aware of the significance of Somali in the formation of the national and cultural identity of citizens and tried to exploit and preserve it as a valuable resource. However, while Maxaatiri is utilized as the basis for the standard language, other dialects are less fortunate − the use of the majority of those dialects in educational settings and media is highly limited. Assimilation and loss of some indigenous linguistic forms may be two of possible adverse impacts of the dominant variety of Somali on minority languages.

The evidence derived from the literature also indicates that the circumstances of excessive influence by foreign languages, the authenticity of Somali may be threatened. There is no chance that the Somali language will die out, but an overload with foreign words in the vocabularies contributes to the linguistic impurity of Somali. It is possible to presume that due to globalization, the feasibility and frequency of cross-cultural contacts will only increase. New terms and notions will inevitably penetrate in the language. However, a standardized approach to the modernization of Somali can help control the level of the language purity. Moreover, the restoration of Somali in the role of the primary instructional language in educational settings can help farther enrich Somali and strengthen its position in multiple spheres.

Works Cited

Ammon, Ulrich, and Marlis Hellinger. Status Change of Languages. Walter de Gruyter, 1992.

Hoben, Susan J. Language Issues and Education in Somalia. 1988. Web.

Mansur, Abdalla Omar. “Wardheer News. Web.

Ouedraogo, Rakissouiligri Mathieu. . 2000. Web.

Saeed, John I. Somali. John Benjamins Publishing Co, 1999.

UNICEF. . 2016. Web.

Warsame, Ali A. “How a Strong Government Backed an African Language: The Lessons of Somalia.” International Review of Education, vol. 47, no. 3/4, 2001, pp. 341-360.

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