Somalia: Dialects Causing Drama
Words by Shirin Ahmed
For some older than I, a switch up in regional vernacular or borrowed colonial words is a trigger. All it takes a look at a menu in a restaurant to see the Italian words, Xamar dish names. The waiter pronounces banana as “mooz” rather than “moos” and it’s all it takes for us to go awf. When it comes to language, dialects and accents, there is a special pain associated with it. A history that comes with it. Language politics infiltrate everything, creeping up even in my most everyday of routines. Language is embedded and folded into us, spiced on our tongues like food.
To my grandfather, menus were reminders of the political. A glance at the words which he saw as foreign could set precedence for the topic of his choice that he’d ramble on for the duration of our meal. Main ingredients here include nationalism and regionalism topped with patriotism, suitable for chauvinists. His wrinkles would become exaggerated as he winced reading the word “yaanyo” instead of his preference of “tomaando” in the small description under the dish title. He’d complain about the unnecessary Italian words added on to page like a transgression upon his eyes, but as soon as the food came not a word was spoken. His performative patriotism over the word 'tomato' is what drove me into a short-lived phase of pan-Somalism, passing as quickly as his speech. My glance at the menu doesn’t propel me into an hour-long rant and, to be honest, I can barely understand what I’m trying to order. I side eye the random Italian interjections and proceed to stumble over the words, usually failing to read my order in Somali. I end up pointing to the menu and saying, “erm, yeah just number 32, erm, no onion though."
Fast forward to the present. The wounds aren’t as fresh for Somalis my age. When ordering at our local Sam's Chicken or PFC, we don’t require each other to code switch to our mother tongue, noting the differences in our words. When we eat outside the house, our main preference/link up spot isn’t the local Somali-owned restaurant. Language politics don't invade every aspect our lives, they don't drag up memories of a home we never had a chance to embrace. Dialect differences don’t evoke emotional visuals of war and friendly neighbours. Food is enjoyed, free from trauma.
The distinction between canjeero and laxoox is an age-old conflict around Somali millennials around the diaspora who like to fire shots at who remixed the language the most. However, underneath this playful mocking of regional variations, an element of nationalism is quietly present. We carry the burden. Canjeero or laxoox?
In Somali, food can also behave like the GPS tracker on your Iphone. Simply name what your eating and someone will be able to pinpoint where in the country you're from. My first experience with this was in secondary school. I had brought in my mum’s laxoox she’d made earlier in the morning as a snack for break and my friend had approached me saying “you brought canjeero to school?” I did a double take at the roll I was clearly holding and went, “what the entire eff is canjeero please, fam, this is laxoox!" With the help of my friends who all spoke aaf maay, I was soon exposed to an unfamiliar Somali than the one I had been accustomed to. Food was a very important part of my teen years, and I soon began to learn a different dialect which only ever became useful whenever my stomach rumbled.
My grandma’s sabaayad is the closest I’ve been to home. Being a second generation child, twice removed from the Somali food and language does have baggage. I’ve tried to piece together fragments of my home through her cooking because my mum’s versions don’t have the same grit, the same authenticity.
As for my grandfather, maybe his exhausting patriotism is a way for dealing with memories of dead bodies & rubble where once were buildings. I don’t question it.
Somali cuisine is just as complex as the language and the people themselves, inextricably linked and interconnected. It can play as an agent of Google Maps, letting other people know your hometown before explicitly identifying it. For people like my grandfather, ordering the food that sustains him is often the same thing that breaks his heart.
Shereen Abyan resides in the home of the 6god but comes by way of London. A Tribe Called Quest and pizza lover, connect with her via twitter @delashereen