Except for a few communities along the southern Somali coast where Swahili (a Bantu language) and Arabic dialects are spoken, Somali nationals (including persons of non-Somali origin) speak one of several Somali dialects. Somali belongs to a set of languages called lowland Eastern Cushitic spoken by peoples living in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Eastern Cushitic is one section of the Cushitic language family, which in turn is part of the great Afro-Asiatic stock.
Of the Somali dialects, the most widely used is Common Somali, a term applied to several subdialects, the speakers of which can understand each other easily. Common Somali is spoken in most of Somalia and in adjacent territories (Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti), and is used by broadcasting stations in Somalia and in Somali-language broadcasts originating outside the country. Coastal Somali is spoken on the Banaadir Coast (from Cadale to south of Baraawe) and its immediate hinterland. Central Somali is spoken in the interriverine area, chiefly by members of the Rahanwayn clan-family. Speakers of Common and Coastal Somali can understand each other after a few weeks of close contact, speakers of Common and Central Somali only after a few months.
Facility with language is highly valued in Somali society; the capability of a suitor, a warrior, or a political or religious leader is judged in part by his verbal adroitness. In such a society, oral poetry becomes an art, and one’s ability to compose verse in one or more of its several forms enhances one’s status.
Speakers in political or religious assemblies and litigants in courts traditionally were expected to use poetry or poetic proverbs. Even everyday talk tended to have a terse, vivid, poetic style, characterized by carefully chosen words, condensed meaning, and alliteration.
Until the establishment of the Somali script in January 1973, there were two languages of government–English and Italian. In the prerevolutionary era, English became dominant in the school system and in government, which caused some conflict between elites from northern and southern Somalia. However, the overarching issue was the development of a socioeconomic stratum based on mastery of a foreign language. The relatively small proportion of Somalis (less than 10 percent) with a grasp of such a language–preferably English–had access to government positions and the few managerial or technical jobs in modern private enterprises. Such persons became increasingly isolated from their nonliterate Somali-speaking brethren, but because the secondary schools and most government posts were in urban areas the socioeconomic and linguistic distinction was in large part a rural-urban one. To some extent, it was also a north-south distinction because those educated in the Italian system and even in Italian universities found it increasingly difficult to reach senior government levels.
Even before the 1969 revolution, Somalis had become aware of social stratification and the growing distance, based on language and literacy differences, between ordinary Somalis and those in government. The 1972 decision to designate an official Somali script and require its use in government demolished the language barrier and an important obstacle to rapid literacy growth.
In the years following the institution of the Somali script, Somali officials were required to learn the script and attempts were made to inculcate mass literacy–in 1973 among urban and rural sedentary Somalis, and in 1974-75 among nomads. Although a few texts existed in the new script before 1973, in most cases new books were prepared presenting the government’s perspective on Somali history and development. Somali scholars also succeeded in developing a vocabulary to deal with a range of subjects from mathematics and physics to administration and ideology.
By the late 1970s, sufficient Somali materials were available to permit the language to be the medium of instruction at all school levels below the university. Arabic was taught to all students, beginning at the elementary level and continuing into the secondary phase. Because Italians dominated the senior faculty at the national university in the late 1970s, Italian remained in wide use. By the late 1980s, Somali was the language of instruction at the university as well.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress