[lg policy] How Amharic unites – and divides – Ethiopia

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed May 8 11:44:32 EDT 2019

How Amharic unites – and divides – Ethiopia
BY NEBEYOU ALEMU <https://africanarguments.org/author/nebeyou-alemu/>
MAY 8, 2019












*The emperors made us speak one language to bring us together. It failed,
but it also succeeded.*
[image: Participants of the Great Ethiopian Run wear a t-shirt with the
message "Empower Women, Empower a Nation" in Amharic on the back. Credit:
UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Sewunet.]

Participants of the Great Ethiopian Run wear a t-shirt with the message
“Empower Women, Empower a Nation” in Amharic on the back. Credit: UNICEF

*This is the fifth article in the seven-part series Living In Translation
<https://africanarguments.org/category/living-in-translation/> about
language and identity. They are guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola and will be
published across this week. See all the articles published so far here
<https://africanarguments.org/category/living-in-translation/>. *

Like most African nations, Ethiopia brims with difference and diversity.
Among our 100 million people, we have around 80 ethnic groups and nearly a
hundred languages. These variations in identity form the centre around
which much of today’s politics revolve. Ethiopia’s controversial federal
structure is just one example of its attempt to recognise complex internal
differences while remaining united.

And yet, among all this swirling diversity, one particular language has
come to dominate this complex country. Although the Amhara are just one of
Ethiopia’s myriad ethnic groups – and only the second largest, accounting
for 27% of the population in the 2007 census – Amharic has become the
country’s official language. (This is a rarity in Africa, where most
official languages are that of the former coloniser.)

Across Ethiopia, regional governments may use different languages
appropriate to their constituencies, but the federal government operates in
Amharic. The vast majority of the population speaks Amharic, either as a
first or second language. The nation’s working language in commerce is

How did this language – considered by some scholars to be Africa’s most
advanced – come to be so widely used? What does it mean that this tongue –
adopted from the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez – has become the
country’s official mode of communication? How does the use of this
distinctly northern language – with its unique *fidel* script made up of 33
characters, each with seven forms depending on the vowel sound – affect
questions of identity in Ethiopia?
[image: The lyrics to Ethiopia's national anthem in Amharic.]

The lyrics to Ethiopia’s national anthem in Amharic.

Amharic has been used in official circles since the establishment of the
Solomonic dynasty in 1270, but it was the actions of various emperors in
the 19th and 20th centuries that gave the language the significance it has
today. In different ways, they used Amharic as a way to help unite their
diverse empires.

Teweodros II (1855-1868) was the first to make Amharic a literary language,
elevating it into written form. He ensured his royal chronicles were
written in Amharic rather than Ge’ez like those of his predecessors.
Yohanes IV (1872-89) followed his lead, using Amharic in his correspondence
with regional kings; although a Tigrigna-speaker himself, he believed
Amharic could help unify the state. Minilik (1889-1913) then further spread
the language as he expanded his territory, incorporating new ethnic groups
and local elites into his power structures as he went along. Under him,
Amharic became the language of Ethiopia’s rulers.

It was Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974), however, who declared Amharic
Ethiopia’s official language. He came up with a legal framework and
language policy with aim of easing communication across the empire’s myriad
linguistic groups. While Minilik had focused on making Amharic the mode of
communication among the elites, Haile Selassie targeted the general
population. During this reign, Amharic was the only language used in
primary schools and for government activities.

The ideology behind the policy was to create a centralised homogenous
state. Amharic was treated as a symbol of unity, and language was utilised
as a tool for nation-building. Many, however, criticised the way in which
it forced people to assimilate. They felt alienated by the favouring of one
Ethiopian language above all the nation’s vast array of others.


 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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