Somalis - Orientation

Identification. The Muslim Somalis of the Horn of Africa speak the Somali language and live in the Somali Democratic Republic (Somalia). There are also substantial numbers of Somalis in neighboring countries: the southern half of Djibouti, the eastern part of Ethiopia, and the northeastern part of Kenya. There are large stable settlements of Somalis in the north of Tanzania and in the Yemeni city of Aden. Although Somalis regard themselves as ethnically one people, there are several subgroups based on patrilineal descent. The term "Somali" is popularly held to derive from the expression so maal, or "come and milk," an expression used among nomads, which alludes to the pastoral subsistence and the Somali ideal of hospitality.

Location. Somalia is located between 1°30′ S and 1l°30′ N and 41°00′ and 51°25′ E; it extends over an area of 638,000 square kilometers. Somalia has a warm climate: daytime temperatures range from 25° C to 35° C. There is high humidity along the coastal plains. The country is traversed by two perennial rivers, the Jabba and the Shabelle. Average annual rainfall is less than 60 centimeters. There are two rainy seasons, gu' (April to June) and dayr (October to November).

Demography. In 1994 the population of Somalia was officially estimated to be 6.67 million. The average population density varies between 9.4 and 13.3 persons per square kilometer; however, density is substantially higher along the riverbanks. A rapid urbanization rate has brought 20 percent of the population to urban centers, with the bulk of this population living in the capital, Mogadishu. With an average life expectancy of about 46 years (1975), more than 58 percent of Somalis are below 20 years of age.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Somali language, Af-Soomaali, belongs to the East Cushitic Branch of Afroasiatic languages. It is closely related to languages of some of the neighboring peoples: the Oromo, the Rendille, and the Boni. These languages are sometimes referred to as the "Sam" languages. The Afar language, too, has many similarities with Somali. The Somali people also share many important cultural traits with these linguistically related groups. Somali has adopted a substantial amount of vocabulary from Arabic, but, since 1972, the Latin alphabet has been used for writing. The language has a number of different dialects, most of which are mutually intelligible. The dialects that standard Somali speakers find most difficult to comprehend are the Af-May dialects that are spoken in the south.

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