SCANSION AND PHONOLOGY IN A CHANGING ORAL TRADITION:
SOMALI POETRY AND THE DEBATE ABOUT ITS MIISAAN
Giorgio Banti (Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”)

Somali is an East Cushitic language spoken by ca. 16.000.000 people in five countries of the eastern Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Somaliland, the other regions of former Somalia, the Somali region of Ethiopia, and north-eastern Kenya. It is further spoken by a world-wide diaspora in eastern and southern Africa, the Arab countries, Europe, north America, and Australia. It is a cluster of closely related varieties, which can be split in two major dialect groups: Northern Somali and the Benaadir dialects. Written Somali has developed since the end of the 19th century mainly on the basis of Northern Somali. Prior to that the Somali-speaking communities used mainly Arabic for writing, and their rich poetic tradition was essentially an oral one. The Somali poets, that traditionally only relied upon mouth-to-ear transmission and verbatim memorization of their poems, started to switch to electronic media such as radio and tape recordings already in the middle decades of the 20th century. But it was only when literacy became widespread, after the introduction of the official Latin-based orthography in 1972, that they started to compose their work by writing it.
This transition from oral to written composition and dissemination went together with a major change in how Somali poems are performed. Traditionally, and until recent decades Somali poetry was chanted, i.e., it was performed with a rhythmic and melodic format, called luuq. During the 80es performing poems with the luuq became increasingly obsolete, and now the major living Somali poets, such as Hadraawi and Gaarriye, only declaim their work. The rhythmic and melodic format is however well alive in dance and work songs, and developed new forms accompanied by musical instruments for the modern songs.
The distinction between poetry stricto sensu (maanso)and song (hees)in the Somali traditional setting is thus not based upon their having or lacking a musical format when they are performed, but rather upon other features such as authoriality, topic, length, setting and participants of their performance, etc.
Traditional Somali poets may know something about Arabic poetry and its scansion system, but acquire their ability to compose Somali verse by hearing and imitating poems by other authors, not through any kind of formal teaching of the rules of the Somali poetic system. They are thus aware of the fact that there are different genres, and that there are different kinds of luuq, i.e., of rhythmic and melodic format. They are also aware of the strict requirements of word-initial alliteration, for which they use different terms such as qaafiyad (from the Arabic word indicating “word-final rhyme”), or xarafraac, literally “letter-following”. They generally know the stereotype lines (hooyaale)that are chanted when one starts to perform a poem, and they say they need them to get the proper rhythm for performing or composing. But they don’t know the details of their scansion system: they are only aware that a certain line is good or “broken” (jaban), or that there is a mistake (laaxin, or deelqaaf).
It was only in the mid 70es that Somali scholars started debating the nature of their scansion system (miisaan from Arabic) and its rules. The seminal paper was Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac “Gaarriye” (1976), followed by other papers by himself, Carraale, Riiraash, and others, and even by books such as Cabdillaaahi Diiriye Guuleed “Carraale” (2003). With the exception of Gamuute (2012), this debate was essentially internal to the Somali literary scene, and disregarded most of what western scholars such as Johnson, Banti, Giannattasio, and Orwin were writing about Somali scansion.
This paper will discuss, on the one hand, the basic peculiarities of the Somali scansion system, such as:
i.) its counting closed syllables with short vowels, i.e., CVC, as short one-mora syllables and not as long two-mora ones, and its parallels in the phonology of the Somali pitch accent;
ii.) its distinction between isosyllabic metres, where long vowels can only alternate with short vowels ( u ), and non-isosyllabic metres, where long syllables can alternate with two short vowels ( t );
iii.) the role of a small set of additional “prosodic” rules that specify which syllables are anceps, and where it is possible to fiddle with the number of syllables, and their parallels in the phonology of the language.
On the other hand, the paper will provide a brief outline of the ongoing debate between Somali scholars and of the main metrical and phonological concepts they have been using.
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