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The Somali language (Af-Soomaali) is a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. As an East Cushitic language, it is most closely related to Oromo and Afar. Somali is an official language of Somali and Somaliland in the Horn of Africa, as well as a national language of Djibouti and a working language in the Somali Regions of Ethiopia and Kenya. In total, there are roughly 15 million total Somali speakers.

In the United States, the Somali community is one of the largest among the Somali diaspora. Somali immigration peaked in the mid to late 1990s when a bloody civil war broke out in Somalia. Today, there are roughly 135,000 Somalis and Somali Americans living in the United States. The largest Somali community in the United States is in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, totaling around 25,000 people, with the majority being born in Somali. Other large communities can be found in Columbus, Ohio; Seattle-Tacoma; San Diego; and the Washington, DC Metro Area.

There are a number of varieties of the Somali language, typically broken down into three categories: Northern, Benadir, and Maay, with the Northern variety forming the basis of Standard Somali, spoken by roughly 60% of Somalis. Each of these major dialect groups also contains multiple dialects. While the Benadir form of Somali is usually mutually intelligible with Standard Somali, the Maay dialect group is generally not, although most Maay speakers are also able to speak Standard Somali.

Somali is an agglutinative language, with more complex words created by stringing multiple morphemes together without altering their spelling or phonetics, and uses a large number of affixes and particles to determine the meaning of words. The basic word order in Somali is subject-object-verb (SOV). The language shows properties of inflection, and affixes are used to mark many grammatical meanings such as tense, case, and aspect. Most verbs in Somali are conjugated through the addition of suffixes to the verb stem, although certain verbs are conjugated with the addition of prefixes. Additionally, nouns have tonal markings for number, gender, and case, and plural nouns take the opposite gender agreement of the singular form.

The majority of Somali vocabulary is Afroasiatic in origin, with a significant number of loanwords from Arabic (around 20%). Somali has also absorbed a much small number of loanwords from Italian and English, the former of which was the language of the Italian colonial administration in Italian Somaliland (later merged with other colonies to form Italian East Africa) between 1898 and 1947.

The Somali language is written using the Latin alphabet and consists of 21 consonants and five vowels. It does not use the letters p, v or z, nor does it use any diacritics or special characters. Before the arrival of the European colonialists, the Somali language used the Arabic alphabet, as well as a modified form of the Arabic alphabet for Somali, known as Wadaad’s writing.

FUN FACTS: The Somali language has 20 distinct vowel sounds and is spoken with three different tones (high, low and falling) that indicate gender and number. In addition to Somali, Arabic is also an official language in Somali resulting from the country’s geographical location in the Horn of Africa, strong ties to the Middle East and Islamic religious tradition.

At Piedmont Global Language Solutions (PGLS), we offer document translation, interpretation, localization, and other language services in Somali. Whether you need to translate a birth certificate from Somali to English, need a Somali interpreter for an immigration hearing in Minneapolis, or want to localize your website into Somali in order to market your products and services in Somali and the Horn of Africa, PGLS is here to help with all of your Somali language needs.

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