Amharic: A sovereign tongue in Ethiopia?

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 24 Apr 2021

The Amharic language once symbolised the unity of Ethiopia, but today it stands on shaky ground

Addis Ababa
File Photo: A policeman attempts to control protesters chanting slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Aug. 6, 2016. REUTERS

Ethiopia’s political elite used Amharic for over a century as a means to unify the country and ensure the Amhara ethnic group controlled the empire.

Today, however, Amharic is more of a tool for schism and division of the federal state.

Since 2019 Nobel Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, came to power, the Amhara have sought to abolish federalism, but in February 2020 the state approved the use of four languages belonging to the largest four of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnicities besides Amharic in the federal government’s work: Afaan Oromo, the Oromo majority’s language; Tigrinya, the Tigray people’e language, widely used before the outbreak of civil war in the northern region; Somali; and Afar.

Until the government’s decision to use all five languages, Amharic was the only language used to conduct federal business, although a number of other local languages were used in regional municipalities.

The approval of the use of the other four languages was intended to garner the votes of the speakers of these languages during the general elections, slated for September 2020. But the elections were put off due to fear of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, a decision rejected by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which went ahead with a referendum in which it won all the region’s seats in parliament.

The Tigray government has since dismissed the rule of the federal government as “illegal”, while Prime Minister Ahmed branded the Tigray elections “unconstitutional”. The situation has escalated into civil war. International rights groups accused the Ethiopian government and its ally Eritrea of committing war crimes in the northern Tigray region. The exact number of casualties is unknown but some estimates put the victims at thousands.

Meanwhile, the government’s decision to approve the use of five languages was in response to a collective desire to establish “cultural and linguistic diversity” in Ethiopia. If anything, the decision revealed the sensitivity of the language issue to the Ethiopian people.

According to the Ethiopian census in 2007, the Oromo group comprises 34 per cent of the population; the Amhara 27 per cent; and the Tigray and Somali six per cent each.

According to Ethnologue: Languages of the World in 2020, speakers of Amharic as a mother tongue are a little over a quarter of the population. Combined with those that speak it as a second language, Amharic speakers are estimated at 47 per cent of the population, in addition to three million Ethiopian expats. This means that speakers of the Amharic language are fewer than 50 per cent of the Ethiopian population even after 160 years of imposing the language as the country’s official language. The majority of Amharic speakers live in cities.

Amharic was established with the inception of the Solomonic Dynasty – a reference to the Habesha kings, who claimed to be the descendants of the prophet Suleiman and Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba – founded by King Yekuno Amlak (1270-1285). But the language did not become widespread until in the mid-19th century.

Amharic is a southwestern Semitic language, spoken by the Ethiopians of the north, which replaced Geez, now the Orthodox Church’s liturgical language, as the north’s official language during the reign of emperor Tawadros II (1855-1868), who began to expand his domain which on his ascent to the throne comprised only the northern region. Tawadros II made Amharic a written, literary language and requested his records to be written in Amharic instead of Geez, which had been used for centuries.

During the reign of Johannes IV (1872-1889), Amharic became the language of royal correspondence. Although the emperor himself spoke Tigrinya, he believed the Amharic could help unify his new kingdom.

With Menelik II (1889-1913), local political elites were integrated into the Ethiopian Empire, and Amharic became the language of the rulers throughout the country’s regions. Since then, Ethiopians who aspired to climbing the political or social ladder had to master Amharic, the language used in education, the judiciary and the media. During the reign of Menelik II, printing was introduced in Ethiopia, and Amharic became the only language in which newspapers and books for educational and religious purposes were printed.

Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) declared Amharic the official language of the country with constitutional status in 1955, and it became mandatory for the public to be taught Amharic. Amharic was selected as the official language to facilitate communication across numerous ethnicities. It was, after all, the language of the rulers, emperors and fathers of church to which the Amhara and the Tigray belong.

Prior to the reforms introduced by Menelik II and Haile Selassie in the early 20th century, the church was the institution responsible for education in Ethiopia. The student movement opposing imperial rule in the 1960s, however, rejected the imposition of an ethnic group’s language on the remaining ethnicities. 

During the era of the communist Derg rule (1974-1991), under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, education expanded and Amharic became paramount only in primary education, making room for English in secondary schools.

Despite the fact that the system did not formally adopt a specific national culture, the spread of Amharic contributed to the proliferation of Amhara culture, and to a great extent Tigray culture as well, and managed to strengthen the bond between the ethnic components of Ethiopia.

Sensitivities nonetheless persisted, owing to the fact that Ethiopia’s modern history was based on expanding into and forcibly annexing the lands of various ethnic groups, which made the imposition of a particular language problematic, although relations between ethnic and national groups in the country often changed over time.

Ethiopians are divided over language and politics. Those who support federal rule demand ethnic and language diversity, while the Amhara – who stand to gain enforcing unity and abolishing the federal system – reject federal rule and cultural diversity.

The unification of the country will translate into using one language, which is likely to be Amharic, in which case the Amhara will garner the majority of jobs in education and government as well as the judiciary and the media.

Supporting the claims that the Amhara are more qualified to lead in these positions is that they have been at the head of high-level and executive work for almost two centuries. They also form the majority of the capital’s population, which means they comprise the more significant portion of the middle class. The Amhara are betting other ethnicities will find it difficult to discard Amharic as the main language, having contributed so much to present-day Ethiopian culture.

On the other hand, other ethnicities believe their languages deserve to become official in regional governments and in Addis Ababa. They point out that many literary works and religious texts were recorded in their languages and all they need is enough social and political space.

Still, the ongoing Civil War in Tigray and the rising tension in conflicts between several ethnicities on one hand and the proliferation of Amhara militias in several regions on the other render the possibility of maintaining Amharic as a language of national communication weaker than ever.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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