Friday, June 27, 2014

Independence Day: The Languages of Djibouti

Today the nation of Djibouti celebrates its independence from France, so we thought we'd take a look at the linguistic makeup of the country. Djibouti can be found on the Horn of Africa and, like many African nations, was once colonised by France. However, on this day in 1977, Djibouti gained its independence from France. Although there are certainly remnants of France's influence on Djibouti, the country speaks much more than just the French language.

While French does hold official language status in Djibouti and the country's motto, "Unité, Égalité, Paix" ("Unity, Equality, Peace") is in French, it also grants official language status to Arabic. Having French and Arabic as official languages is hardly surprising given Djibouti's colonial past and the dominance of Islam within the nation, with Muslims accounting for 94% of the population.

Lake Assal, a crater lake in Djibouti
Linguistically speaking, the makeup of Djibouti is much more diverse. Neither French nor Arabic are the majority language in terms of native speakers, as the most-spoken language is actually Somali. Nearly 300,000 people in Djibouti speak the Afro-Asiatic language of Somali. As the total population of Djibouti is just 800,000, this means that nearly 4 in 10 people in this country speak Somali. The Somali language is also considered to be native to Djibouti.

Another of Djibouti's native languages is also the second largest in terms of native speakers in the nation. Afar, which is spoken by just under 100,000 people in Djibouti, is also an Afro-Asiatic language. Even though there are 1.4 million speakers of Afar in the world, Eritrea is the only nation to have granted it any sort of official language status, and recognises it as an official minority language.

The standardised form of Arabic is often used for official matters whilst the local variant of Arabic, known as Ta'izzi-Ideni Arabic (or Djibouti Arabic), is spoken by 36,000 people in Djibouti. In fact, the Omani Arabic dialect, which originated in the Oman mountains, is spoken by 38,000 people, making it more popular than the local variant.

Much like Arabic, the French language is used for official matters and for tuition. Outside of its official capacity, the French language is only spoken natively by around 10,000 people in Djibouti. 

A number of languages other than French and Omani Arabic have also made their way into use in Djibouti. Amharic, Greek, and Hindi are also spoken in this linguistically-diverse African nation.