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The Somali language belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Despite several regional dialects, it is understood throughout the country and is an official language. The second official language is Arabic, which is spoken chiefly in northern Somalia and in the coastal towns. Owing to Somalia’s colonial past, many people have a good command of English and Italian, which, in addition to Somali, are used at the country’s colleges and universities. Swahili also is spoken in the south. In 1973 Somalia adopted an official orthography based on the Latin alphabet. Until then, Somali had been an unwritten language.


Somali is the national language of Somalia. It is also spoken in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, as well as by Somali communities in the Middle East. An estimated 7 million native Somali speakers live in Somalia while an estimated 10 to 16 million native Somali speakers exist globally.


Arabic is still prominent in Somalia and is a second official language in the country. It is spoken primary in the north of the country and along the coast. Many Somalis also speak English or Italian thanks to Somalia’s colonial history.


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Before independence, very little has been written about the Somali language. The very first comments on the Somali language, dating from 1844, were made by European colonizers. At the colonial administration level, the languages which were used were English in the North (Somaliland) and Italian in the South. The literate population used to write in Arabic.


In the years after independence, the Somali language has gone through three major phases : writing research, language development and literacy campaigns. A few months after independence and the unification of Somaliland and Somalia, a Commission of the Somali language was created to find an acceptable writing system. The results and suggestions of the Commission and those of the Commission of the UNESCO that was later formed submitted two reports to the Somali government of that time. Both reports examined a number of options: different transcripts in Latin, Arabic and Osmaniya alphabet, and the advantages and disadvantages of each system. But the political factions in presence prevented the government from deciding in favor of one system or another.


A few months after the revolution, the regime of Siad Barre took the problem head on. The revolutionary government gave each of the three factions a year to submit textbooks for all subjects in lower grades of primary school - grades 1 to 4 - using their own resources. Only the faction that was in favor of the Latin transcription finished work on time. Thus, on October 21, 1972, the transcription in Latin letters was officially adopted. Somalia won the UNESCO literacy medal in 1975.



There are three mutually intelligible language clusters of Somali (Johnson, personal communication, 1983): Northern, Benaadir and Maay.

  • Northern Somali forms the basis for Standard Somali. It is spoken in Somaliland.
  • Benaadir (also known as Coastal Somali) is spoken on the Benadir Coast from Cadale to south of Marka, including Mogadishu, and in the immediate hinterland.
  • Maay is spoken mostly in Somalia and adjacent parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. Its speakers are known as Sab Somalis. The capital of the language is Baidoa.


However, according to Saeed (Central Somali: a grammatical outline, 1982), the central dialect series is not mutually intelligible with Benadir or Common Somali. Many materials have previously been prepared in Common Somali, but the Mogadishu variety appears to be slowly becoming the standard. For further information on the Somali dialects in Kenya, see Heine (1980). (Webbook)


Northern Somali, Benaadir, Af-Ashraaf (Ashraaf). Northern Somali is the basis for Standard Somali. It is readily intelligible to speakers of Benaadir Somali, but difficult or unintelligible to most Maay and Digil speakers. (Ethnologue)


Classification of the Somali Language

The Somali language is classified as a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. The Cushitic branch comprises approximately 40 distinct languages spoken primary in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Eritrea, and is further subdivided into the North, Central, South and East Cushitic branches.


Somali belongs to the East Cushitic branch, and it is most closely related to the Afar and Oromo languages. The Somali language is one of the most widely spoken of the Cushitic languages.

Somalilanguage on websites

Somali language on websites available is less than 0.1% in terms of percentage.


Number of speakers

According to Ethnologue:

  • 7,784,434 in Somalia (2000 WCD)
  • 3,334,113 in Ethiopia (2000 WCD)
  • 420,354 in Kenya (2000 WCD)
  • 291,207 in Djibouti (2000 WCD)
  • Population total all countries: 12,653,480



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