The Politics of Language in Ethiopia -Part 6

It was no accident that Haile Selassie became the great champion of a national language. Building a centralized and modern state required taking radical political steps to reduce the power of regional nobility and this was a primary accomplishment of his reign. However, it was not only his state-building vision, but his vision of a nation of Ethiopians, that propelled Haile Selassie towards Amharic. It was the package of policies systematically applied by the regime of Haile Selassie, under the rubric of Amharization, and prominently including Amharic language acquisition, which explain the tremendous historical significance of language identities and language policy in Ethiopia today.

It was especially in 1941, after the end of the Italian occupation, that the language policy assumed a formalized role in the state- and nation building projects of Haile Selassie.17 By this time, Amharic had become the medium of instruction (MOI) in the first two grades, and by the 1950s it was the MOI in all levels of primary school. Because both Amharic and English were obligatory in certification examinations and for entry into the only university in the country, Haile Selassie I University, this gave a distinct advantage to native Amharic speakers. Other languages were suppressed, and it was not legal to teach, publish or use any other indigenous language for public business (Boothe and Walker, 1997: 2; Keller, 1988: 160; Mekuria, 1997).

Making Amharic a national language was critical for consolidating central power and promoting the bureaucratic efficiency Haile Selassie desired. This was not as difficult in the northern highlands, where Amharic and Tigrinya, also a Semitic language, were the MTs of the inhabitants.  Not inconsequentially, the Abyssinian highlands were also those areas where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had its base. In the newly incorporated regions of southern, eastern and western Ethiopia, most subjects were non-Semitic speakers and either Muslim or practicing traditional religions. Haile Selassie ingeniously used foreign missionary workers to accomplish the dual tasks of language homogenization and religious conversion.

These early foreign missions were often forbidden to enter the strongholds of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) (the northern highlands), but were encouraged to concentrate in the newly conquered areas of the south and west of Ethiopia. Although European missionaries had been working in Ethiopia since at least the sixteenth century, they had had very limited impact, owing to the strength of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in particular (Pankhurst, 1969: 11). But from the 1940s, these missionaries were also required to teach in Amharic. Of course, most of the missions had a policy and practice of promoting local language use, particularly for Bible translation.
Generally, Protestant missions promoted Bible translation as a matter of theological principle – new converts should access the Bible in their own language. This often required consolidation of regional languages, or selection of critical language groups, since missionaries had a finite set of resources. The missions brought in experts to assist with developing orthographies and dictionaries for languages with no written forms and, most especially, translating the Bible.

The post-occupation period saw a standardizing of language provisions with respect to missionary activity. Imperial Decree 3 of 1944 said that missionaries would have to teach Amharic ‘as a general language of instruction’, as well as learn it themselves (Markakis, 2003; Boothe and Walker, 1997: 3; McNab, 1990: 80). They were allowed to teach in indigenous languages other than Amharic, but only orally and only in the early stages of missionary work until they and their pupils had learned Amharic. As one linguist noted, missionaries are customarily permitted to work only in those areas in which the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not well established. Since these areas are largely inhabited by people whose first language is not Amharic, the missionaries bring Amharic to people who might otherwise not have an opportunity to learn it. (Cooper, 1976: 189).

The missionaries became the workhorses of Haile Selassie’s national integration project, though some continued to conduct other language development activities, particularly Bible translation projects. The success of these latter projects sometimes brought the missionaries, and their converts, into direct conflict with the imperial government. The successful and prolific Oromo scholar and evangelical Onesimos Nasib, for instance, translated the Bible and other religious literature, as well as compiled an Oromo dictionary and translated some secular works. As they became popular cultural and educational tools, they threatened the hegemonic project of Amharization, and in 1906 he was banned from preaching and teaching (Bahru, 2002, Mekuria, 1997, 2002).

Language assimilation and suppression of other nationality languages became a primary source of resentment by non–Amharic speaking ethnolinguistic groups. Some complained that it contributed to the ‘dehumanization and subsequent alienation of groups speaking non-official languages’ (Arity, quoted in McNab, 1990: 59). Similarly, Keller connects the suppression of Oromo with the general degradation of Oromo culture, including the destruction of Oromo shrines and forced religious conversion (Keller, 1988: 160).

Mekuria highlights the absurdity of judges, litigants, teachers and students conducting legal proceedings or educational programming in Amharic, through translators, when most or all parties were fluent speakers of Oromo. Education in particular was a site for humiliation and alienation, contributing to high attrition rates and low levels of literacy among non-Amhara peoples (Mekuria, 1997).  Muslim residents of border regions, for instance, sent their children to neighboring countries such as Sudan because of their strong association of language instruction in primary schools with religious conversion (Personal interview, October 2003).

These same regions have seen a rapid growth in school enrollment under the policy of nationality language instruction, highlighting the association of Amharic-instruction with hegemonic political forces (Keller and Smith, 2005; Smith, 2005).  There is little doubt that Amharic language hegemony was a critical pillar on which the Amharization policy stood.

Though there was a small opening in the late 1960s when four ethnic languages – Tigrinya, Tigre, Somali and Afar – began to be broadcast by government-owned radio stations, these were not genuine attempts to reinvent or redefine the content and nature of belonging in the Ethiopian nation-state. Significantly, the continuing ban on the use of Oromo, with by far the largest group of any language speakers in the country, provides compelling evidence that this practice was not intended to allow a flourishing of cultural or linguistic identities. Interestingly, despite several decades of official language dominance, Amharic never achieved complete nation-wide status.
For instance, studies in the early 1970s showed that there was no lingua franca for trade in Ethiopia, based on comparative study of market transactions in eight major urban market towns (Bender et al., 1976: 253). This was particularly striking in light of several decades of concerted language policy directed at elevating Amharic to just that status.

In general, the language policy under Haile Selassie fostered a strong sense of pride in Amharic among MT speakers of the language, who had privileged access to employment, unrestricted mobility and the resources of the state in both corpus planning and status planning of Amharic. The attachment to Amharic among fluent Amharic-speakers today, particularly those who are also Amhara, is closely linked with their sense of Ethiopian citizenship and identity.

However, language identity among non-Amharic MT speakers is similarly deeply felt, and represents their unequal inclusion into the Ethiopian state. The close association of language with religious, ethnic and regional identities made the preservation of local languages a critical component of the political and social movements which eventually toppled the imperial regime.
Smith, L. (2008). The Politics of Contemporary Language Policy in Ethiopia, Georgetown University. Journal of Developing Societies 24, 2 (2008): 207–243


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