Writing in Africa — The Somalian Alphabets (Pt 2)

Previously, we covered the Osmanya alphabet created in the early 20th century meant to write and represent the Somali language. Its spread was unfortunately put to an end by the Italians, who suspected its proliferation to be part of a pro-independence movement. But this was not the only writing system to arise in that era, to challenge both the status quo of the Arabic script, and the gaining influence of the Latin alphabet.

Today, we will cover two more writing systems that have arisen in the course of the linguistic history of the Somali language. Both of them are alphabets, but they are used by different circles of speakers. Without further ado, let us dive right in.

Borama alphabet

The 1930s saw a new writing system for the Somali language. In the Gadabuursi clan, in what is today Ethiopia, Somalia (or Somaliland, wherever you may stand on the issue of independence), and Djibouti. In 1933, a Somali sheikh, and government qadi called Sheikh Abdurahman Sh. Nur (Somali: Sheekh Cabdiraxmaan Sheekh Nuur, Arabic: شيخ عبد الرحمن شيخ نور) devised a new alphabet meant to write the Somali language. It was quite a phonetically accurate one, consisting of 27 letters, including seven for vowels, and 20 consonants.

Like Osmanya, this alphabet was written from left to right, in generally what they seem to be block letters. There is no distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, but there does not seem to be distinct characters for numbers. The name of the script? It was the Gadabuursi Somali script, also known as the Borama scirpt. It is creatively named from the clan and place of origin respectively.

The Borama alphabet, source from Omniglot

While not really as known as the Osmanya alphabet, the Borama alphabet was used in a sizable body of literature, particularly poetry called qasidas. One example is written by Ali Bu’ul (Cali Bucul), a Somali military leader and poet, known for his short lined poems known as geeraar. Famous works of his include the Gammaan waa magac guud (Horse is a general term).

However, its use did not generally extend past the Sheikh’s small circle of associates in Borama, although within Borama itself, it did enjoy a considerable usage. Its decline in usage was not properly documented, although it would be reasonable to assume that its use eventually caved into the influence of the Latin alphabet. To cap this relatively brief and obscure history of this writing system, here is a quote by the inventor of the alphabet, Nuur: “I publish it here with no intention of attempting to contribute to the already abundant confusion in the choice of a standard orthography for Somali”.

Kaddare alphabet

The most recent among the three alphabets mentioned in this mini sub-series, the Kaddare alphabet was created in the 1950s by Sheikh Hussein Sheikh Ahmed Kaddare (Somali: Xuseen Sheekh Axmed Kaddare, Arabic: حسين الشيخ أحمد كاداري) of the Abgaal Hawiye clan. He was a Sufi Sheikh, and also an inventor, linguist, and researcher in Somali traditions and folklore, but his most well known creation is this very alphabet we are talking about here. He was born after the advent of the Osmanya and Borama alphabets, in the town of Adale in the Middle Shebelle region, so we should expect that the alphabet he created to more closely reflect the sounds of the variant of Somali spoken in the region, right?

Middle Shebelle is a region in the southeastern part of Somalia, where Banaadir Somali is predominantly spoken. This coincides with the region where the Osmanya alphabet arose decades prior. Being a linguist, Kaddare’s new creation was phonetically robust, and was remarked as a very accurate orthography for transcribing Somali by the technical commissions that served to appraise the script.

The Kaddare alphabet, showing both its upper and lowercase forms, from Omniglot

Some of these letters in the Kaddare alphabet appear to be inspired from the Osmanya script, while several others could be derived from the Brahmi script. But what sets this alphabet apart from the others in this mini sub-series is the use of both upper and lowercase letters for each letter used in the alphabet, and the lack of separate characters for long vowels. To represent long vowels, the vowel letter is written twice instead.

What is interesting is that the lowercase letters could be written in cursive, and many of these characters could be written without ever lifting the pen. While the rules of capitalisation are not fully known due to the relatively scarce resources surrounding these writing systems, it does seem that entire Somali words could be written without having to lift the pen.

Despite its accuracy in representing the sounds of Somali and his contribution of linguistic expertise to the Somalian Ministry of Information, Kaddare’s alphabet still lost out to the encroaching influence of the Latin script. While suboptimal in accuracy, the Latin script ended up being more widely adopted in the Somali-speaking communities, as with many languages in Africa. Nevertheless, the Kaddare alphabet stands alongside the Osmanya and Borama alphabets as the most well-known indigenous writing systems that have challenged the Arabic and Latin scripts, two juggernaut writing systems dominating the linguistic landscape of Africa. These linguistic innovations still serve to show the drive for speakers of African languages to create their own writing systems to represent their languages and respective styles and cultures, and I do hope that these efforts would not go unnoticed.


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