How Amharic unites – and divides – Ethiopia
The emperors made us speak one language to bring us together. It failed, but it also succeeded.
This is the fifth article in the seven-part series Living In Translation about language and identity. They are guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola. See all the articles here.
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 Amharic.
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?
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.
Today in Ethiopia, the legacy of this history lives on. Amharic has become the country’s lingua franca and one has to master it to climb the political ladder. The language dominates politics, education and the media. It is generally perceived to have more prestige than other local tongues.
Among other things, the spread of Amharic has also facilitated the diffusion of northern culture to other parts of Ethiopia. Language is intrinsic to identity and, to some extent, Ethiopian-ness has become closely associated with the culture of the north, where the Amhara and Tigray regions are located.
Language also remains a deeply political subject. Because modern Ethiopia was created through territorial expansion and subjugation, questions of ethnicity and language remain central to today’s political discourse. In the 1960s, the student movement that opposed the government was driven by grievances over nationality as well as land.
Although the exact relations between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups have shifted significantly over time, many historical and fundamental questions about identity in the country are still yet to be resolved. For many, the legacy of the empire’s Ethiopianisation – or, as some call it, Amharanisation – needs to be re-examined and addressed.
The history of Amharic is thus highly complex and contested. The fact that Amharic was imposed on the people by elites from one particular group is well-known and keenly-felt among Ethiopians. This plays into feelings of marginalisation and emphasises the divisions within the diverse population.
And yet, at the very same time, there is the inescapable fact that Amharic does bind Ethiopian society together as the emperors had envisaged. Its widespread use does allow people from across the vast nation to communicate easily. It is telling irony – and one that encapsulates Ethiopia’s historic uniqueness and contradictions – that even those who decry the dominance of Amharic today must do so in Amharic if they are to reach many of their compatriots.
Nanjala will be doing a twitter chat from the African Arguments handle on Thursday 9 May at 10am GMT (i.e. 11am West Africa standard time; 12pm Central Africa Time; 1pm East Africa Time). Chat to her and ask her about all things language and identity using the hashtag #LivingInTranslation.
Any Language has already become a means of both communication and confusion. Thanks to technology, most languages are translated into other languages of anybody’s interest using computers. Many innocent people think that a given message is sourced from that particular ethnic group speaking that language as original, be it on Fb or other web pages. This can be taken as a means of confusion. The natural meaning of language is just for communication. I normally speak a language today what I have encountered by chance or any circumstance that I could not Controll backward. My objective is to communicate for the future in any media available for all of us. Because, language is a means not an end for me!
The poisonous legacy of conquest in recent history, combined with the manipulations of leaders today, make this an explosive issue. There are people who refuse to speak Amharic in spite of being educated in that language, or even married into Amharic-speaking families. I would recommend to all those who treasure the unity of Ehiopia to take the time and trouble to learn other regional languages, as others are required to learn Amharic. Amharic is likely to remain the leading language of the whole country, but only if other languages, and the cultures and histories they represent, are given an equality of respect. Without this, the country will be divided and even destroyed.
This is a bulshit analysis. Language reside in the public not on the hand of those who have the power. Amharic is the language of the higher culture that all the ethnic groups has built through out centuries. The state was and is just one parcel of the higher culture and its political decision making power should not stand out as if it make the amharic language imposed on others. The question is how the rest of the language make their own contribution in speaking and expressing the higher culture rather than being a subject of political manipulation to define ethnic particularity and lack of progression out of the fake ethnic boundaries.
See example of English, French and Spanish. They have particularities. But still they are the language of the global higher culture anyway where in the world.
Thinking everything as the product of politics is stupid argument. Historical processes and societies contributions are important part of the world we are living now.
1684, Hiob Ludolf, Abba Gorgoryos “Thus the Amharic Dialect, otherwise call’d the King’s Language, being carry’d along with the Camp and Court over all the Kingdom, (t) got the upper hand of all the other Dialects,: and at length became so Familiar to all the Chief of the Abissines, that you may easily by the use of that one Dialect Travel the whole Empire”
Africa is underdeveloped because our education learning system is given in colonial languages that is English, French , Portuguese and Spanish. Education should be given in our native mother tongue that is in Swahili, Amharic etc… so we can be creative, and developers.
Don’t preach us Amharic this, Amharic that. Addis Ababa politics at its best. There is nothing special about it in the eyes of other Ethiopians. Why don’t you learn the other languages instead ? Case in point, Afan Oromo is slowly but surly is getting recognition everywhere.
Give all other languages equal status with Amharic, or else you will get many countries out of this Ethiopia.
Build a country bottom-up, not by the so called vision of past ‘kings’ who spent their time killing each other.
Ethiopia will always be like that as long as one group has the opportunity others are laking. It is unjustice to have amharic as officials language of the nation, fot it is not giving equal opportunity to its citizens.
For the love of Africa lets talk about the future, how Africa is going to become a leading continet with modern technology, art, culture and language. Our ancestors went through alot through thick & thin as well good & horrible turn of events. But they found the way to create magnificent heritage w/c is material & non material. Lets be positive!
Africa is underdeveloped because our education learning system is given in colonial languages that is English, French , Portuguese and Spanish. Education should be given in our native mother tongue that is in Swahili, Amharic etc… so we can be creative, entrepreneurs, thinkers and developers.
So be it; to live together we have to forward one step and become Ethiopian, it is better to be 107 million than 40 million ,otherwise a peaceful separation is the way.
Much as there are unique reasons to Ethiopia as to how and why majority speak Amharic, and while it is also true that all other African countries use their former colonial power’s language as their national language, the greater parallel is that majority multi-tribal African countries have one tribe’s language dominating as the language that all speak. Eg. Kiswahili – Kenya. Chichewa – Malawi, Shona Zimbabwe etc.. and in some of these, like Ethiopia it is a language of a non majority tribe.
So Ethiopia is not unique in this sense. We can assume that if it wasn’t Amharic it would have been another tribes language, simply because communication is necessary in the cohesion (even if the cohesion is forced or imposed or other) of a nation. This need impacted by Geography (the tribe in the middle of the country where all meet to trade, or the tribe where the location of the seat of government), by Politics (the tribe leading when cohesion is being created) has inevitably been the ligua franca. And there is nothing wrong with this.
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Language for me a weapons not a bullet Which mean it dose not matter what the degree of we users exceeded or not!
I speak two languages the one is what i got from inherited from Amharic & English through education system
So, what is the problems if we can afford to learning many languages