I never thought there would be an African music theme on LH, but for the second day in a row I’ve run across something in that line that I felt I had to share. John Beadle of Milwaukee used to host the “African Beat” program on WYMS; now he maintains a superb audioblog, Likembe (the name “refers to the Congolese version of the thumb-piano, an instrument that can be found across Africa, that in various versions is called the mbira, sanza, kalimba, ubo, etc.”). He’s been featuring Somali music (with the help of a well-informed Somali commenter named Sanaag), and today’s post presents songs from Famous Songs: Hits of the New Era (Radio Mogadishu SBSLP-102, 1973), Volume Three, “issued under the aegis of the Somali Ministry of Information and National Guidance to rally support for the military government of Mohammad Siad Barre… For all their propagandistic aspects, it would be a mistake to dismiss their musical qualities. Waaberi, the Somali super-group featured on Somalia Sings and Famous Songs, pre-dated the 1969 military coup and was a training ground for many great singers…” The music is striking, but what drove me to post was reaching the song called “Magac U Yaal” (mp3), which was translated as “Pronoun.” There must be some mistake, thought I, but no:

The composer is Abwan Maxamud Cabdullahi Ciise (“Sangub”…) …. The track is dealing with the widespread joy that came with the official standardization of the Somali language in 1972. Somali is an agglutinative language with a rather complex grammar. This song introduces a number of ingenious and dexterous tricks to the trade of remembering and applying the new grammatical rules correctly.
Prior to the formalization, a score of scripts existed for the language – some for centuries. The discussions, overheated debates and tug-of-wars around this issue started in the late 19th century but couldn’t materialize because of differences in interest and allegiance. For practical convenience, an ‘independent’ advisory committee set up right after the independence finally chose one of the Latin-based alphabets. That decree didn’t go down well with some of the supporters of the original Somali scripts or Arabic-based alphabets. The ensuing conflict had eventually led to the imprisonment of some cacophonous antagonists, who were supposedly offered to set an example for any prospective dissonance.

There must be other songs about grammar and/or language reform, but I can’t think of any offhand. (You can read more about the history of Somali writing at Wikipedia and Omniglot. Oh, and you can ignore the letter “c” when pronouncing those names in your mind—it’s the equivalent of Semitic ayn and represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative, so Cabdullahi is the equivalent of Arabic ‘Abdullah.)


  1. If the subject is songs about grammar, I’d like to point to Drs. P (a Swiss-Dutch writer/artist). He has a series of songs about interpunction signs. (dubele punt, uitroepteken)

  2. > Oh, and you can ignore the letter “c” when pronouncing those names in your mind […]
    If I may veer off-topic: why is it that Arabic ayn gets dropped in English, but Arabic ghayn becomes “g”? The sounds are very similar (to the point that their cognates have merged in the other Semitic languages), and Arabic uses variants of the same letter for both. Are there other cases where sounds that are very similar in one language get borrowed into sounds that are very different in another?

  3. Excuse letters “ajn” is very difficult, and it is difficult find it a similar voice in European languages. Arabic language and script has been present for centuries in Bosnia, but the letters in the vernacular does not have, while the other letters and sounds characteristic of Slavic languages exist.

  4. Yaron London wrote this song about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the revivalist of Hebrew. It includes his life story and many of the words he came up with. The song is very well-known in Israel.

  5. @Ran,
    I assume it’s because ‹غ› ghayn patterns with foreign /ɡ/ (for instance, being used for loanwords with /ɡ/). Meanwhile, ‹ع› ayin is often taught as a voiced glottal stop, and ‹أ› ‘alif is likely to be simply ignored by English speakers—note that they’re even transcribed not with full letters but with easily-dropped marks like ‹ʾ› and ‹ʿ›.
    Is there a reason you don’t offer an RSS feed for comments? Cheers!

  6. Ran,
    The sounds are very similar
    I would definitely disagree with that
    But more to the point, one of the reasons is that ghayn can be mapped to a familiar sound (why g, that’s another question), while ayn cannot.
    their cognates have merged in the other Semitic languages
    In some (Hebrew, Ge’ez) and even in some varieties of Arabic (Maltese), but not in all Semitic languages (some dialects of Aramaic, Ancient and Modern South Arabian, perhaps even some Canaanite languages).

  7. Is there a reason you don’t offer an RSS feed for comments?
    I have no idea how these things work, but I’ll ask my site administrator/stepson.

  8. @bulbul: Thanks!
    I’ll grant that historical linguists use the present tense in talking about what languages “have”, or “have done”, but I only meant the current forms of still-extant Semitic languages. Modern South Arabian, you say? Good to know, thanks. And does “some dialects of Aramaic” include any of the modern dialects?
    (And the “perhaps” in “perhaps even some Canaanite languages” surprises me; somehow I had been led to believe that Hebrew itself had this distinction a few thousand years ago. I don’t know what the evidence for that is, though. It’s pretty clear that if it once had the distinction, then it must have completely lost it by Late Antiquity, since none of the Masoretes mention anything about it.)
    But about your biggest point, that they don’t actually sound very similar . . . maybe that explains it. My fairly minimal experience was with forms of the language where they do (at least to me), but I see now from Google that there’s a fair bit of interdialectal variation in the actual realization of the two sounds. In some places they could be quite different.
    Thanks again!

  9. Thanks for the quote! There are indeed many Somali songs related to grammar overhaul. I’ve several but the sound quality has deteriorated. Likembe has another one called “Toban Weeye Shaqalladu”. It’s also from the early 70s and deals with the ten basic vowels of the language (5 short + 5 long). Due to the multiple tone marks the number is actually extended to 40 and in some regions even more. The song elucidates that complexity quite well with a few cognitive memory aids.
    The track is here.

  10. The Greek equivalent to “Don’t Know Much About History” centers around polytonic accentuation rules (and gets them wrong), if that helps:
    Εγώ δεν έχω βγάλει το σχολείο
    ούτε έχω μάθει γράμματα πολλά
    ξέρω όμως ένα κι ένα κάνουν δύο
    και πως τα φωνήεντα είναι εφτά
    Τόσο καιρό μαζί μου και δεν έχεις μάθει
    τα δικά μου χούγια και τα φυσικά
    η προπαραλήγουσα ποτέ δεν περισπάται
    όταν η λήγουσα είναι μακρά
    —I haven’t finished school
    and I haven’t learned that much;
    but I do know that 1+1=2,
    and that there’s seven vowels [α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω]
    —You’ve been with me so long: have you still not worked out
    my habits, or what comes naturally?
    The antepenult never takes a circumflex
    when the penult is long.

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