It is strange that a dialect which has no written character should so abound in poetry and eloquence. There are thousands of songs, some local, others general, upon all conceivable subjects, such as camel loading, drawing water, and elephant hunting; every man of education knows a variety of them. The rhyme is imperfect, being generally formed by the syllable "ay" (pronounced as in our word "hay"), which gives the verse a monotonous regularity; but, assisted by a tolerably regular alliteration and cadence, it can never be mistaken for prose, even without the song which invariably accompanies it.
The country teems with poets: every man has his recognised position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetical expressions, whereas a false quantity or a prosaic phrase excite their violent indignation.
[. . .] Every chief in the country must have a panegyric to be sung by his clan, and the great patronise light literature by keeping a poet."
Today, the Somali writer and critique Anwar Maxamed Diiriye writes of "this troubled tongue of ours".
It wasn't until 1972 that the Somali-speaking peoples of Somalia/Somaliland, Ethiopia, the Republic of Djibouti and Northern Kenya established a written language common to the two Somali languages: Maha and Mai. This effort was not without problems. In fact, aspects of the endeavour are still being hotly debated today. The Nationalists argue for Ismaaniya (a Somali orthography invented in the 1950s by Sheikh Abduahmaan Sh. Nuur), while the Pan-Islamics support the use of Arabic characters.
In 1972 a national standard language based on the Maha language was established, the script based on Latin orthography.
Not surprisingly, this lead to one language group having an economic and political advantage. In 1988 the Mai speakers made an attempt to create a Mai-based written language. However, the question regarding Arabic or Latin script remained, and remains, contentious.
The writers of the Somali Diaspora debate the proper spelling of names and words. Not only do problems arise with Somali dialects and orthographies, but the influence of English is impossible to overestimate.
Today Somali is still home to a multilingual society. People speak the two minor languages within the Somali language itself, Mai and Maha, as well as Arabic and Afar, another minority language spoken mainly in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
It is certain that most traditional Somali literature is oral: the epic poems, the performances, the richly detailed secular and religious songs and the didactic and often humorous children's tales like "Dhegdheer" (The Cannibal Woman). Today much of this oral literature is being written and passed on to children of the Diaspora. Some of the work is being performed in schools.
And yet there are concerns regarding the fate of the Somali language. Somali PEN hosted a conference in December 2006. Among those present was the poet and playwright Abdi Muhumad Amin, who expressed his concern about the growing tendency for schools to employ foreign languages instead of Somali. He expressed his fears that Somali would become a dead language.
In recent years, free speech has been extraordinarily limited in Somalia. The watchdog organization Committee to Protect Journalists reports that, to date, seven journalists are known to have been murdered. The country has lost more journalists than any other, except Iraq.
It is unsurprising and fitting that a culture with a rich and powerful history of oral literature has turned to radio broadcasting as a way to communicate both in prose and in song. These broadcasts are often in cooperation with the BBC or stations in Canada and the United States. These writers and lyricists dare to speak out on behalf of the people. New "occasional poems" of struggle and conflict. And the desire for peace.
until the lion learns to speak
the tales of hunting will be weak
my poetry held within the streets
my poetry fails to be discrete
it travels across the earth and seas
from eriteria to the west indies
it knows no boundries no trees
studied part of the greece
runtaa, hadii kale waxaan lahaa . . .
There are five Somali radio stations currently available on the web.
While there are difficulties, both political and linguistic-each affecting the other- the multicultural Somalia is producing many great writers today: Nuruddin Farah's novels, among them A Crooked Rib and Links, helped earn him the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in1998. Abdourahman A. Waberi's novel Le Pays Sans Ombre ("The Land Without Shadow") won the Grand Prize for New French Speakers from the Royal Academy of French Language and Literature and Waris Dirie's biography Desert Flower stayed on the German Speigel's bestseller list for 120 weeks.
The Somali PEN newsletter lists its members' many recent publications.
Diaspora work can also be found online .
* The rest of the lyrics, and others by many authors are available in an unofficial database online .
The Princeton Handbook of Multicultural Poetries
First Footsteps in East Africa
Ashehoug og Gyldendals Store Norske leksikon