The Politics of Language in Ethiopia -Part 5

As already noted, Ethiopia is a highly diverse society with a varied and contested history relating to issues of ethnicity and language. The roots of Amhara/Amharic ethnolinguistic dominance, primarily the complex processes of Amharization, are beyond the scope of this article.  Even without the dominance of a European colonial language, more typical in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, because of the presence of some 73 distinct languages and the type of nation-building project already discussed, language policy in Ethiopia is a highly contentious matter, both historically and under the present political arrangement.

Haile Selassie’s understanding of the imperatives of the state-building project and the toolkit which he used to accomplish this were strikingly similar to those used by other African leaders of the same period. Under his rule, the Amharic language achieved dominance and became akin to other colonial languages. Coercive measures were taken to ensure that children and adults alike became literate in Amharic. Upward mobility and access to political and economic resources of many kinds was obtained through proficiency in Amharic.

Though official language policy concerns not only education, but also bureaucratic administration, legal and legislative communication and media access, one of the most critical and contentious arenas for the politics of language is in the education sector. This is particularly the case in Ethiopia, where language policy is commonly understood by citizens primarily as an issue of language of instruction in schools. This does not always lead to completely accurate information about what the policy is on the part of citizens. But it does mean that the language policy is a critical policy sector for Ethiopians in assessing the benefits of ethnic federalism to facilitating or expanding citizenship, including equality and inclusion.
While Amharic is the language of the Amhara ethnic group (not even a numerical majority, and only enjoying official state recognition for barely 100 years of modern history), it is unquestionably the dominant language in the country today. The 73 distinct languages in Ethiopia represent four language families: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. 

Hudson reports the total number of MT speakers for the four language groups, as well as totals for the most populous language of the group (see Table 1).
Table 1. Language families in Ethiopia
Lan.fam: No.of sp: Larg. lan:  No. of sp
********  *********  ********  *******
Cushitic 26,469,394 Oromo 16,777,975
Nilo-Sah 482,212   Gumuz  120,424
Omotic 3,989,694  Wolayta  1,231,674
Semitic 22,511,505 Amharic 17,372,913
Source: Hudson (2003: 94).

Amharic is a Semitic language, related to Arabic and Hebrew. Prior to the widespread use of Amharic, the classical language Ge’ez was used, primarily by the religious elite and some educated intellectuals (poets and writers). While Ge’ez is no longer the MT of any group in Ethiopia, it is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Bender et al., 1976: 12,100).  As the 1994 Census demonstrates, and Hudson notes, ‘Amharic and Oromo are unquestionably the only truly national languages of Ethiopia’ (Hudson, 2003: 98; Ethiopia, Central Statistical Authority, 1996). The use of Amharic stretches back at least several centuries, though it was not spoken outside of the Amhara homeland until recently.

Amharic began to be used instead of Ge’ez as the secular language of the country by the early nineteenth century, and particularly through the impetus of Emperor Tewodros, ‘Amharic became the official written as well as spoken language of the Ethiopian state’ (Bahru, 1991:34; Girma-Selassie and Appleyard, 1979; Pankhurst, 1992: 317). However, written Amharic was mainly the language of elites throughout the reign of the first three emperors of modern Ethiopia: Tewodros, Yohannes and Menilek II. It was not standardized in any meaningful way and literacy was not widespread.  It has been noted that illiteracy nationwide was as high as 90 percent in the early twentieth century and that only half of Menilek’s Council of Ministers could read and write with ease (Pankhurst, 1969: 9). 

In his discussion of the translation of Ras Kassa’s court registers, historian James McCann argues that these registers ‘represent probably the earliest examples of a systematic, secular use of literacy for public administration in Ethiopia’, dating from October 1918 to November 1935 (1991: 1). 

It was Haile Selassie’s drive for political centralization in the early twentieth century that necessitated the standardization and full-scale implementation of written Amharic. As McCann notes, ‘Kassa’s assertion of written codes of obligations, duties and procedures were part of a transition to a new order of political culture’, which primarily involved the centralization of the state (1991: 6).
Smith, L. (2008). The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia, Georgetown University. Journal of Developing Societies 24, 2 (2008): 207–243