Wednesday, 26 December 2007

The Varied Uses of the Past Tense in Somali Language

Thirty six years have passed since the first Somali language grammar book was published. Since then a couple of Somali grammar books have been published(1) . There are aspects of Somali grammar that throw up more questions for Somali language researchers. Although the Somali past tense can be used as both present and past perfect tenses, it has nuances that manifest themselves in both the spoken and written word and show the challenges facing the descriptive and prescriptive Somali language grammarian.

The past tense is used in Somali to:
1 refer to an event that took place at a specific time in the past (an adverb of time being the indicator)
2- refer to an event that has taken place at an unspecific time in the past
3-describe a situation that has or has not changed

It is the third point that calls for redefinition of the use of the past tense because of ambiguity attendant on its use in Somali language. In Somali it is common to use the past tense in reference to a situation that may not have changed, as the following imaginary dialogue between Samatar and Warsame will show:

Samatar: Waxaan ku nooleyn Xaafadda Xamar Jajab. (We have lived in Xamar Jajab quarter)
Warsame: Ka xaggee Xamar Jajab? ( Where in Xamar Jajab?)
Samatar: Dekedda agteeda ( near the harbour)
Warsame: Ma waxaad deris ahaydeen reer Jaamac? (Were you neighbours of Jaamac’s family?)
Samatar: Haa. Ina Jaamac iyo aniga ayaa saaxibbo ahaa. (Yes. Son of Jaamac and I were/have been friends.)

Samatar’s use of past tense to make mention of friendship with the son of Jaamac may or may not mean that the friendship is a thing of past, and may prompt someone who is learning Somali as second language to ask: “ Are you not friends anymore?”
The use of the past tense to refer to situations that are not necessarily past is not confined to the spoken word. It is widely used in different forms of writing in Somali language. It sometimes creeps in English texts by Somalis using the same tense in English as the one they are using in Somali when formulating ideas. A political memoir(2) by a Somali politician contains paragraphs about another politician whose ‘antics’ he has described as being alien to the Somali people “ who were Muslims”. Following examples are drawn from three texts—two books and a scholarly paper published in an academic journal.

1-Dirirta qabaa’ilka ayuu gabaygu qayb muhiim ah oo waranka u dhigma ka ahaan jirey, dumarkuna si toos ah ugama aanay qayb qaadan jirin dirirtaas(3). (Like the spear, the poem played a major role in clan warfare, but women did not have a direct role in the fight.)
2-1972 ka hor af soomaaligu wuxuu ahaa af lagu hadlo oo keli ah oo
aan qornayn. Wuxuuna lahaa suugaan aad u ballaaran oo si murti
leh uga hadasha nolosha reer miyiga(4) … ( Before 1972 Somali was a spoken language and without an orthography. It has had a broad literature that meaningfully cover the nomadic life… )
3-Kornayl Axmed Cumar Jees wuxuu ka mid ahaa saraakishii14/8/1992 magaalada Baardheere ku aasaastay Isbahaysiga SNA ee Jenersal M. F Caydiid Guddoomiyaha ka ahaa.(5) (Colonel Axmed Cumar Jees was one of the officers who on, 14/8/1992, formed at Baardheere town the Somali National Alliance of which General M. F. Caydiid was chairman. )

The first quote is from a book on the role of women in the Somali society. The second quote is from a scholarly paper on the written Somali language. The third quote is from a book on the causes of Somalia’s state collapse. If we assume that the use of the past tense in the second sentence of the second quote doubles as present perfect, (it has had a broad literature that profoundly cover the nomadic life…), we find out that the same assumption cannot be made about the first quote for factual reasons: poetry is still used to fan inter-clan violence but the modern arms have replaced the spear in the Somali environment. It is the third sentence (Colonel Axmed Cumar Jees was one of the officers who, on 14/8/1992, formed at Baardheere town the Somali National Alliance of which General M. F. Caydiid was a chairman) that raises questions about use to of ‘a verb to be’ in Somali past tense to refer to a person who is a alive. Colonel Jees’s co-founder status is in the present and therefore the verb to be used in the Somali present tense
( yahay ) is arguably more suitable as long as he is alive regardless of the existence of the alliance he co-founded.

The three examples we have used in this essay aim to shed some light on the subtleties of the Somali language grammar described by Dr Georgi Kapchits(6) as “a grammar that a foreigner cannot learn easily.” This difficulty in learning the Somali language grammar has partly to do with the varied uses to which many aspects of the Somali grammar are put, and it poses challenges for grammarians and translators, teachers and students working in Somali language.


1-Among the Somali grammar books written are: Aasaaska naxwaha af Soomaaliga. Mugdisho By Wasaaradda Waxbarashada ( Ministry of Education), 1971; Barashada naxwaha af soomaaliga (A Somali school grammar) by Abdalla Omar Mansur, Annarita Puglielli, 1999 ; Naxwaha cusub ee afsoomaaliga = Al-Nahwa al-Jadid Lillughah Bilsomalyah by Maximed Xaaji Zuseen Raabbi, 1995. ; Qawacidka luuqadda Somaaliga= Grammar of the Somali language by Ibraahim Xashi Moxamud & Moxamed Xashi Xidhkayome, 1998.; Naxwaha af Soomaaliga ( The Somali Grammar ) by Axmed Maxammad Sulaymaan (Shiraac), 2003; Naxwaha Af Soomaaliga (The Somali language grammar) by Shire Jama Ahmed 1976; Somali Reference Grammar ( in English) by John I. Saeed, 1987 ; A Grammatical Sketch of Somali by Helena Dubnov, 2003 ; Somali Grammar By John Warner, 1985.

2-The book in question is From Barre to Aideed: Somalia: the agony of a nation by Hussein Ali Dualeh, 1994.
3-From the book Guri waa haween ( The bedrock of the family: Somali Woman and Her Potential Role) by Mohamed Bashe Haji Hassan, 2006

4-From Somali: From an Oral to a Written Language by Abdalla Omar Mansur in Diogenes, 1998;
5-From the book Sababihii Burburka Soomaalida ( Causes of Somalia’s State Collapse) by Cabdulqaadir Cusmaan Maxamuud (Oromo), 1999
6-An interview in Somali language with Georgi Kapchits published in Hal-Aqoon, a Journal of Somali Literature and Culture.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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Thank you for all your efforts and the wonderful work you are doing, continue success!