Ethiopia is currently experiencing ethnic tensions that are threatening its ability to function as a nation state. One of the country’s intractable issues is its language. Ethiopian rulers have tried to build a nation by privileging Amharic while suppressing the country’s other languages. It’s a policy that has backfired, writes Yohannes Woldemariam.
In the history of nation building the promotion of language has often played an important role. To know and to use the national language forms part of the definition of belonging to the nation. To speak the language is a badge of inclusion. To refuse the language is to refuse the community and is seen as unpatriotic to the nation, but also potentially as a sign of loyalty to another community. Political leaders of both actual and aspirant nation states have long used language as a unifier and a political call to action.
Amharic was made the “official language” of Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie. The language is now used by the government to carry out official business. However, only 25 million of Ethiopia’s 120 million population speak Amharic as their native tongue. Afaan Oromo is the most common language, spoken by 30 million plus people, but the country has over eighty languages and many dialects.
Despite this diversity, Amharic has long had the official backing of the state. Elevating Amharic while denigrating other languages has been a pillar of Amhara/Abyssinian nationalism for well over a hundred years, since at least Menelik II (1889-1913). Amharic was dubbed ልሳነ ንጉሥ (lesane negus – the king’s language), and has been implicitly associated with Ethiopian-ness.
The core of historical Abyssinia are the Tigray and Amhara regions currently at loggerheads with each other. Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889), the predecessor of Menelik II, and a Tigrayan chose Amharic for official communication. Why he acquiesced to Amharic rather than Tigrinya is not clear.
What is clear, is the role Orthodox Christianity, has played in Ethiopia’s history and in perpetuating Amharic across the empire. Amharic (along with Tigrinya and Tigre) is a Semitic language that derives from Geez and is the liturgical language of the church. The Orthodox Church and Ethiopian Emperors had a long history of co-dependence, each supporting the other’s prominence. Even though Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-74) allowed for religious plurality, the Orthodox Church remained the state religion. Even the Marxist Derg, which ruled Ethiopia in the 1980s, gave budgetary support to the church.
This link to the church has allowed Amharic to be promoted as a language given by God to Abyssinia and even today this linguistic exceptionalism is deeply embedded in Ethiopian political discourse. As an example of this attitude, professor John Markakis quotes an Ethiopian historian who writes what he heard from an Ethiopian who was educated abroad: “It is for the Galla (Oromo) to become Amhara (not the other way round); for the latter possess a written language, a superior religion and superior customs and mores.” Galla is a derogatory term for Oromo.
This common attitude illustrates what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed: “Cultural and linguistic unification is accompanied by the imposition of the dominant language and culture as legitimate, and by the rejection of all other languages into indignity”.
After Amharic was granted constitutional status in 1955, a Ministry of Education report declared: ‘the promotion of Amharic at the various levels […] is an important task that is fundamental to national integration.’
In the pursuit of homogeneity, the government began the process of changing place names. The Oromo town of Adama became Nazaret, and Bishoftu was known as Debre Zeyit. There is even a heated debate about whether the capital’s name is Addis Ababa (Amharic) or Finfinnee (Afaan Oromo).
This linguistic suppression has resulted in Oromos and other non-Amhara peoples who feel ashamed of their birth given names and who have Amharized their names. Even Haile Selassie’s never acknowledged his mother’s Oromo and Gurage descent, presumably because he considered it as a stain in his noble, Amhara heritage.
In Eritrea, the effect of suppression on Tigrinya sowed the seeds of the thirty years’ independence struggle (1961-91), the relegation of Tigrinya to secondary status by the Ethiopian government helped to solidify and energise Eritrean liberation movements.
As a way to assert Oromo nationalism, Oromo intellectuals developed qubee to write in Afaan Oromo despite concerted pressure to use Geez scripts. Tigrinya language experienced a renaissance after restrictions on the language and education were eased during the British administration following the education suppression years under the Italians. The progress of Tigrinya in Eritrea was interrupted during the federal period (1952-62) when Tigrinya books were burned and Amharic was introduced to Eritrea. The rapid erosion of the federation and the subsequent suppression of Tigrinya led the Tigrinya speaking highland Christians to join the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in droves.
For many people, Amharic was associated with Amhara oppression in a similar way to Afrikaans being associated with apartheid. Language is much more than the words we speak. Language drives culture, and culture drives life.
Amharic is greatly resented by a significant segment of Ethiopians and is one factor in the grievance of many ethno-linguistic groups in the country. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, wanted to recreate a new Ethiopia that acknowledged its imperial past while maintaining its current borders. It proclaimed that all languages should be given a chance to develop without specifying how resources would be allocated towards this goal.
Officially, under the current government there are now five working languages (Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya, Somali, and Afar). Yet, Amharic remains dominant after years of being promoted by governments, the educational system, and the media.
In search of a compromise, some have suggested upgrading English to an official language to bridge the linguistic divide and for utilitarian and practical reasons.
Language is one of several fault lines in Ethiopia. As things stand today, the legacy of Amharic in Ethiopia is more of a divider than a unifier. It is seen by many as something that has been imposed on them and has become symbolic of an identity that they do not share.