[lg policy] Can Ethiopia Resolve Official Language Policy Disputes the South African Way?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Tue Feb 16 17:46:15 UTC 2010

Can Ethiopia Resolve Official Language Policy Disputes the South African Way?

Embracing 11 official languages is one of the major breakthroughs that
South Africa has achieved after the fall of apartheid and its
transition to democracy in 1994.

Despite challenges of economic inequality, South Africa rightly prides
itself on its linguistic and cultural diversity. See salanguages.com
for a complete list of the South African official languages.

In a sharp contrast to the progress in South Africa, successive
Ethiopian regimes have violently suppressed the popular demand for
more major official languages.

Ethiopia remains a one-official-language country; that language is
Amharic and is spoken by 32.7% (1994 census) of the country’s
population, largely by ethnic Amhara.

Breaking from tradition, Medrek--a consortium of eight opposition
parties running for the 2010 Ethiopian Elections—announced its wishes
to make Afan Oromo, alongside Amharic, the official working language
of the country, reports Opride.Com (02.3.2010). Afan Oromo is the
third most widely spoken language in Africa after Hausa and Arabic.

While some progressive Amhara parties and politicians may accept the
country’s belated move towards adopting multiple official languages to
ease the tensions between population groups, conservative Amhara
politicians consider such projects as dangerous to Amharic’s hegemonic
domination of the country. You can compare Amharic language to
Afrikaans, which was forced upon black South Africans and some white
South Africans during the apartheid era. Now Afrikaans is one of the
official languages.

Hegemonic and power-wielding groups in Ethiopia simply view efforts
toward meaningful diversity such as having multiple official languages
as “anti-Ethiopian unity”, “impractical” and “unnecessary”. They may
even go the extra mile to punish or get rid of courageous Oromo or
non-Oromo politicians who raise such issues.

I suggest Medrek be even more generous and propose the following
languages as major Ethiopian official languages: Amharic 32.7%, Afan
Oromo 31.6 %, Tigirigna 6.1%, Somali 6%, Guragigna 3.5%, Sidamigna
3.5%, Hadiyigna 1.7% (1994 census cited in the CIA’s The World
Factbook). English should also be adopted as one of the official
languages of Ethiopia since it is taught in schools and used in some
public and private offices.  English is important because it can serve
as a gateway to global economic and social activities.

This will give us eight (8) official languages, including English, 3
less than that of South Africa, which has a total population of about
half of Ethiopia’s total.

Changes in language policies may not help the country put food on the
tables of several million of its starving people, but it certainly
will shift attention from serious ethnic-identity and language based
conflicts and competitions.

South Africa has 11 official languages, but it also respects the
rights of minority speakers of the other unofficial languages. Once it
is willing to adopt eight official national languages, Ethiopia should
also respect the rights of minority groups to promote and develop
their languages and cultures.

It is important to acknowledge that since it came to power in 1991,
the current Ethiopian regime has been following more diverse
linguistic and cultural policies throughout the country’s eleven
federal regional states, each with own official regional language.
Nonetheless, the current regime has adopted only one
language—Amharic—as as the sole federal or national language.

In this sense, trying to follow the example of South Africa or any
multiple-official-language country, will not be completely a
copy-paste exercise as Ethiopia’s earlier official regional languages
experience will provide the country something to build upon.

Ethiopia is divided into 9 ethnically-based puppet administrative
regions. Outlawed opposition and rebel groups accuse the government of
manipulating ethnic federalism to divide and rule the country instead
of actually addressing the real need for it.

Links and Notes:

CIA’s The World Factbook. Ethiopia. See the “languages” and “ethnic
groups” sections for potential official languages in Ethiopia.


Opride.Com (02.03.2010 online edition). “Medrek Announces Afan Oromo
as Second Official Language of Ethiopia”.


See Wikipedia. “Regions of Ethiopia” for the already-implemented
regional official languages.


-- http://oromopress.blogspot.com/2010/02/can-ethiopia-resolve-official-language.html

 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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