Maay-Maay (Somali-Bantu)


The Somali Bantu may speak a number of languages. The main language spoken by the people who fled the lower Juba River valley, in Southern Somalia, is Af Maay (also known as Maay, or Maay Maay, sometimes spelled as May or Maimai.) [Maay rhymes with “sigh.”]

According to the Immigration and Refugee Services of America, in 2002:

  • Less than 5 percent of Somali Bantus speak English.
  • Between 50 and 70 percent of Somali Bantus speak the Bantu version of the southern Somali dialect Maimai (also spelled Maymay, Maay, or Af May).
  • Between 30 and 50 percent of Somali Bantus speak Somali (others understand Somali but prefer to speak Maimai). Link to Wikipedia entry on the Somali language
  • Some 10 to 20 percent speak Kizigua, a Bantu language similar to Kiswahili. 9) Information on Swahili (Kiswahili)

    The following information on language and literacy is quoted directly from “The Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture”

    Language and Literacy

    The Somali language has distinct regional variants. The two main variants are Af Maay (pronounced af my) and Af Maxaa (roughly pronounced af mahaa). Both are Cushitic, with virtually all Somalis speaking at least one of these languages. Af Maay, also know as Maay Maay, serves as the lingua franca in southern Somalia as an agropastoral language while Af Maxaa is spoken throughout the rest of Somalia and in neighboring countries, including Kenya, where the refugee camps are located.

    Both languages served as official languages until 1972 when the government determined that Af Maxaa would be the official written language in Somalia. This decision further isolated and hindered southerners, including the Bantu, from participating in mainstream Somali politics, government services, and education. Af Maay and Af Maxaa share some similarities in their written form but are different enough in their spoken forms as to be mutually unintelligible.

    While the main language in the Juba River valley is Af Maay, some Bantu in traditional villages do not understand it at all. These Bantu still speak their ancestral tribal languages from Tanzania (primarily Zigua), with Swahili occasionally used as a common language. In the refugee camps, some Bantu adults have taken it upon themselves to learn English while others have gained greater proficiency in Swahili in order to communicate with Kenyan aid workers, police, and government officials. A limited number of Bantu refugees are also able to speak and understand some Af Maxaa, which is predominantly spoken in the Dadaab refugee camps and in the surrounding districts of Kenya's Northeastern Province.

    Resettlement agencies in the United States may want to try first using Af Maay, then using Af Maxaa-speaking Somali staff to translate. Some Bantu children may have a strong enough command of English to communicate with resettlement workers. With Zigua and other traditional Bantu, resettlement agencies can utilize their Swahili-speaking staff from east Africa (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania) to communicate with these Bantu. If Somali translators are used, there may be issues of trust and respect between them and the Bantu.

    Although the male head of household will most likely represent the family, resettlement workers should also speak directly with the other members of the family to ensure that their needs and concerns are being met.

    The Af Maay Dialect

    Af Maay uses the Roman alphabet with minor modifications to accommodate unique pronunciations. Since it has only recently been codified, the written language is very much a work in progress, with variations quite common. Like Af Maxaa, the Af Maay grammar is not well documented although the use of proper grammar is very important in both.

    Af Maay consists of 24 consonants and five vowels:

    Consonants: b p t j jh d th r s sh dh g gh f q k l m n ng ny w h y

    Vowels: a e i o u, pronounced aa ee ii oo uu

    It is necessary to bear in mind that, unlike the Af Maxaa language, Af Maay has no pharyngeal or glottal sound such as ha (xa) and 'a (ca). In the Af Maay alphabet, only consonants such as 'r' and 'l' are doubled within some words (e.g., arring, 'matter,' illing, 'kernel').

    The letters b, d, g and n are pronounced more distinctly by pronouncing them with more force when they are not at the beginning of a word. However, they are not doubled (i.e bb, dd, gg, and nn) within a word as is common in Af Maxaa. Instead, the letters p, th, gh and ng respectively are used in their place when emphasis is required. These sounds are unique to Af-Maay. There are no letters to represent these distinct sounds in Af Maxaa. Note how the following words are pronounced.

    • Barbaar 'youth'Heped 'chest'
    • Derdaar 'advice'
    • Mathal 'appointment'
    • Legding 'wrestling'
    • Saghaal 'nine'
    • Tinaar 'oven'
    • Ungbeer 'dress'

    The letters p, jh, gh, ng and yc are used to represent sounds common in Af Maay are considered. They are also not found in the Af Maxaa alphabet.

    P always occurs in the middle of the word and it sounds similar to the 'p' in the English alphabet (e.g., apaal, 'gratitude'; hopoog, 'scarf').

    Jh is guttural and sounds like j (e.g., jheer, 'shyness'; jhab, 'fracture').

    Th is pronounced as in 'the' in English (e.g., mathal, 'appointment'; etheb, 'politeness').

    Gh sounds like the letter 'gain' of the Arabic alphabet (e.g., dhaghar, 'deceive'; shughul, job').

    Ng is similar to the sound of 'ing' in English (e.g., angkaar, 'curse'; oong, 'thirst').

    Ieh is a common ending on nouns and verbs. However, the letter 'y' is commonly used among Af Maay writers to represent this sound.

    • Maghy 'Noun'Misgy 'Sorghum'
    • Maaycy 'Ocean'
    • Jyny 'Heaven'
    • Shyny 'Bee'
    • Myfathaaw 'I do not want it'

    Yc, a sound found in the word signore, bsogno, and agnello in the Italian language, is also a source of controversy. This sound is universally found in many Asian and African languages and in some Af Maay scripts this sound is represented as either ny or gn.

    • Ycaaycuur 'cat'Maaycy 'ocean'
    • Ycuuycy 'name of a person'
    • Ycisaang 'the youngest'
    • Myyceeg 'feeble'

    Upon arrival in the Dadaab refugee camps, few, if any, of the Bantu were observed to be literate.


    In 1975, government figures estimated that the literacy rate among Somali citizens was 55%, in contrast to a 5% rate before the adoption of the national script. The United Nations, however, estimated the literacy rate in Somalia at 24%.

    Due to their exclusion from formal education and positions in Somalia that require literacy, the Bantu have remained largely illiterate. Upon arrival in the Dadaab refugee camps, few, if any, of the Bantu were observed to be literate. Without any accurate data, it can only be said that the rate of literacy for the Bantu is low and certainly well below the United Nations estimate of 24%.

    With primary and secondary education offered to all refugees in the Kenyan camps, many school-age Somali Bantu children, and especially the boys, have learned to read and write. Some adult Bantu have taken it upon themselves to learn to read and write too, sometimes with the help of educated English-speaking Kenyan Somalis who hire themselves out to the refugees as translators and teachers.

      Original Contributor: Lisa Arakelian, Winter 2010.

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