THE LAND OF THE GODS - A brief study of Somali Etymology and its historio-linguistic potential
When the author first began the present study of Somali etymology way back in 1982, it was more in the form of a hobby than anything serious. As a matter of fact, the author had neither the academic training nor the resources to embark on the study of a subject as complex as Somali etymology without even the benefit of a precedent. However, his success with the first set of words was an inspiration and convinced him that Somali was an indeed antiquated medium with a rich potential for historio-linguistic study.
In the course of the present limited study, the author not only had to enrich his somewhat rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and Oromo but also found it prudent to study Egyptology, Islam and Christianity – subjects he thought of potential value to the study.
For the purpose of the present study, the author carefully selected scores of important cultural words to work on. Occasionally, he had to ponder and sit on a single word for days, weeks or even months before he could split a word and understand its components. Naturally, the first word that topped the list was intriguing and often misinterpreted name of both the language and its speakers – Somali.
The present study is by no means conclusive. A lot more needs to be done to realize the full historio-linguistic potential of Somali. As an amateur linguist, the author hopes to stimulate interest among linguists, historians and archeologists and provide them with a fresh perspective of the country known as ‘The land of gods’. Its people and their language. If it succeeds in this endeavor, then it would have served its purpose.
II. THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Somalis are a homogenous race of mainly nomads and occupy a vast but sparsely populated territory between Djibouti on the red Sea and Tana River in the north-eastern Kenya. Believed a member of the Eastern Cushitic group, which also includes the Afar, Oromo, Rendille and others, Somali are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi sect. Though generally fanatic in defence of Islam, Somalis tend to be rather liberal in practice. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad reportedly migrated to the Horn of Africa only a few years after Islam’s appearance in its birth-place of Mecca. To this day, however, the faith is yet to make a significant impact on the lives of these hardy nomads and appears to blend well with some age-old pagan traditions.
Historically, very little was known about the Somali people’s pre-Islamic past. Despite recent fossil and genetic evidence which strongly advocate the theory that mankind originated in Africa, and East Africa in particular, there was relatively little archeological study of the Somali peninsula. Most archeologists and paleontologists tended to concentrate their search on the more hospitable and tourist-friendly countries of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia. The logically more potential and geologically older terrain of Somalia was somehow ignored. The inhabitants of the Somali coasts were known to have contact and trade relations with the two known oldest civilizations of the world, namely ancient Egypt and Sumaria. Unlike ancient Egypt where scholars were able to uncover and translate numerous writings and records, our knowledge of Sumaria remained relatively scant and inadequate. The author, however, thought it of interest that Sumarian huts which were made of woven reed were an exact replica of a Somali nomad’s collapsible hut. Also strangely enough, the most important Sumarian deity, MARDUK, literally meant in Somali ‘The one who was once buried’.
Perhaps the earliest and most detailed historical record of Somalia was that of the famous Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut’s voyage to the Land of Punt in 1500 BC. On arrival there, however, the king and queen of Punt enquired of her why she came after her ancestors forsook them for a long time. Apparently, contact between the two countries did not begin with the queen’s visit but existed much earlier.
HATSHEPSUT'S TEMPLE, LUXOR
Ancient Egyptian records narrate how would-be Pharaohs were ritually required to go on a pilgrimage to ‘The Land of the Gods’ prior to their ascent to the throne. The name ‘The Land of the Gods’ and this ritual were apparently lost to historians who failed to appreciate the fact that the country was an important centre of religion and the cradle of idol worship.
DEPICTED ON THE WALLS OF HATSHEPSUT'S TEMPLE
- RELIEFS OF THE EXPEDITION TO THE LAND OF PUNT
- THE CHIEF OF PUNT AND HIS WIFE
- GOLD COLLECTED FROM LAND OF PUNT
Sadly, Egyptologists often worked on the premise that the ancient Egyptian civilization began along the fertile Nile Valley where farming and other so-called pre-requisites for civilizations were possible. Without disputing the fact that this civilization made tremendous development and reached its zenith along the Nile Valley, its humble beginnings could have originated elsewhere where time and conditions obliterated any visible signs of its existence. With its huge obelisks, gigantic pyramids, ruined cities and other priceless archaeological treasures, Egypt no doubt provided everything scholars ever dreamed of and much more – and they never looked beyond since.
While the mysterious ‘Punt’ was probably the ancestor of the Somali speaking people (? The Biblical Phut in Genesis), it was mainly ‘The Land of the Gods’ which captured the imagination of the author. It was an indisputable fact that, in ancient civilizations, religion dominated the lives of people and formed the pillars of their culture. Little wonder that most of ancient Egypt’s gods as well as the most important components of their culture came from the country they knew as ‘The Land of the Gods’.
Paintings of their gods show at least six held the common Somali nomad’s HANGOOL – a handy stuff hook-shaped at one end and a V-shaped at the other traditionally used for handling thorn bushes. Another three gods held the slender Somali spear. Ancient Egyptian traditional dresses, the Royal scarf worn around the waist as well as the (Ivory) headrest all reminds one of the present day Somalia. Curiously enough, the beautifully decorated scarf to this day remained part of a Somali nomad girl’s ceremonial attire and was called BOQOR. The word BOQOR was also the only Somali word for king. While the method of burying the dead with their belongings was also a pre-Islamic Somali tradition, there where the persistent reports of the existence of man-made hills in north-east Somalia- a probable predecessor to ancient Egypt’s geometrical pyramids.
Apart from the ancient Egyptian records, the only detailed mention of pre-Islamic Somalia was that by the Greek geographers and travelers Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, Ptolemy and cosmos Indicopleustas who visited the Red Sea coast between the first and fifth century A.D. According to their records, Somalia was then called Barbaria and its people were Barbars. The name Berber was apparently a corruption of Barbar and, therefore, Barbaria must have been the original homeland of the North African Berbers.
In all probability, the Red Sea Port city of Berbera was Barbara, the most important town in Barbaria. Perhaps it would be of interest to note here that the ancient Egyptian Hieroglyph was also called BARBA. Incidentally, BARBA in Somali meant ‘teach to write’ and was still in use in the old quarter of Mogadishu. BAR in Somali means ‘teach’ and BA was the first letter of the Hieroglyph as well as the Somali orthography. While the word Barbarism and Barbaric found its way into some European dictionaries in their correct spelling, they obviously referred to the hostile and ‘savage’ conduct of the North Africans who then were the only Barbars in contact with Europe.
Another unexpected source which the author found valuable was the two Holy Books of the two main monotheistic religions, namely the Bible and Qur’an. In the opinion of the author, the age of the two books and their reference to historical events renders them a valuable source which could not simply be ignored or dismissed. As a matter of fact, the two books provided some useful hints which added to the mounting etymological evidence at hand. For instance, the Biblical YAHWE (later turned Yehova and Jehova) was evidently the same as the Somali YAHU – traditionally invoked to ward off evil or danger. While the Cananite god ‘Pal’ was still present in Somalia in the same sense in one or two words, the ancient Aramaic name for the almighty, EBBE, was to this day the most commonly used names for God besides the Islamic ‘Allah’. The Biblical TUBAN-CAIN, whose profession was to make instruments (Genesis 4:22) was obviously a Greek mispronunciation of TUMAL, the Somali iron-monger.
According to the earliest interpretations of the Quran, the place where Cain slew his brother, Abel, was ‘GERIYAT’ which reportedly meant ‘The place of Death’. Incidentally, the hottest most desolate piece of desert in North-Western Somalia was called and thus also meant in Somali. GERIYAT (GEERIYAAD) lies about 25km south of the historical Red Sea Port of Zeila (probably the Biblical Zillah, the mother of TUBAL-CAIN). Also according to the Holy Quran, WAD (the ancient Hamite god) was one of the five idol-gods worshipped during the time of Prophet Noah. There was now etymological evidence that WAD was a Somali deity as also was HOBAL and several of ancient Egypt’s gods.
III. THE LAND OF THE GODS
Linguistically, Somali was classified as a member of the Eastern Cushitic sub-group of the Cushitic branch of the Hamito-Semitic family. Languages that belong to the Hamito-Semitic family were usually sub-divided into branches that represented dialects of the original parent language. These were Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic and Chadic.
While some linguists rejected the existence of a genetic affinity between the Chadic and other branches of the Hamito-Semitic, others accepted it Similarly, on the basis of the low percentage of vocabulary items shared between the West Cushitic languages and other members of the Cushitic branch, some scholars classified West Cushitic as a separate branch of the Hamito-Semitic known as Omotic. Still others connect Omotic with the Chadic group.
In view of such considerable differences of opinion among linguists as to which language belonged to which group and the criteria to be applied in identifying a language, it would in the view of the author, be wise to expand the scope of the criteria to be applied. Just as new genetic evidence points to the fact that all human beings came from the same family of man and woman, available linguistic evidence also points to the same genetic origin of all languages. Obviously, the present criterion for classifying languages on the basis of the common origin of the most ancient vocabulary and word elements used to express grammatical relations were clearly inadequate and the cause of such difference of opinion. Consequently, a study of a language’s etymology would not only add to our knowledge of a people’s ancient history and culture but could also help in determining the age of a language as well as its relationship with other languages. However, the study of the word formation of a language was a rather complex subject and could only be attempted by a native with a fairly large reservoir of vocabulary, an inner feeling for the cultural circumstances in which a word formed as well as a working knowledge of other sister languages. Studying a language as a foreign medium was, in the opinion of the author, hardly enough to comprehend variations of the words of an ancient yet living language such as Somali.
Unfortunately, the present study raises more questions than it provides answers in a discipline already beset with conflicting theories and arguments. However, whatever linguistic characteristics Somali seems to share with other languages of the Cushitic group, the presence of a fairly large number of ancient objects of worship as well as names of God clearly separates it from the group and calls for a more comprehensive study of the language.
(P.S. For the purpose of clarity, gods of Somali origin identified in the study as well as Somali words used are rendered in the new Somali orthography.)
Contrary to the accepted traditional classification and the recent claim by Prof. M. Nuh (PhD UCLA 1981) that Somali separated from parent Cushitic some 3000 to 3500 years ago, it was evident from the study the language could well belong to the ancient stage of the Hamito-Semitic if not earlier. The fact that it survived almost intact over several millennia could probably be due to its speakers’ unchanged pastoralist way of life and their almost geographical isolation in the North-Eastern corner of the Horn of Africa.
Probably the most important word in the Somali language is its name, i.e. SOMALI. Often misunderstood and occasionally misinterpreted by Somali and foreign scholars alike, the author thought it befitting that the study should begin with it. Contrary to all erroneous theories advanced and meanings attributed to it, the name was a simple Somali noun describing the profession of its speakers, namely SOMAAL. In old Somali, so’ meant meat – now replaced by the modern word HILIB. Among speakers of MAI dialect, however, SO’ was still very much in use and was the only word for meat. The suffix MAAL means to live on or to make gain from. Hence SO’MAAL literally means ‘one who lives on meat’ – in other words a pastoralist.
Apparently, in ancient times, Somalis were more efficiently divided along professional lines as opposed to the present cumbersome system of lineage. The TUMAAL was the iron-monger, BAAJIMAAL was the potter and BIYOMAAL (literally the one who lives on or makes gain from water) was either a cultivator or a fisher. Presently, a sub-clan of the main Dir clan-family is called BIYOMAAL and live along the lower parts of the Shabelle river – though they practice both farming and pastoralism. To this day, however, the SO’MAAL, TUMAAL and BAAJIMAAL live true to their old professions. In line with similar words in the language, the difficult-to-pronounce Hamzah (’) in SO’MAAL was later dropped and replaced by the long vowel SOOMAAL.
The only other Somali word with the suffix MAAL was DUMAAL which meant ‘one who gained from death’. DUMAAL was the word commonly used for wife-inheritance. In Somali tradition, a man is expected to inherit the wife of his deceased brother. Similarly, in the event of death of one’s wife, her younger sister is usually given to him in marriage to take the place of her deceased elder sister. Therefore, in Somali, a sister-in-law was a DUMAASHI (which should have basically been DUMAAL-SHI).
WAD’AAD (now WADAAD), evidently the pre-Islamic word for priest (man of religion) was still commonly used and contained the ancient ‘Hamitic’ god WAD. Hence WAD’AAD, or more recently WADAAD, meant the attendant of WAD. In modern Somali, WAD meant ‘death’. Similarly, DAR’AAD (currently GARAAD) meant ‘an expert in law’ – probably the clan advocate. In modern Somali, however, GARAAD today means prince or Sultan of a clan.
Another supposedly ‘ancient Hamitic god’, HOBAL, also was evidently of Somali origin. HOOBAL – alternatively HOOYAL – was probably the best known of all Somali gods and continues to dominate Somali poetry and traditional folklore songs. Pagan Arabia’s most important god, HUBAL, was none other than the Somali HUBAL, co-opted and given an Arabised sound. In modern Somali today, HOBAL, was understood to mean ‘Artiste’. The ancient god was probably the patron-god of Somali literature.
Undoubtedly the most important aspect of the present study was the Somali-Egyptian relationship. Present linguistic evidence showed at least five of ancient Egypt’s gods came from or had obvious links with the country they at times called ‘The Land of the Gods’. For instance, the supreme sun god, RA’ (also alternatively called RA and RE) occurs as a component of a number of culturally-important Somali words. The all-important ritual word for slaughter, GOWRAC, clearly indicates the sun god was as old as the language itself. GOWRAC literally meant ‘cut for RAC’. The Oromo word for the same ritual was GORA’ with a Hamzah substituted for the more difficult to pronounce C (’). RA was the only god Somali shared with other Eastern Cushitic branch with the exception of Waq which it also shares with the Oromo. Other Somali words which also contained the supreme sun god GARAC (an illegitimate child), ARRAWEELO (AR-RA-WEELO), the legendary pagan queen who castrated a whole generation of the Somali menfolk. ARRAWEELO literally meant ‘The one who obeyed RA’. The Somali word for ‘wrong’ was GURRAC (GUR-RAC). GUR meant ‘the left hand’, which in most languages stood for ‘wrong’.
The two words GARRE (GAR-RE) and BARRE (BAR-RE) incorporated the third alias of the sun god, RE. Consequently, GARRE meant the same as GARAC – both meaning an illegitimate child. Hence the saying “GARRE GARAC MALE” – meaning the GARRE (a clan in the south) have no illegitimate child. It was an accepted tradition to this day among the clan that a newly-wed bride was immediately taken away by young herdsmen and could not be returned to her husband until she was pregnant. BARRE (BAR-RE) meant god’s rain. BAR means rain drops as in BARWAAQO (BAR-WAQ).
HOROUS, the second most important of ancient Egypt’s gods, also appears to have originated in the ‘Land of the gods’. The dark falcon deity (Somali ABOODI) still remains a much feared bird. It was believed to be particularly dangerous to newly-born babies and nursing mothers. A piece of the bird’s bones or its claw was traditionally tied around the infant as a protection against its harmful spells. In North-Eastern Somalia in particular, the male name HORUSE was given to a child of dark complexion. To protect themselves against the falcon’s evil eye, nursing mothers often carry a knife or a short stick of the WAGAR tree. Incidentally, the Egyptian pharaohs reportedly carried the same WAGAR stuff to the battlefield to ensure victory against the enemy.
OSIRIS, another of ancient Egypt’s gods who reportedly ruled the underworld after being killed by SET (Ed. Somali SED), was evidently a Greek distortion of ISIR and WASIIR in Somali. Today, Somalis sometimes refer to AB and ISIR in their denial of an accusation that was culturally horrendous. One usually says "I have neither AB nor ISIR for such an act" – meaning I have neither the genetic probability nor the cultural or religious orientation to commit such a horrendous act.
The pair WALCAN and WASIIR, now on their way to oblivion, were also used in a similar but slightly varying context. In modern Somali, however, ISIR was commonly used as a female name.
NEPHDEYS and BES, two less prominent ancient Egyptian gods, also appear to have some affinity with the Somali language. While NAF in Somali meant ‘soul’, NEF meant ‘breath’. Hence NEPHDEYS literally would mean ‘The one who releases breath – a function more or less attributed to the ancient god. BES in Somali meant ‘One who was in his or her deathbed’ – also a function the latter god was associated with.
The ancient Cananite god, PAL, was still alive in Somali in the same sense but probably in only two words – UUR-KU-BAALE-LE and YABAAL. The rarely used UUR-KU-BAAL-LE meant ‘One who has BAL in him’. One would usually ask: “How do you expect me to know your intentions? Do you think I have BAAL in me?” In essence, this meant only one who had BAAL in him could foretell the hidden or the unknown. YABAAL, possibly an alternative name for BAAL, was usually associated with the voice, of an invisible being that told one what to do or not to do in time of crisis in the wilderness.
Finally, the ancient Mayan Sea god, MANYA, simply meant sea in the Somali dialect spoken in the old quarters of Mogadishu.
The above brief study of Somali etymology does not attempt to re-classify the language nor does it set its probable age. But the evident fact that Somali contains the two most ancient ‘Hamitic’ gods, WAD and HOBAL, at least five of ancient Egypt’s most prominent deities as well as two Semitic and one Cananite ancient names of god clearly calls for a thorough review of this medium hitherto classified as Eastern Cushitic.
True to its old name ‘The Land of the gods’, Somalia was probably a very important center of religion in ancient times and the probable cradle of idol-worship for both sides of the Red Sea and farther afield. The fact that the Horn of Africa was the oldest settlement that combined both Hamites and Semites also lends more credibility to the current popular theory that human species originated in the East African region.
Without any attempt to draw any conclusions, the present brief study merely seeks to shed some light on our knowledge of the Somali language and its mainly pastoralist speakers who until now attracted comparatively little attention from scholars. It was evident further study was needed not only to re-classify the language and assess its probable age but also to realize its full historio-linguistic potential.