Written Somali is 40

On the 10th October 1972, the Somali language gained official status and, out of 18 scripts, the Latin alphabet was adopted for its standardisation.

The country then strove to reinforce its cultural heritage by championing its linguistic identity: dictionaries were compiled and literacy campaigns were launched. Foreign articles and other non-fictional texts have since been translated into Somali, bringing new ideas to the country. Books have also been translated, including children books, and Somali literature has started to be translated into other languages too. Interestingly, and although national institutions promoting the Somali language have stopped their activities due to the collapse of the State in 1991, translation from and into Somali does not seem to have slowed down significantly in the past two decades.

Before the arrival of Italian and British settlers in Somalia, Arabic was the usual vehicle for the written word, making Somali a largely oral language. As a result of its long oral tradition, the language is rich in proverbs, poetry, songs and vivid imagery, which in turn encourage an excellent memory and may explain why Somali speakers are very keen listeners.

However, as speaking is a public activity and reading is a private one, the Somali language will inevitably change over time. For most of human history, languages have been spoken and heard more than they have been written and read. As the more industrialised countries demonstrate, some languages have evolved and spread rapidly over the last two centuries as literacy and education increased drastically, and languages have in turn been affected by the progress of  their respective cultures and societies.

As Somali lost its momentum with the civil war, only 37.8% of the Somali population is literate, according to UNESCO, one of the lowest literacy levels in the world today. The number of Somali speakers is estimated to be between 15 and 25 million worldwide.


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