Article available: The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jul 8 16:19:34 UTC 2008

Journal of Developing Societies, Vol. 24, No. 2, 207-243 (2008)
DOI: 10.1177/0169796X0802400206
(c) 2008 SAGE Publications



The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia
Lahra Smith
Lahra Smith is Assistant Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of
Foreign Service at Georgetown University. [email:
ls356 at]

Language is political in Ethiopia because it has both structured and
symbolized the nation-building project, and because, in the context of
limited resources, any language policy change would require a
significant realignment of resources. In modern Ethiopia, the
historical distribution of the political goods of communication,
recognition and autonomy has been highly skewed, benefiting native
Amharic-speakers disproportionately. Since the early 1990s, the
decentralization of language choice under the federal constitution has
led to the use of other languages by members of select
ethno-linguistic communities. This study considers the politics of
language choice, drawing from the rich literature in political theory
which addresses the role of language in the identity politics of
multiethnic and multilingual societies. The historical trajectory of
language politics in Ethiopia is presented, but the focus is on
evidence gathered in parts of Ethiopia in 2001 and 2003. These
findings indicate the relationship between language identities,
citizenship formation and identification in the country. They are
based on structured interviews and participant observation in select
regions of the country.
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