Ethiopian Languages, English Substitution, and Itiopiawinet

Published on 14th August 2018

My aim is not to sound an alarm or insinuate pessimism, but to draw awareness to the mega trend of English substitution in Amharic and our other languages.

Conceived of my personal curiosity about ethno-linguistic character and the trend of English substitution in Ethiopian languages, I write with the general reader in mind and mean no disparagement of the English language or Ethiopians who speak it.  The goal of knowing a language is to speak it. A beneficiary of reading, speaking, and writing Amharic, English, and afaan Oromo, I am the richer for knowing the languages. As English is more and more a global language, I assume other peoples of the world are equally likely as Ethiopians to substitute English in their languages.  Curbing English is not an option, but to strive to excel at it. I begin with an overview of Ethiopian ethno-linguistic scenes.

An Overview of Ethno-Linguistic Scenes

With more than eighty ethno-linguistic groupings, Ethiopia is among the countries known as ethnic mosaics. The more than 50 ethnic peoples of Ethiopia’s southern region are a political entity of the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM).  The nine- region Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) is composed of four principal ethno-linguistic coalition of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) [1].  Even though ethnic Amhara and the Amharic language have been the dominant identity of Ethiopia, the subordinate ethnic groups and their languages have survived.  The Oromo, for example, constitute 40% of the land, the same ratio of the spoken language, and the population of Ethiopia, followed by the Amhara (30%-35%). Amharas and Oromos thus comprise almost 75% of the Ethiopian geographic and ethno-linguistic panorama.  The remaining ethno-linguistic groups make up the 25% of the language and population of the country.

The Oromo may be the biggest geographic and ethno-linguistic percentage, but the significant majority of Ethiopians have learned to read, speak, and write Amharic.  By my educated guess, for example, at least 40% of Oromos and Tigreans can read, speak, and write Amharic. More or less the same goes for other ethnic groups. The Sub-Saharan nations are as multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic, but no ethnic language as widespread as Amharic is in Ethiopia.  Amharic is for Ethiopia what English or French is for countries of colonized Africa. Like Spanish visitors in Central and Latin America, or English speakers anywhere in the world, Amharic speakers will find friends and hosts all over Ethiopia [2].

When the new Prime Minister visited the Ethiopian regional states, he spoke Amharic in Somali, Afar, Beneshangul, and Gambella.   He also addressed the 50 ethno-linguistic groups in the southern region, in Amharic. He spoke afaan Oromo in Oromia, and Tigrigna, in Tigray.  As Ethnic Ethiopians intermarry and their languages interbreed, ethnic or linguistic purity will gradually become obsolete. The capital city, Addis Ababa (Finfine), houses representatives of all nationalities and ethnic languages in Ethiopia.  Metropolitan Addis Ababa is home to more than 5,000,000 people. It is the umbilical cord and nerve center of Ethiopian politics. Besides, Addis Ababa is the headquarter of the African Union, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and the World Bank branch of the African Development [3].  By the virtue of geopolitical situation and international connections, Addis Ababa is the destination of foreign diplomats and a gateway for tourists of many races and languages of the world.

In regards to foreign contacts, Arabs, Greeks, and Portuguese, supposedly, were the earliest to arrive in Ethiopia.  British expeditionary forces were the close next, followed by American and European diplomatic missions and religious missionaries.  Western corporations have found their way into Addis Ababa, since the early 1900s and mid 20th century.  The newer arrivals are Latin American and Asian consulates and economic entrepreneurs, and Chinese companies and language loom the largest in Addis Ababa today [4].  English remains the main foreign language that Ethiopians substitute for ethnic languages, especially in Addis Ababa metropolis.

The Mega Trend of English Substitution

One can glean from diplomatic history that French was the language of international relations prior to WW I up to WW II.  Subsequent to Anglo-American victorious triumph, the English language took over the post-WWII world. As English is the language of global diplomacy, the African Union, and many transnational conventions, there is almost no country where English is not taught or spoken.  After obtaining independence, former British colonies of Africa adopted English as an official and national language.  Ethiopians are not alone to value English education as the language of science and technology for development, industrialization, and modernization.  

The earliest introduction of English in Ethiopian schools was in Addis Ababa in the first two decades of 1900s and expanded to the provinces in the 1940s and 1950s.  Amharic as a compulsory language, from the beginning, non-Amhara ethnic pupils could not cope with two foreign languages in the tender years.  English thus started in the 4th grade and, later, made the language of secondary and college education.  It is a given that Ethiopians who speak Amharic and English are the most advantaged to travel, live, and work anywhere in the country.  Any Ethiopians with secondary education are able to substitute comparable English words or idioms in casual or formal conversations. The higher the level of education, the more likely is the English substitution.  Hello, yes, no, good, bad, thank you, father, mother, brother, sister are commonplace, and substitutions of abstract concepts and multisyllabic words happen frequently.   

For an illustration of English substitution, I stumbled up on a YouTube archive of Colonel Mengistu H. Mariam presiding over the last Shengo (Parliament) of his presidency.  In less than five-minute remarks, he used 16 English  phrases and words: inhuman, limitation, a one-kilometer road distance, achievement, recognition, territory, situation, military strategy, the Ethiopian media, the  Ethiopian standard, nothing, propaganda, and expectation. His choices of words and pronunciations dispel the myth that the Colonel did not speak English. The Ethiopian military of his time was a highly educated professional class, and the learned members of the parliament understood the Colonel’s substitutions of English words.   

Mengistu’s “replacement,” the late PM Meles Zenawi (ethnic Tigrean) was a guerilla fighter of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front.  He had an indisputable mastery of Amharic, English, and Tigrigna languages. In the twenty years he was in power, Zenawi made many public speeches, pronouncements, and interviews with domestic reporters, in Amharic, and with foreign press, in English.   In one twenty-minute remarks that I heard him, he likened Ethiopia to the Nile River made of the confluence of many rivers [5]. As he spoke in a perfect Amharic, he substituted no English words.

Zenawi’s successor, deputy PM Haile Mariam Desalegn (ethnic Waliata), became PM subsequent to his predecessor’s passing.  Though no less educated than Zenawi, he seemed unable to fill Zenawi’s shoes. Haile Mariam also pledged to pursue Zenawi’s vision and walk the path of a man he adored and revered as a “great leader.” He thus appeared as lacking mental autonomy or originality of thought. Constrained by the Tigrean principals in power structure and kingmakers in government, he had no effective power to compel attention. He had the misfortune of being PM in an atmosphere of sustained civil disobedience, and resigned in six years, as opposed to Zenawi’s almost twenty years on the stage.  Haile Mariam made fewer public appearances than his predecessor or successor, but I have heard him speak good English – an interview with Aljezera journalist, address to the UN, and speech at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Haile Mariam is succeeded by PM Abiy Ahmed (bi-ethnic, Oromo-Amhara) whose charisma, intellect, and bold leadership are hailed as breathe taking and unprecedented.  He speaks fluent Amharic, English, Oromo, and Tigrigna. At age forty-two, Abiy restores to the old country a vitality of hopefulness, a sense of youthfulness, and a fresh start.  In the first 90 days in office, Abiy has calmed the mass protests and violence and steers the country to the path of democracy, equality, justice, and stability. PM Zenawi did not allow, and Haile Mariam did not aspire to the likes of reforms that Abiy has set in motion.  The extraordinary support for him is proof that Abiy’s legacy in the first 100 days outshines Zenawi’s and Haile Mariam’s years.

Yet Dr. Abiy is no exemption from the propensity of substituting English words in Amharic and afaan Oromo speeches. In the first month in office, the PM met with his cabinet ministers and the ranks of the armed forces and discussed the role and responsibility of the respective units.  The lecture-seminar format privileged the PM as professor par excellence. He lectured the cabinet officials on the imperative of good governance and the virtues of discipline, ethics, honesty, and morality in public service.  The armed forces heard the theme of duty and loyalty to national defense at all times and adaptability during regime succession and political transition. I jotted down the following English idioms or words from the PM Abiy’s seminar with the cabinet ministers.  

Opportunity, extreme, age of perish or survival, conscious, responsibility, what I sense, formal contract, official, deliver, wiseness (wisdom), service, integrity, incompetence, live, excellence, life,  accountability, waste, advantage, procedure, hard currency, appeal, specifically, intervene, innovative, income, corporate leaders, etc.  The civilian core of the Ethiopian government is equally as literate in English as the military brass.  Together, the two units constitute the bulk of the Ethiopian intelligentsia, the social capital, and the intellectual property of the country.  

The tendency of substituting English words for ethnic languages thus runs the gamut of our discussions with Ethiopians-only audiences. Granted, some English idioms or words have no equivalent terms in ethnic languages, and speakers sometimes substitute English words to emphasize a point of view.  The mega trend of English substitution is part of Ethiopian ethno-linguistic intersection and interaction. Enter a government office in Addis Ababa, and you will see bold copies of twelve principles of ethical service (good governance), printed in Amharic and English, side by side [6].  The regional states are likely to replicate the principles in ethnic and English language side by side.

Listen to non-politicians, ordinary professionals, and Ethiopian academics, and you will hear them substitute English words in Amharic and ethnic language conversations. One of my peculiar encounters was Goitom Hagos (pseudo name), a boarding clerk at the Ethiopian airlines in Addis Ababa international airport.  Employment with the EAL is a prestigious opportunity, and Goitom’s job will require English proficiency. On my trip back to the US, I arrived at the boarding checkpoint on time, but not soon enough for Goitom. He chided me, ye time concept yellottim – you have no concept of time. 

Goitom may not have travelled outside of Ethiopia, but I have flown in and out of cities of Europe and America.  For my education and work, I must have a strong concept of time. A compassionate friend once pointed to a frail thin child and said, “muuchaan sunn malnourishedi dhaa — that child is malnourished.   Old passengers in city buses and taxis are addressed as father or  mother. Young folk address each other as brother, sister or friend.  A few young folk have vacated seats for me — Yikemetu father – sit down father.    

Given the prevailing pace of learning and speaking English, the scheme of things is more English substitution than less.   As the majority of citizens speak Amharic that currently owns historical legitimacy as the federal language, English substitution is widespread, the ambition to federalize afaan Oromo appears untimely, if not impossible.   Should there come a time for afaan Oromo to become a federal alternative to Amharic, Ethiopians are capable of learning it. Experiences support the possibility of this scenario – especially had quubee been adapted in Amharic-Geez alphabets they already know.  Most of us, after all, have added Amharic and English to our linguistic resume.

In the five years of Italian occupation, for example, Ethiopians such as my father had learned to speak the language of their occupying bosses.  Oromo schools, in the span of 20 years, successfully developed and taught quubee to write afaan Oromo. In a generation’s time, Kiswahili replaced English and became the national language of Tanzania.  Kenya, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo are likely to follow suit. Even more persuasive is the fact that ethnic Ethiopians learned to read, speak, and write Amharic by the time they finished 12th grade, along with English and their native tongues.  A contextual critique of quubee is appropriate.

Quubee Afaan Oromo: A Gentle Critique

History bears it out that land, language, and religion are the common reasons for ethnic nationalism.  Eritrean, Oromo, and Tigrean nationalist movements grew out these identity claims. For Oromo ethno-linguistic nationalism, Quubee is a collaborative invention of Haile Fidda, an Oromo cultural anthropologist, Ibsaa Guutama, a political scientist and lawyer, and others of Oromo Liberation Front [7].  The fall of the military regime in 1991 furnished the right time and opportunity to develop quubee in Latin alphabets for Oromo schools. The youths welcomed and learned it enthusiastically. Written in quubee, Afaan Oromo is an official language in Oromia regional government, taught in college as an elective or a major for a degree.   Quubee has served the ethos of Oromo political and cultural nationalism in parity with Amharic, but the emblem of Oromo national pride has drawbacks.  

Misgivings about quubee education abound, including the decline of educational standard and instructional quality in the classrooms.  The enforcement of quubee and afaan Oromo deprived the new generation of Oromos of the privilege to study Amharic, the most widely spoken federal language, and English, the second most popular.  Quubee education and afaan Oromo compromised Oromo college graduates’ employment opportunity in the federal government and regions other than Oromia. Had quubee been adopted in Geez-Amharic fidel, rather than Latin alphabets, non-Oromos would have learned it—a missed opportunity to multiply the populations of readers and speakers of afaan Oromo – a route to federal level. 

The New Ethiopia and Etiopiawinet

For there to be a new Ethiopia and Itiopiawinet, there had to have been an old Ethiopia. The old Ethiopia and Itiopiawinet were politically biased and economically prejudiced in favor of the ruling ethnic minority. Ethnic Amhara and the Amharic language dominated Ethiopian linguistic and political culture for more than 100 years and owned the psychology of “Ethiopia-Ethiopian-ness” almost exclusive of others.  The Amhara-Amharic domination encouraged a false superiority complex for the privileged and false inferiority complex for the marginalized. The subordinate ethnic peoples and their respective languages persevered in survival, but had not fully integrated or identified themselves with “Ethiopian” consciousness. The old and the new cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and the old is conceding to new.

Today, as we speak, the old and exclusive Ethiopia is passing, and an inclusive Ethiopia-Itiopiawinet is the on the verge of fundamental reincarnation.  Born of the merger and partnership of Oromo and Amhara youths (qeerro and fanno) political resistance to repressive rule, sustained by the tsunami of countless activist agitators, an all-inclusive national consciousness has arrived as Etiopiawinet.  Resurrected by the likes of Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam, artist-activist Tamagn Beyene, and others in the Diaspora, addictive intimacy (suus) of Lamma Magarssa of Oromia, Deggu Andargachew of Amhara regional state, and graced by the messianic bliss (medemer) of the new PM, Ethiopianism (Etiopiawinet) reverberates via the tens of millions of Ethiopians in the homeland and the Diaspora abroad.  The new Etiopiawinet (Ethiopian-ness) will propel the future ethno-linguistic character of Ethiopian politics and society.   Baptized by fire and proclaimed in an evangelistic fervor, Ethiopians are born again in Itiopiawinet — the way of the new movement in the Christian faith. 

A Summary

To summarize, Ethiopians, in the last 40 years, saw political reconfiguration from the unitary system of the imperial era, socialist dictatorship of the military junta, and an undemocratic experiment of ethno- linguistic “federalism” that called name “Ethiopia” into question, and the country to the brink of collapse and disintegration.   Twenty-seven years later, as of this writing, the experiment has not become permanent nor has it earned the support of public sentiment. As mentioned in a previous passage, the majority of Ethiopians will speak Amharic, and ethnic languages and English substitution will stay with us. The gospel of Etiopiawinet will cure and free Ethiopia from ethno-linguistic myopia.  In the final analysis, maximum relevance and maximum utility will determine the loser and winner of ethno-linguistic contests.

According to universal human aspiration and sensibility, people choose self-respect, dignity, freedom, and liberty over a specific ethnic or linguistic nationalism.  When the new democratic society of Ethiopia endows self-respect for everyone and equality before the law for all citizens, ethno-linguistic proclivity will give way to the primacy of Itiopiawinet.   There is no substitution for Itiopiawinet.  Let there be peace, prosperity, and unity for the people of multiethnic and multi-linguistic Ethiopia.  Blessed are the born-again, and power to Itiopiawinet.

By Admasu Shunkuri

Contextual Notes

1.EPRDF comprises the Amhara Peoples’ Democratic Movement, Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization, Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement, and Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front. The Afar, Beneshangul, Gambella, and Somali are auxiliary (agar) members.

2.To the best of my knowledge and observation, Oromo speakers at Ethiopian National movement and other conventions, professionals, and political leaders speak excellent Amharic. 

3.I mention Addis Ababa as a transitional passage.  Dr. Tadesse Birru has contributed a series of TV documentary on many characteristics and features of Addis Ababa.

4.In a duty free shop in Addis Ababa airport, I heard shopkeepers speaking Chinese. “We must speak the language of our good foreign customers,” they told me.   

5.Zenawi was describing the Ethiopian unity in ethnic diversity, geography, region, language, and history all coming together in shared identity as Ethiopia-Ethiopian.

6.Integrity, loyalty, transparency, impartiality, honesty, confidentiality, and accountability are seven of the twelve principles in English next to the list in Amharic.

7.Yisaak Abraham (the late Mardassa Raaga) was among the early pioneers in Quubee   through collections of Oromo folk lore and proverbs.

Courtesy: Ethioforum


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