Languages of Somalia

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Languages of Somalia
Somali map.jpg
Map of Somali language distribution.
OfficialSomali, Arabic
ImmigrantOromo, Mushunguli
ForeignItalian, English
SignedSomali Sign Language
Keyboard layout

This page articulates the languages spoken in Somalia. The official government website is available in three languages: Somali, English and Arabic.[1]

Local languages[edit]

Somali Language[edit]

Somali is the official language of Somalia and the mother tongue of the Somali people, the nation's most populous ethnic group. [2][3] It is a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, and its nearest relatives are the Afar and Saho languages.[4] Somali is the best documented of the Cushitic languages,[5] with academic studies of it dating from before 1900.

Speech sample in Standard Somali. Sheikh Ahmed Nur giving a speech (July 26, 2012).

As of 2006, there were approximately 16.6 million speakers of Somali, of which about 8.3 million reside in Somalia.[6]

The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Greater Somalia and the Somali diaspora. It is spoken as an adoptive language by a few ethnic minority groups in these regions.

Somali dialects are divided into three main groups: Northern, Benaadir and Maay (sometimes spelled Mai or Mai Mai). 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 Cadaley to south of Merca, including Mogadishu, as well as in the immediate hinterland. The coastal dialects have additional phonemes which do not exist in Standard Somali. Maay is principally spoken by the Digil and Mirifle (Rahanweyn) clans in the southern areas of Somalia.[7]

The Somali language is regulated by the Regional Somali Language Academy, an intergovernmental institution established in June 2013 by the governments of Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia. It is officially mandated with preserving the Somali language.[8]

Somali Sign Language[edit]

The Somali Sign Language (SSL) is a sign language used by the deaf community in Somalia and Djibouti. It was originally developed by a Somali man educated in a Somali deaf school in Wajir, Kenya. In 1997, he established the first school for the deaf in the city of Borama, Somalia.


Other minority languages include Bravanese (also known as Chimwiini or Chimbalazi), a variant of the Bantu Swahili language that is spoken along the southern coast by the Bravanese people. Kibajuni is a Swahili dialect that is the mother tongue of the Bajuni ethnic minority group. Additionally, a number of Bantus speak Mushunguli as a mother tongue.[9]


In addition to Somali, Arabic, which is also an Afro-Asiatic tongue, is an official national language in Somalia.[2] Many Somalis speak it due to centuries-old cultural and ethnic ties with the Arab world, the far-reaching influence of the Arabic media, and religious education,[citation needed] although most Somalis either don't speak it at all, or only a little.[10] SIL estimates the total number of speakers, regardless of proficiency, at just over two million.[11] Variants of the Yemeni and Hadhrami dialects are most common, particularly among merchants.[12]

Somali's main lexical borrowings come from Arabic. Soravia (1994) noted a total of 1,436 Arabic loanwords in Agostini a.o. 1985, a prominent Somali dictionary. Most of the vocabulary terms consisted of commonly used nouns. These lexical borrowings may have been more extensive in the past since a few words that Zaborski (1967:122) observed in the older literature were absent in Agostini's later work.[13]

European languages[edit]


Italian was the only official language in Italian Somaliland for nearly 70 years and later - during the Trusteeship period - was official together with the Somali. After 1960 independence, the Italian remained official for another dozen years. Italian was later declared an official language again by the Transitional Federal Government along with English in 2004.[14] But, in 2012, they were later removed by the establishments of the Provisional Constitution by the Federal Government of Somalia[15] leaving Somali and Arabic as the only official languages.

Italian is a legacy of the Italian colonial period of Somalia when it was part of the Italian Empire. Italian was the mother tongue of the Italian settlers of Somalia.

Although it was the primary language since colonial rule, Italian continued to be used among the country's ruling elite even after 1960 independence when it continued to remain as an official language. It is estimated that more than 200,000 native Somalis (nearly 20% of the total population of former Somalia italiana) were fluent speaking Italian when independence was declared in 1960.[16]

After a military coup in 1969, all foreign entities were nationalized by Siad Barre (who spoke Italian fluently), including Mogadishu's principal university, which was renamed 'Jaamacadda Ummadda Soomaliyeed' (Somali National University). This marked the initial decline of the use of Italian in Somalia.

However, Italian is still widely spoken by the elderly, the educated, and by the governmental officials of Somalia. Prior to the Somali civil war, Mogadishu still had an Italian-language school, but was later destroyed by the conflict.[17]


English is widely taught in schools. It used to be a working language in the British Somaliland protectorate. It was also increasing in usage during the British Military Administration (Somali), whereby Britain controlled most Somali-inhabited areas from 1941 until 1949. Outside of the north, the Jubaland region has had the lengthiest period whereby English was an official language as the British empire began administering from the 1880s. [18]

Darwiish period[edit]

The increase of Turkish in Somali multilingualism in the contemporary era dates to the late 1880s and early 1990s during Ismail Urwayni and his student Ali Nayroobi's efforts at spreading "Somali Salihism", the religious component of the Darwiish, through connections in the Ottoman empire. Turkish is also spoken in modest numbers in Somalia. In contemporary periods, this is because the largest number of foreign students study in colleges or universities in Turkey after they received scholarships from Ankara's government. Other reasons include the presence of educational facilities built through assistance by the Turkish government and the various training programs in the Turkish language that accompanied it.[19] In more distant history, Turkish was first introduced during interaction between the mostly Turkish Ottomans and the Adal and Ajuraan sultanates respectively. The alliance between the Ottomans and the Darwiish State included Turkish translators during diplomatic negotiations or the exchange of ambassadors between the Ottomans and the Darwiish.[20][21]


The Portuguese empire began making inroads into the region of modern Jubaland from the 16th century. It maintained a foothold on Jubaland's coastal areas until its defeat by the Ajuran Sultanate in a naval battle and subsequently the Portuguese language ceased being used.[22]


The Osmanya writing script for Somali.

A number of writing systems have been used for transcribing the Somali language. Of these, the Somali Latin alphabet is the most widely used, and has been the official writing script in Somalia since 1972.[23] 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. There are no diacritics or other special characters except the use of the apostrophe for the glottal stop, which does not occur word-initially. There are three consonant digraphs: DH, KH and SH. Tone is not marked, and front and back vowels are not distinguished.

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.[24] 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.[25]


  1. ^ Stremlau, Nicole. "Constitution-making, media, and the politics of participation in Somalia." African Affairs 115.459 (2016): 225-245.
  2. ^ a b "The Federal Republic of Somalia - Provisional Constitution" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 10 September 2012. The official language of the Federal Republic of Somalia is Somali (Maay and Maxaa-tiri), and Arabic is the second language.
  3. ^ "Somalia". World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. 2009-05-14. Retrieved 2009-05-31.
  4. ^ I. M. Lewis, Peoples of the Horn of Africa: Somali, Afar and Saho, (Red Sea Press: 1998), p.11.
  5. ^ "A software tool for research in linguistics and lexicography: Application to Somali". Computers and Translation. 2: 21–36. doi:10.1007/BF01540131. Retrieved 2010-06-27.
  6. ^ "Somali". SIL International. 2013. Retrieved May 4, 2013.
  7. ^ Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of languages: the definitive reference to more than 400 languages, (Columbia University Press: 1998), p.571.
  8. ^ "Regional Somali Language Academy Launched in Djibouti". COMESA Regional Investment Agency. Retrieved 27 February 2015.
  9. ^ "Mushungulu". Ethnologue.
  10. ^ "Arabic, Standard". Ethnologue.
  11. ^ "Somalia". Ethnologue.
  12. ^ Dalby, Andrew (1999). Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to More Than 400 Languages. Bloomsbury Pub Ltd. p. 25. ISBN 0231115687.
  13. ^ Versteegh (2008:273)
  14. ^ According to article 7 of Transitional Federal Charter for the Somali Republic: The official languages of the Somali Republic shall be Somali (Maay and Maxaatiri) and Arabic. The second languages of the Transitional Federal Government shall be English and Italian.
  15. ^ According to article 5 of Provisional Constitution: The official language of the Federal Republic of Somalia is Somali (Maay and Maxaa-tiri), and Arabic is the second language.
  16. ^ "Somalia Dieci Anni dopo" – via
  17. ^ Scuola media di Mogadiscio (Picture)
  18. ^ Oliver, Roland Anthony (1976). History of East Africa, Volume 2. Clarendon Press. p. 7.
  19. ^ Ozkan, Mehmet, and Serhat Orakci. "Turkey as a “political” actor in Africa–an assessment of Turkish involvement in Somalia." Journal of Eastern African Studies 9.2 (2015): 343-352
  20. ^ Abdullahi, Abdurahman. Making Sense of Somali History: Volume 1. Vol. 1. Adonis and Abbey Publishers, 2017
  21. ^ Xasuus qor: timelines of Somali history, 1400-2000 - Page 29, Faarax Maxamuud Maxamed - 2004
  22. ^ Pouwels, Randall L. (2006). Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800–1900. African Studies. 53. Cambridge University Press. p. 15.
  23. ^ Economist Intelligence Unit (Great Britain), Middle East annual review, (1975), p.229
  24. ^ "Somali alphabets, pronunciation and language".
  25. ^ Laitin (1977:86–87)


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

External links[edit]