Af-Somali Maay Language Constant Struggle To Cross the Barriers

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Language is one the most important identities of humanity whether being individual, community, population or countries.

The status of a language and its development is influenced by many factors such movement, policies and livelihoods as well as contacts of neighbouring communities influencing each other especially when these are strictly linked by economic and socioeconomic factors.

In Somalia, there is a serious language contestation. It has been wrongly spread that Somalis are linguistically, culturally, ethnically and religiously homogeneous.

However this statement is highly questionable when the theory of intelligibility is considered. Let us assume two persons of 15 years old each; one grew in a Somali Maay speaking community but never saw and never heard about Mahaa while the other has grown in a Somali Mahaa speaking community but never saw and never heard about Maay. The two are invited to talk to each other alone. Will they understand each other 100%, 50%, 25% or not at all?

Which criteria are used when somebody says these two are dialects of the same language? The ISO 639-3 answers this question.

“The ISO 639-3 standard applies the following basic criteria for defining a language in relation to varieties which may be considered dialects:

  • Two related varieties are normally considered varieties of the same language if speakers of each variety have inherent understanding of the other variety at a functional level (that is, can understand based on knowledge of their own variety without needing to learn the other variety).
  • Where spoken intelligibility between varieties is marginal, the existence of a common literature or of a common ethno-linguistic identity with a central variety that both understand can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered varieties of the same language.
  • Where there is enough intelligibility between varieties to enable communication, the existence of well-established distinct ethno-linguistic identities can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered to be different languages”1.

Well, it is clear that these two persons will not understand each other at all because they have no inherent or innate understanding of their respective languages since they were born and grown up in completely different environments.

But this situation of non intelligibility is influenced by time and by frequent contacts through business transactions, intermingling, co-working, meetings and politics like when Italian colonialists brought Mahaa speaking Somalis from eastern and central regions to the south they forcibly created a condition of Maay and Mahaa speaking Somalis frequently contact each other thus facilitating learning each from other and easy understanding between the two languages speaking communities. And this is what exactly happened in Somalia when Europeans colonized Somalis.

The Historic Origins Of Somali Language

Many scholars Somalis and foreigners have studied the origins of the Somali language and some of them like Professor Abdi M. Kusow studding the origin of Somalis and quoted Professor Abdalla Omar Mansuur’s conclusion that the oldest Somali speaking communities expanded from the south. Prof. Mansuur has reached this assertion after he has compared Eastern Cushitic, South Somali (Maay) and North Somali (Mahaa) languages2.

So, the Somali languages Maay and Mahaa and their sub dialects continued to exist, differentiate along time in the horn of Africa and with the persistent influence of time, movements, business transactions, wars, occupations, colonization, modernization and the new state formation and democratic concepts.

The Relationship of Maay and Mahaa Somali Languages From Colonial Period To Present Date:

When Italians came in the south they came with Somali Mahaa speaking communities from eastern and central regions. And when the Allie won in the Second World War some Mahaa speaking Somalis were also brought from North of Somalia. Maay speaking communities suffered a lot because of the supremacy of the Mahaa speaking Somalis supported by the colonial power especially the Italians who won against the indigenous southerners after almost a decade of severe resistance. The Maay speaking community were suppressed in all public services such as education, hospitals, and police stations and courts which mostly where occupied by Mahaa speaking Somalis. And whenever, a person speaks Maay suddenly a Mahaa speaking person says “waryaa af Soomaali ku Hadal” meaning hey you speak Somali language considering Mahaa is the only Somali language. This attitude happened both inside and outside the country. Professor Mohamed Haji Mukhtar depicted this mysterious attitude of Mahaa speaking Somalis in his English – Maay dictionary3.

However, Maay speaking Somalis were always resisting this false arrogant attitude, and they rightfully advocated and requested the Italians and during the Aministrazione Fiduciaria Italiana (AFIS) to broadcast both Somali Maay and Mahaa languages from Radio Mogadisho. This was done; both languages were broadcasted during the AFIS. But straight from 1960, after the Somali independency, the then corrupted civilian Somali government stopped the Maay Somali language to be broadcasted through Radio Mogadiscio.

The Question Of Finding A Script For The Somali Language     

Before, during and after the AFIS scholars were debating and discussing to find a script (letters) to write Somali language. There were many suggestions of scripts such as Arabic, Usmania, Gathubiirsiya, Kontonbarkadliya, Kadariya and Latin4. The military government with the notorious dictatorship decided to adopt the Latin script for the Somali language in 1972 followed by an intensive illiteracy campaign throughout the country using Mahaa Somali language forcing also Somali Maay speakers to learn.  Somali Maay speakers started then working on the development of their own script. In 1976 a secret association named “Af yaal” was founded to review Maay language and culture, but by 1980 many of the Af-yall members were imprisoned, persecuted or driven into exile. During the civil war, it was those who fled from the country who lead the development of Maay script in collaboration with new refugees and some still remaining in the country.  A modified Latin based orthography for Af Maay adopted at the first Inter-Riverine Studies Association (ISA) Congress held in Toronto Canada, in 19945.  Now both Somali Maay and Mahaa languages have specific script.

The Somali Maay Language Re-Expansion From South To North

Culturally, Maay speaking people at a given time became more settled agro-pastoralists with relatively limited movements contrary to the nomad Mahaa speaking Somalis. During the civil war, some Maay speaking were forced to flee from the civil wars and went into more relatively peaceful regions off north Somalia where they have established business in central regions, starting from Hiraan, Galgathuud to Mudug north, Puntland, Somaliland as well as Zone five of Ethiopia and they speak their Maay language wherever they are. This movement coupled with internally displace people (IDPs) helped Somali Maay to expand again in central regions, north eastern, north western and Somali region of Ethiopia and to reinforce the already existing huge Maay speaking communities in North eastern Kenya.

Thus, the challenge, advocacy and political influence of Somali Maay speaking communities became a bargaining power that cannot be silenced culminating to the acknowledgement that Many is another official language of the Somali republic. In fact, the Transitional Federal Charter of 2003 stated in article 7: “The Official language of the Somali Republic shale be Somali (Maay and Mahaatiri).

Therefore, now the Somali national TV and radio broadcast with both languages although they are not given the same airtime.  Management bias is still there. Language identity is one of the main human rights. Every individual, community or population have the right to exercise, practice and develop own language.

Af Maay Broadcasting Sites:

Currently there are different websites and local radios those are writing and broadcasting Af-Maay language.  These different media organizations and individuals are based both in the country and outside the country in which it was observed that there have no strong linkage or coordination between Maay broadcasting sites to share the knowledge and experience writing of Maay language.  Our observation is that there is no common alphabet/script that is used these Maay writhers.  Some times it became difficult the readers to understand easily certain words or meaning in the text.

With the above observations, an organization called” Af-Maay Development Center (ADC) is established recently June 2017 by a group of Maay intellectuals to fill this gab and try the best way to organize and to work together these Maay broadcasting sites and Maay writers in order to improve the common discrepancies in Maay script and May literacy.   It is very impressed to note that in this year, May 2017 was established   Maay speaking TV by Somalia – Interim Southwest Administration (ISWA) that is now based in Baidoa. This Southwest Somalia TV is currently broadcasting Maay news and other May programmes regularly.

The following are active Maay broadcasting sites those are currently functional:

  2. Warsan Radio
  3. Baidoa Radio
  4. Southwest Tv
  7. amaandhoorey (Youtube)

It is expected more web based and other media such as radios and TV to come near future and this information will be updated accordingly.

Somali – Maay Language – Concept Paper (Af-Maay) : Date: 18 December 2015 – updated 01 August 2017


Somali-Maay speaking people are part of Somali ethnic groups those have a special language and culture. Maay speaking people are estimated between 3.5 and 4.0 million inhabitants in Somalia and there are also thousands of Maay speaking people living in Eithiopia and Kenya those their mother tongue is Maay. The two largest languages widely ​​spoken in Somalia are called “Maay and Mahaatiri” and there are also other dialects that are spoken in Somalia, especially southern Somalia. Those include Af-Barawe, Af-Gare, Afjiida and Afdabbare and these dialects have language relations with Af-Maay language. Maay language is a quite different from the Somali  “Maxaatiri” in many ways although they belong same family according to some of linguistics.

Additionally, some language experts argued that the Somali Maay language can not be considered as dialectical, but it may function like a language, because these language researchers think that there are many words or concepts that are quite different between the two largest Somali languages ​​Maay and Mahathir.

Further more, most of Somali Maay people are spread almost all cities in southern parts of Somalia, i.e., Lower Shabelle, Bay, Bakool, Gedo, Lower Jubba, Middle Jubba, Gedo, and Benadir region. The Maay language is yet active and spoken many areas in Somalia. But unfortunately, Maay language has not received much attention, resources and appropriate development projects from the various Somali governments since 1960, it can be said since the first Somali government took over the power from Italian and British colonies.

The most important point we want to point out is that, we belief that the Somali Federal government’s constitution exist a paragraph which is saying “The two languages ​​spoken in Somalia are Maay and Mahaatiri” and to be used the official languages. But, unfortunately the only Somali Federal government’s TV (Somali National TV) and Radio Mogadishu were removed away to broadcast Maay Language or it is given a very limited airtime to broadcast Maay news and other Maay related programmes.   Instead it as replaced or given priority other foreign languages those many of Maay speaker can hardly understand these foreign languages. This really can be understood a type of discrimination exposed to the Maay speaking people or abuse of power committed to some of the Somali Federal Government Information and Cultural Departments for many years, as they are responsibility TV and Radios for all the people. On the other side, there are some active individuals, activists and groups from Maay speakers those have established different private radios or web newspapers as they broadcast different news and programs for the Maay Language.

On the other hand, there are no accurate numbers of Somali- Maay speaking people living in Sweden but it is estimated that they are about 3 200 people. In November 2013, some of the Somali-Maay speaking people who live here in Sweden managed to gather and organised an umbrella organization in Sweden.  Currently there are six local organisations that are member the associations, which belong to Somali Maay speaking community. The organization is called Southwest Somalia Association in Sweden (Sydvästsomaliska Riksförbundet I Sverige)  (SRS) and its head office is Örebro, the Association’s House Slottsgatan 13A, 70361, Örebro, Sweden (

The Goals:

One of the most important objectives of the Southwest Somali Association in Sweden is to develop and improve Somali Maay language as well as raise awareness of Maay culture in Sweden. The organization is also intended to organise different events of Maay culture and to encourage establishing a radio and TV broadcasting of Maay language in Sweden in order to save Somali Maay language and cultural aspect.

We also working on to make Maay Language more active because of many Maay speaking people are worried that language can disappear if it is not used in a prober ways and not given an effective projects. We hereby inform you that we would like to welcome any institutions or individuals who are interested to undertake a research projects for Somali Maay language and culture. We are probably ready to provide them with the appropriate information and support that we can work together in order to save and elevate Somali Maay language.

Finally, Southwest Somali Association in Sweden is strongly belief that Maay Language is a significant and important language for millions of Maay speaking people living in Somalia and outside Somalia for their language, culture, identification and the future of their children.  Therefore, Maay language  needs to have  strong institutions, organizations and individuals to support the language  in order to get the right resources and advocacy to develop the language.


Abdulkadir Abukar Sheikh

Chairman, Southwest Somalia Association in Sweden



  2. Abdi M. Kusow, The Somali Origin Mith or Reality in The Invention of Somalia by Ali Jimale Ahmed, Red Sea Press (April 1995), ISBN-13: 978-0932415998, p 95
  3. Mohamed Haji Mkhtar and Omar Moalim Ahmed, English – Maay Dictionary (July 2007), Adonis& Abbey Publishers Ltd, ISBN 9781905068890 (HB) p. vi
  4. Mohamed Haji Mukhtar, Somalida ma Isku Afbaa mise waa kala Af?
  5. Mohamed Haji Mkhtar and Omar Moalim Ahmed, English – Maay Dictionary (July 2007), Adonis& Abbey Publishers Ltd, ISBN 9781905068890 (HB) p. viii

Af-Maay- jalo qalin

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