Somali, has no native word for “cattle”

Today, I realized something: ‘Xoolaha‘ /ħɔːlɑhɑ/ is a loanword.

I can’t believe I’ve never realized this before. Of all the experience I have with the Somali language, I never paid attention to the structure of the word ‘xoolaha‘. I never saw the clearly South Arabian origin of this word until I went through my notes this morning.

Then, I compared:

  • “Cattle” – Somali /ħɔːlɑhɑ/ ~ Soqotri /ʔelheh/ ~ Shehri /lhoti/
  • Bull” – Somali /dibi/ ~ Harsusi /ɣɔɮəb/ ~ Shehri /ɣɔɮəb/
  • Goat” – Somali /rijɑhɑ/ ~ Mehri /tajh/ ~ Soqotri /tɛʔɛh/
  • Sheep” – Somali /idɑhɑ/ ~ Soqotri /daħ/

After putting two and two together, I felt like I had been dowsed in cold water. I’ve been dealing with South Arabian, and East Omo-Tana, for like 3 years now (?) and I’ve never noticed this? I mean I’ve repeated the idea that the Somali word ‘geel‘ being a loanword inherited from some unnamed South Arabian language that had back-migrated into the Horn of Africa sometime in antiquity, but I never noticed anything beyond that. Now, I feel stupid. I’ve spent too much time reconstructing the initial mechanisms of Semitic’s initial expansion out of the Horn of Africa that I’ve paid almost no attention to the statements I’ve made regarding the back-migration of the South Arabian-speakers and their subsequent contacts with Lowland East Cushitic-speaking peoples.

For those who don’t like the idea of pastoralism coming to speakers of “Proto-Somali” from Semitic-speakers, or the Near East; don’t forget that the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have a long history of interaction spanning since the first human migrations out of Africa around 110,000 years ago and the first major back-migration 24,000 years ago, according to the findings of Hodgson (2014). The descendants of this back-migration may have produced the “Proto-Afroasiatic” language itself, and they themselves very well contributed to my personal linguistic and genetic history as well as that of millions of other individuals from the Horn of Africa.

So these hypothetical South Arabian-speakers I had first mentioned in a post on Soqotri may have made it further into the Horn of Africa than I had anticipated, because it’s unlikely that they simply ran into in-situ Lowland East Cushitic-speakers, despite the  underlying age of the Cushitic languages as a distinct branch of Afroasiatic languages (I usually go with the 8,000 BC estimate for “Proto-Cushitic”). To some degree, it’s likely that the encounter with these South Arabian-speakers may have provided the expansion mechanism needed for the Somali language to become what it is today. It’s possible that the first Cushitic-speakers to move into the area known as modern day Somalia were themselves agriculturalists radiating out of the inner Horn of Africa along the Jubba and Shebelle rivers, spawning the agricultural “Rahanweyn” populations of Southern Somalia. After coming into contact with these nomadic, livestock keeping peoples who crossed over from the Arabian peninsula speaking Semitic-languages a general trend happened that would become the hallmark of Cushitic-speaking pastoral peoples for millennia to come.

The majority would therefor linguistically absorb the minority. Even though it’s usually the case that adherents to pastoralism tend to assimilate their settled neighbors, this wouldn’t be the case in regards to the “Pre-Somali“-speakers and the hypothetical South Arabian-speakers. They would in theory be a small minority in comparison to their Cushitic-speaking neighbors and very likely intermarried with them. It’s also likely that the ancestors of the modern day Somali-speakers may have also adopted pastoralism. and eventually absorbed the South Arabian-speaking minority before they could leave a strong linguistic trace on the eastern Horn of Africa. Yet, this is all hypothetical.

It’s hard to work through the historical aspect of the contact and subsequent transmission of cultural and linguistic material, but nonetheless the realization of the possible loanwords into Somali is undeniably interesting. For instance take the lexical item for ‘bull‘ in Somali:

  • The Somali lexical item /dibi/ seems to have had lost the initial voiced velar fricative /ɣ/, which can be attributed the the possibility that like modern day Somali, the ancestral language that had gained this loanword lacked this phoneme.
  • There was a shift from the voiced lateral fricative /ɮ/ became the voiced alveolar stop /d/.

And of course, one can do this for nearly every loanword into the Somali language that came via the South Arabian languages. It’s very interesting how when one sits back, and looks at it, the picture comes together. This does not mean that the infamous paintings of Laas Geel were made by Semitic-speakers, on the contrary they very well could be the work of “Pre-Somali“-speakers despite the fact that their artistic style is distinctively Arabian. Even if it were so, I wouldn’t openly support that idea on a blog. I’d rather not ignite the anger of every ethnic Somali nationalist on social media by saying one of Somalia’s most important contributions to human artistic heritage was made not by those who are of the same language and culture as the present day inhabitants but instead by a group of nomadic pastoralists who wandered from the Arabian Peninsula speaking a language only distantly related to Somali.

To some degree, this is a continuation of a number of old posts and an introduction to perhaps a new portion of my blog’s posts that will examine the relationship between Cushitic and Semitic languages prior to the Islamic period and the rise of Abyssinia. Perhaps, it might be.


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