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Teach Somali Grammar to Save the Somali Language
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
By Liban Ahmad

In an interview with Dalsan Radio  Dr Mohamed Dahir Afrah, the novelist and literary critic, alerted Somalis on the state of their mother tongue. He said the collapse of state in 1991 had caused Arabic and English languages to replace Somali as the medium of instruction. If Arabic-speaking and non-Arabic- speaking Somalis' use of Arabic loan verbs and nouns is any guide, Arabic language is not making headway for three reasons: 1- Arabic-speaking Somalis use Arabic loan verbs that someone with a good command of Arabic can understand. 2- Non-Arabic- Speaking Somali misuse many Arabic loan verbs and nouns. 3- Somalis predominantly access news written in Somali.

In 2015 when a mock structure resembling the Kaaba was built in Mogadishu to train prospective pilgrims to Mecca, a prominent Somali Sheikh in the capital  described the initiative as religious innovation. "Waa xaaraan in la soo naqliyo Kabcada (It is religiously forbidden to transfer the Kaaba [to another place]" he said. He borrowed an Arabic verb naqala ( to transfer)  and changed it into a new conjugation 2a Somali verb naqli.  Educated Arabic-speaking Somalis may understand the meaning of the new verb.  On another occasion a Somali Sheikh was giving a lecture to  Somali students in Sudan. He related the story of  Jews under Pharaonic rule. He said "Jews where divided into Shiites (groups)”. A Somali man who watched  the Youtube clip of the lecture asked me "if  Shiites were around during reign of Pharaohs". Another Somali Sheikh changed the Arabic verb – anqada – into a conjugation 1 Somali verb and said"  Ummadda ha la inqaado" ( let one save the people ) . In its place the conjugation 1 Somali verb – badbaadi – can be used.  A politician defending privatisation of Berbera Port said " ... dawladdu waxay u sacyiyaysaa inay maalgelin u hesho..." ( The government is making effort to find investment for...". He could have used the Somali verb ku dadaal instead of coining a new conjugation 2a Arabic loan verb on the spot. A non-Arabic speaking Somali may think the new verb is derivative of the Somali word for cow ( sac).

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It was at a graduation ceremony in Borama where the most interesting Arabic loan noun misuse happened. A VOA Somali Service reporter at the ceremony said “a graduate student speaking on the behalf of the graduating batch of students asked for Somaliland President to find them jobs with the international organisations ( hey'adaha dowliga ah)”. The reporter meant " hey'adaha dowladda" ( government agencies).

In 1973 when Somali was adopted as the language of administration and education in Somalia, language experts and educationalists had not paid enough attention to teaching Somali grammar in schools. Somali grammar was a subject taught at the Somali National University. It was an elite subject. Only those with facility to speak Arabic, English and Italian were able to learn Somali grammar. The generation who read Dawn, Najmat October and Stella d'Ottobre, predecessors of now-defunct Somali daily  Xiddigta Oktoobar, were able to master the new orthography and Somali grammar. The mismatch in the education policy-making became apparent after the state collapsed in 1991. Institutions such as the Somali Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Department of Languages at the Somali National University ceased to exist.

Dr Mohamed Dahir Afrah
Dr Mohamed Dahir Afrah: The state must promote the Somali language

To many Somalis grammar of their mother tongue is not as important as the skill to read and write the language. Without learning Somali grammar a native speaker cannot point out why generalising from the sentence i sii ( give me ),  made up of an object verbal pronoun (i) and verb ( sii ), will not work when translating the English sentence  “tell me” into Somali. If I generalise from the Somali sentence “i sii”, I will produce “i sheeg”, which means "spill the beans on me" instead of  “ii sheeg ( "tell me)". Without Somali grammar it is impossible to account for the extra “i” with the object verbal pronoun  in ii sheeg.

To demonstrate the indispensability of standard Somali grammar I have selected following examples  from Somali  language websites: 
1 - Xasan Kheyre oo Baarlamanka u Ansaxshay Inuu Noqdo Ra'iisul Wasaare  ( Hassan Kheyre endorses the parliament to become a Prime Minister)

2- Caydiid Cabdullaahi (Ilko-xanaf) Guddoomiyaha maxkamadda sare ee Soomaaliya ayaa sheegay in weerarrada  argagixiso ee ka dhaca Muqdisho ay sababayso habacsanaanta hawlaha laamaha amniga iyo sirdoonka dowladda.( Aidid Abdullahi (Ilko-hanaf), Chairman of the Supreme Court of Somalia says terrorist attacks in Mogadishu cause  inadequacies in security services and the government intelligence [agency]".  The writer of the news story made the subject (cause)  and object ( effect )  swap places.

3- " ...waxaana xusid mudan inay dhalinyaradan ku eedeeyeen Al-Shabaab basaasnimo looga shakiyay inay kula shaqeynayeen Dowladaha Somalia Kenya iyo Mareykanka. ( … and it is noteworthy that those youths accused Al-shabaab of espionage in cahoots with Somali, Kenyan and American governments).
4- Dhageyso Labo Qof Oo Cudurka Kaduudiyaha Uu Ku Dhacay Oo Waraabe Ku Cunay Gobolka Shabeelaha Hoose ( Listen: Two people affected by Chikungunya eat a hyena in Lower Shabelle ). Details in the body of the news story contradict the headline.

5- Itoobiya ayaa sheegtay in wafdigeedu uu hogaaminayay Siraj Fegessa, oo ah wasiirka gaashaandhigga ee dowladda Itoobiya. (Ethiopia said its delegation was leading Siraj Fegessa, The Defence Minister of the Ethiopian government). A wrong use of the subject marker in the fifth word has changed the meaning of the sentence.

6- The title of a Somali book on camels reads: Sida Soomaalidu Geela U Dhaqdo  ( How Somalis look after camels). The English translation of the title is correct and incorrect! I challenge  Hiiraan Online readers to spot the grammatical and translation  errors in both titles.

7- The last example is about equivalence in translation. The title of a study ( Somalia’s parliament should produce a constitution by and for the people )  conducted by the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies was translated into Somali as Baarlamaanka Soomaaliya hasoo saaro dastuur ka yimid una adeegaya shacabka. The equivalence issue in the Somali version cannot come to the fore without using Somali grammar.  The English version expresses obligation whereas the Somali version  contains “ha” and is optative.

The Internet has come to the rescue of the Somali language. Thousands of Somali language websites have been launched since 1999. To make a better use of this timely technological feat for the benefit of Somali language speakers, there is an urgent need to incorporate teaching standard Somali grammar into the national curricula and media training packages for Somali journalists. If adopted, this policy will markedly improve the quality of print and online media in Somali. It will unlock a market for trained Somali proofreaders and editors whose services businesses, fiction and non-fiction writers will use.

Liban Ahmad

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