Linguistic Soomaalinimo – Until Deference Do Us Apart
By Abdul-Rahman Jama
Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.
– Saul Bello.
The Somali man is tall and handsome. He is built like an ox and a giraffe all at once. He is light skinned. He is blessed with sweet poetry and a love for his land. He is honourable and brave. He conducts himself in a manly manner. He’s a nin rag ah. He is a geesi.
But if he does not speak af Maaxaa Tiri, he might as well not have bothered with being a spice.
It is clear, to most Somalis, that there is a hierarchy of dialects in the mind of most Somalis; a spectrum from the most Somali dialect, to the least. It’s strange that different dialects in the Somali language have been assigned gender roles too; the northern being the most masculine, and the af-Maay, the most feminine (Xamari is seen as a contender too). The northern is the dialect the old men speak who make all the really important decisions. And Af-Maay, the one you use…well, you should never use it.
It is perhaps equally interesting that while poetry from the North is revered, poetry from speakers of Af-Maay, Digil and Ashraaf dialects are seen as little more than unrefined, Africanised, primitive art forms. The speakers of these dialects are yet to perfect anything other than the art of the caalaacal.
This blog piece will attempt to cut through the bullshit about Somalia’s different dialects, and shed an inkling of light on the erasure of minority dialects.
In order to get a slightly better idea of what we’re talking about, let’s break it down. Somali is a Cushitic language, part of the Afro-Asiatic languages. Its closest relatives are Afar and Saho which are also East Cushitic languages. The Somali language is classified into five different groups: northern, Banaadir, Maay, Digil and Ashraaf. Within each of these dialects, there is a variation of vocabulary: lug/idin or baabuur/gaari or hergeb/qunfac.But they’re united by a relatively similar syntax and phonology.
Minority dialects include Dabarre, Garre, Jiiddu and Maay. I don’t feel comfortable with the research about how many people speak these dialects because I doubt the research is accurate. But one thing the research seems to agree on is that the speakers of these dialects have decreased radically in the past century. This is for a number of reasons: urbanisation, state standardization. Increased urbanisation in most languages forces a certain level of organic standardization in the language; as people live closer to each other, one word very quickly becomes the most prevalent. Let us move on to state standardization of the Somali language.
Standardization and Modernization – And its Politics
Languages are always changing to suit the needs and requirements of their speakers. As such, modernisation is always required. But this is often indiscriminate and a bit haphazard when it occurs organically. Example of this is the word pyjama being imported into the English language. It was entirely unplanned, and it kind of just happened. In the past century there have been two notable efforts to modernize the Somali language. The first was overseen by the British in the 40s through Radio Hargeisa broadcasts and the second was instituted by the Barre regime.
As you probably know, Somali orthography was first introduced in the early 70s. The Somali Revolutionary Committee had put together a committee of twenty language experts to come up with a system of writing the Somali language. It not clear how many members of the committee spoke other dialects, but it is clear the final writing system had an inherent preference for the northern dialect [ie: absence of p]. Consequent governmental literacy campaigns made this crystal clear.
The process of both modernization and standardization had begun. Words like raw material [qalabka cayrin] and triangle [Saddexagal] appeared overnight. New words were constantly being introduced to the northern Somali dialect. A whole movement of Eray Bixin [word invention] had begun. The Somali northern dialect was now capable of fulfilling the needs of its speakers, and their daily and modern lives. This was now the official dialect. All the other dialects and languages were abandoned completely by the state. This is illustrated best by the fact that the Somali government produced an official press statement once a month of all new laws called “Faafin Rasmi ah” between 1975 and 1990. Not one of those was written in a dialect other than the northern dialect. I am told there were a few TV programmes here and there targeted at speakers of minority dialects, but I wasn’t able to find any. In all of Barre’s speeches, not one had involved him using any other dialect, or attempting to.
Poetry in the northern dialect was quickly canonized. Besides a small number of plays performed in the late 80s, almost all of Waaberi Group’s plays [the state-backed band] constituted the use of northern dialects, poetry with northern metre and techniques [Daleeys and Samatar excepted]. Northern poetry was now high art and everything else fell short of it. A family friend born in Baidhoa in the 70s recently told me that they were taught northern dialect poetry at school, and nothing about local poetry. He could recite back Mohammed Abdullah Hassan poetry and not a single verse from any local poet. He pointed out that studying those poems, they might as well have been a foreign language.
This was hardly an accident. You see, this was part of Barre’s vision of a single Somalia; one race, one religion and one language. The entire regime’s existence depended on a normative version of Somali. This comes as a little surprise then that state-sponsored literacy campaign in the 70s ascribed teaching how to write and read the northern dialect. The Bar ama Baro campaign though successful (UNESCO report puts literacy at 5% in 1974 and 20% in 1975), it required recent graduates to go into communities were the northern dialect was not spoken so that they may be taught how to read and write it. This was in a sense proselytization. Except not really*.
Standard Language Ideology
Born out of this moment in Somali history then is our version of the standard language ideology. The concept that somewhere out there is the unadulterated, untouched, pure Somali. Before this, every Qabiil or community had understood their own dialect as the more pure. But this was state-backed bias. Everything the old regime did pointed to this being the northern dialect. It didn’t happen by accident. Uniformity was imposed, even if it meant the erasure of the cultures of hundreds of thousands of people. The other really important point that needs to be understood is that Barre’s standardization was not value-neutral, even if his supporters argue otherwise. This was about establishing an order of prestige, with the northern dialect as the most Somali, and everything else as being less Somali. And once national myths were firmly in place, this prestige would translate into competition amongst citizens.
Standardization is never value-neutral. It wasn’t in Spain when Castilian Spanish established itself as the norm, nor was it in Italy when Florentine Italian was established as the standard. In both cases, they give much more insight into power dynamics than they do an inherent Italianness, or Spanishness of their respective dialogues.
Us too, the diaspora children, suffer from a serious case of standard language ideology. We tend to imagine a romantic era of the Somali language. A time when we all spoke beautiful Somali. A time when a young man could step outside his Aqal Soomaali, and if he saw a beautiful young woman, he could just open his mouth and beautiful gabay would flow out of his mouth like the biyo of a waterfall. But this, rather than being born out of innocent imagination of Somalia’s yesteryears, it is born out of our anxieties about not being Somali enough. The prestige associated with Barre’s standardization campaign has meant that, like our parents, we have anxieties about how Somali we’re really being when we speak Somali. God forbid we were ever called crappy Somalis for speaking non-standard Northern dialect Somali. You don’t have to take my word for it, try this test:
How many Somali poets do you know? And how many of them are northern?
Standard Language Ideology – If you wanna play that game
If we all agreed that standard language ideology was the way to go [which it bloody isn’t], and that we all agreed that there was a single dialect that was more Somali (pure), which would it be? Without a doubt, it wouldn’t be the Northern dialect. Scholarship is in agreement that the southern dialects of the Somali language have preserved more of the sounds and vocabulary of early East Cushitic languages. This is funny given that I often hear arrogant Somalis from the Middle Regions or the North talking about how speakers of Af-Maay are absolutely incapable of speaking Somali. Without knowledge that the af-Maay and the Af-Dabarre speaker are much closer to how our ancestors spoke.
Take the following examples:
- [English] heart/soul/life. [East Cushitic] Lubb-i/rubaz. [Af-Maay/Af-Dabarre] rubud. [Af Maxaa Tiri]Nafs(taken from Arabic rather than any native East African root).
- [English] hit/strike. [East Cushitic] d’aw. [Af-Maay/Af-Dabarre] dhaw. [Af Maxaa Tiri] Garaac (totally different).
The word liver gives real insight into this point. In Af-Maxaa Tiri, the word is “beer”. The etymology of this word is not known (I’ve tried to look it up). What is known however is the East Cushitic word;tir/tira. This root is present in most Cushitic languages, particularly in Oromo [tir], in Af-Maay[turraw], in Af-Dhabarre[tarraw] and af-Jiiddu[turuw]. If we are chasing the pedigree that is the Somali language, the northern dialect would certainly not be the way to go. As we’ve pointed out, this was never about locating the truest form of Somali. This was an exercise in hegemony. And forcing a consensus of a single type of Somali.
The Now- Shamed And Silenced
National identities are slippery creatures. Dialect spoken by an individual is seen as the signifier of this national identity. In communities where the northern dialect is not spoken, the community’s existence and culture is constantly questioned for how Somali it is. In a video about young Somalis in refugee camps near Baidhoa, someone commented with “arent they somali? so if they are somali why dont they speak somali instead of xabashi”. Because they were speaking af-Maay. Now, that comment might have been inflammatory by design, but it speaks volumes about the general attitude towards minorities and their dialects. There comes a moment in which we need to start to ask ourselves: is his objection really a linguistic one backed up by thorough academic research, or a general disdain towards these community and their Somaliness? Perhaps both. The latter is infinitely more likely.
There’s a definite level of erasure of these languages and dialects at the national level. Out of the six or seven international Somali broadcast channels, I am yet to find a channel that even attempts to cater to speakers of these dialects. Royal TV, a few years ago, did a single show in Af-Maay, one hour a day. This service has now ceased.
My mother, a speaker of Af-Maay often speaks of her frustration that she is losing her ability to speak her own tongue. She recently told me about seeing her childhood (best) friend in Dubai after some 40 years. They grew up in the same village, just south of Afgoye. Neither one of them spoke Af Maxaa Tiri growing up. When my mother saw her, she spoke to her in Af-Maay. He friend apologetically responded with “I can’t speak it any more”. Hooyo said that sadness overcame her, and that she didn’t know how to respond to what she had been told.
Nobody should be made to forget their own language. If that isn’t systematic violence, I don’t know what is.
There is a similar erasure online. Of the websites I’ve surveyed using Hiiraan.com’s directory, three or four returned Af-Maay websites. This content just isn’t there unless you really know where to look. [if you’re interested, check out Amaandhoorey, he does a lot of great work on and off Youtube].
Yes, the Somali constitution does consider both Af-Maxaa Tiri and Af-Maay national languages. But I am seriously doubtful of any progress being made. We are seeing the continuation of that linguistic hierarchy.
Things you can do right this moment to help:
1. Learn a different dialect of Somali.
2. Challenge anyone who defines scope of Somali literature to Northern poetry.
3. Don’t be Saul Bellow. Af-Maay does have a fucking Tolstoy. Find her.
Abdul-Rahman Jama and his blog can be found here: