Monday, August 31, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Somalia

In recent weeks we've explored the languages of South Sudan, Greece, and Zimbabwe. Today we're back in Africa in order to take a look at the languages of Somalia, the country that gives the Horn of Africa its distinctive pointed shape.

The Official Languages

A camel in the Cal Madow mountain range in Somalia.
Somalia has two official languages, Somali and Arabic, which are both members of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Somali, the language of the country's largest ethnic group, is the primary language used in education, and is also widely used in radio and television broadcasts throughout the country.

There are three main varieties of Somali: Northern Somali, Benaadir, and Maay. The first two varieties, which are used in the northern and central regions of Somalia, are closely related and largely mutually intelligible. Maay, on the other hand, is not mutually intelligible with the other two, which is why it is sometimes considered to be a distinct language. It is primarily spoken in southern Somalia.

Arabic is also important in Somalia as a lingua franca, a religious language, and a source of most of the loanwords in the Somali language.

Other Languages

Somalia is also home to several minority languages that are spoken by small percentages of the population. There are thought to be between 20,000 and 60,000 native speakers of the Jiido, Dabarre, Garre, and Tunni languages in Somalia. All of these languages are closely related to Maay, the variety of Somali we mentioned earlier.

The Bantu languages of Swahili and Mushungulu are also used in Somalia. Swahili, a lingua franca throughout Africa, is spoken by around 180,000 Somalis, while Mushungulu is thought to have around 20,000 native speakers. Oromo, an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Ethiopia and Kenya, is also spoken by approximately 40,000 Somalis.

Finally, English and Italian are still used in the country due to their importance in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when parts of what is now Somalia were known as British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland.