Nearly all Somalis speak the same language, Somali which belongs to a set of languages called lowland Eastern Cushitic spoken by peoples living in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Eastern Cushitic is one section of the Cushitic language family, which in turn is part of the great Afro-Asiatic stock.
The main Somali dialect which is the most widely used is Common Somali, a term applied to several subdialects, the speakers of which can understand each other easily. Common Somali is spoken in most of Somalia and in adjacent territories (Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti), and is used by broadcasting stations in Somalia.
Facility with language is highly valued in Somali society; the capability of a suitor, a warrior, or a political or religious leader is judged in part by his verbal adroitness. In such a society, oral poetry becomes an art, and one's ability to compose verse in one or more of its several forms enhances one's status. Speakers in political or religious assemblies and litigants in courts traditionally were expected to use poetry or poetic proverbs. Even everyday talk tended to have a terse, vivid, poetic style, characterized by carefully chosen words, condensed meaning, and alliteration.
In the pre-revolutionary era, English became dominant in the school system and in government. However, the overarching issue was the development of a socioeconomic stratum based on mastery of a foreign language. The relatively small proportion of Somalis (less than 10 percent) with a grasp of such a language--preferably English--had access to government positions and the few managerial or technical jobs in modern private enterprises. Such persons became increasingly isolated from their nonliterate Somali-speaking brethren, but because the secondary schools and most government posts were in urban areas the socioeconomic and linguistic distinction was in large part a rural-urban one.
Even before the 1969 revolution, Somalis had become aware of social stratification and the growing distance, based on language and literacy differences, between ordinary Somalis and those in government. The 1972 decision to designate an official Somali Latin script and require its use in government demolished the language barrier and an important obstacle to rapid literacy growth.
In the years following the institution of the Somali Latin script, Somali officials were required to learn the orthography and attempts were made to inculcate mass literacy--in 1973 among urban and rural sedentary Somalis, and in 1974-75 among nomads. Although a few texts existed in the new script before 1973, in most cases new books were prepared presenting the government's perspective on Somali history and development. Somali scholars also succeeded in developing a vocabulary to deal with a range of subjects from mathematics and physics to administration and ideology.
It is estimated that northern Somalis began converting to Islam around the 7th century.
Almost all Somalis are Sunni Muslims and Islam is vitally important to the Somali sense of national identity, though traces of pre-Islamic traditional religion exist in Somalia. Many of the Somali social norms come from their religion. For example, men shake hands only with men, and women shake hands with women.
Many Somali women cover their heads and bodies with a brightly-coloured hijab when they are in public. In addition, Somalis abstain from pork, gambling, and alcohol, and receiving or paying any form of interest.
Most Somalis don't belong to a specific mosque or sect and can pray in any mosque they find. Celebrations come in the form of religious festivities, two of the most important being Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr which marks the end of the fasting month. Families get dressed up to visit one another. If they can afford it, money is donated to the poor.
Somali society is organized into clan families, which range from 100,000 to over one million in size. The five main clans are: Darod, Isaaq, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyn. There are also a number of smaller clan groups. Each of the large clan families is divided into lineage units, typically ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 members. It is possible for Somalis to know how they are related simply by giving their name and clan membership.
Somalis deeply value the family with the strength of family ties providing a safety net in times of need and suffering.
Arranged marriages are common in Somalia. In the case of arranged marriages, the bride is usually much younger than the groom. Marriage to a cousin from the mother's side of the family (of a different lineage) is traditionally favored to strengthen family alliance, but this practice is not as common as earlier. Virginity is valued in women prior to marriage. In addition, divorce is legal in Somalia. Romantic marriages are becoming more common and are now the majority of marriages in Somalia. But even these choices are influenced by the partner's clan.
There is a widely held misconception that FGM is sanctioned by Islam when this is not the case. In fact, as a practice, FGM or gud as it is known among Somalis, predates Islam by hundreds of years and can actually be traced back to pharaonic times. It also directly contravenes the Qur'an's proscription on bodily mutilation.
Somalis practice a generally reversible form of infibulation wherein the outer labia of a girl's vulva are sewn shut except for a small hole to allow for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The purpose of the procedure is to ensure a girl's virginity until time for marriage.
Although FGM is oftentimes a painful procedure and can have serious consequences on the health of the girl that undergoes it, many women also report not having experienced complications or trauma from this traditional custom, contrary to what the media routinely reports.
This fact, however, has not stopped educated Somali men and women from unanimously condemning the practice as unnecessary, potentially very dangerous, and ultimately un-Islamic -- a stance which bodes well for future generations of Somali women.