Languages opened my mind to new ways of thinking. This statement is so cliched, so let me try to fill it with some meaning.
When I study a language, I have to grasp new ways of expressing oneself. I don’t mean expressing one’s innermost thoughts; I mean trying to parse out mundane things like, “I’m hungry,” or “Please stop that!” To learn that, I inevitably have to talk to people who spend at least part of their lives outside of the monolingual English community I’ve spent most of my life in. That means that they approach the world differently than the people of my community. Again, this is not necessarily a profound difference; I’m talking about a community who sees a huge difference between, say, Ethiopia and Somalia. Basing my thinking on a new set of relevant facts changes my day-to-day concerns.
This week. I wanted to express some of the basic facts about a linguistic realm that few people—even professional linguists—know anything about. I will describe the Cushitic language family, concluding with why someone should care about Cushitic languages.
I know that there are not a lot of non-Somalis learning the Somali language. In doing some research I realized that not many academic linguists are doing research on Somali; moreover, linguists largely ignore the Cushitic languages.
The Cushitic language group belongs to the broader language family of Afro-Asiatic languages. This family covers the territory from Iraq to Morocco, from Tunisia to Nigeria and down to Somalia. The most famous group within this family is the Semitic language group, whose languages with the most speakers are Arabic (200+ million) and Amharic (25 million). Hebrew, both Ancient and Modern, also belong to this group.
The second-most numerous group of Afro-Asiatic languages is Cushitic. Over 41 million people in Sudan, Djibouti, Somali, Ethiopia, and Kenya speak a Cushitic language as a native language. (In this section I have drawn mainly from Wikipedia and About World Languages (AWL).
Oromo represents the language with the most number of speakers at about 25 million, mostly in Ethiopia. Dialectical differences make this number difficult to count, as AWL breaks up the three major Oromo dialects into three languages.
Somali is the second-most popular language at about 18 million, mostly in Somali but also in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Among the Cushitic languages, only this one has reached official status.
Other Cushitic languages, of which AWL counts 47, include no more 2 million speakers a piece. After Oromo and Somali, only seven are spoken by more than 500,000 speakers.
Because linguists have not studied this language group in depth, even the classification of Cushitic is not clear. First, linguists have not agreed what all languages should be included in the Cushitic group. Second, they are not decided on the relationships among the Cushitic languages. Many questions remain.
Why study Cushitic languages?
Why does this matter? Why should linguists—or anyone else—spend time on the languages of North and East Africa and not, say, those of Europe or South America?
Linguistics seeks to understand the human mind through the phenomenon of language. It takes all the variety of languages in the world, both families of and individual languages, to grasp the breadth and depth of the human mind. Once we understand the human mind from the point of view of one language, we dive into another and we discover more about the mind that we—who do not speak that language—couldn’t have conceived of earlier.
In studying Somali, I’ve discovered more about how Somali speakers express themselves in general. Moreover, by speaking to individual Somalis, I’ve learned about them as individual people. Somalis, as a group different from mine and as individuals different from me, have opened my mind to new ways of thinking.