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Be reasonable about Amharic: Are we a Federal State or a Tower of Babel?

Be reasonable about Amharic: Are we a Federal State or a Tower of Babel?


Yohannes Aberra, PhD 8-29-19


The Federal arrangement that was realized three decades ago in Ethiopia was meant to help Ethiopia remain united in the face of a dangerous ethnicity-induced centrifugal tendency that prevailed by the end of the Derg Regime. The TPLF has been cursed for it all the way but in those days it really worked. It was able to tame, above everything else, the determined secessionist inclination of OLF. Admittedly, Oromia is an economically and politically viable geographic unit if it forms its own independent state. I have always admired OLF for the change of mind to go for a lesser offer of regional autonomy. Oromo constitutes the majority of the Ethiopian population. Hence, the impact of its political decision is huge.

There are different opinions aired about ethnic federalism and unitary. It has to be known that none of them are intended to harm Ethiopia. Unitary suspects ethnic-federalism for inciting separatist tendencies while ethnic federalism doubts the honesty of unitary in respecting the right of nations and nationalities to manage their own internal affairs freely. When such difference, although intended to help Ethiopia to remain united, happen to be entangled with individual or group interests they turn into mutual accusations and violent confrontations.

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In spite of the differences what both share is that Ethiopia should remain united and of course, interacting and working together. I feel being childish if I say that the member regional states of the federation need a language to interact.  It is obvious that those working together need a language to communicate. By what miracle is the federal state going to function if all citizens of the federation cannot speak a common language? You cannot have a federal state and at the same time deny it existence. Federation or no federation “lingaufranka”s has existed throughout history and throughout the world.

Lingua Franka means bridge language, common language, trade language, or link language. It is used as a third language to help members of two or more linguistic groups to communicate in the course of social, economic, diplomatic, cultural, religious, academic, administrative, and political communications. Originally, Lingua Franka evolved in the Mediterranean civilizations, as a combination of Italian, Spanish, French, Arabic, in order to facilitate communication between the people of these nations and empires. Each one of them had their own axes to grind, but also they needed each other badly.

Examples of Lingua Franka abound; a few of these are English and French for the whole world, Swahili for the eastern African people and states,  Hindustani for the Indian sub-continent (Pakistan and India), Indonesian (a Malay Language), Latin for the world of Catholicism, Spanish for the entire South and Central America, and Amharic for Ethiopia. The afore-listed languages have groups of original speakers. It is the history of conquest or trade that by coercion or by convenience which selects a language as a Lingua Franka. There are almost irreconcilable standpoints about Lingua Franka, particularly about those where coercion was involved in their selection.

English is a world language that may even reach extra-terrestrial life in the future. How did this happen? Did people of the entire Globe meet in globe-sized auditorium and vote to make English their Lingua Franka? This is a silly question and the answer is a big No!. English is the logical outcome of both coercion and convenience in a world where “the Sun never set in the British Empire”. This empire is no more; but its Lingua Franka outlived it. The colonized people used English in their communication with other colonized people and the global anti-colonial movement to facilitate their struggle to end British rule.

One can understand the deep feelings of hurt that colonized people experience when they hear the English words that were used in imprisoning them, killing them, and degrading them. One would wish the English language to incarnate so that it can be shot in the head. It is not only in unhelpful hatred but the world also dwells in pragmatism. Pragmatism means focusing on results, benefits, and practicalities rather than on theories, principles, philosophies and emotions. English has reached a level of use globally to the extent that if people stop using English accusing it of a “brutal colonial language” the world will go back to the Stone Age.  So it is a matter of choice.

I will not make any attempt to equate the importance of English and Amharic as Lingua Frankas. However, they have the same value in the sense that English unites the world and Amharic unites Ethiopia. No one can and should deny and fail to understand the bitterness peoples in Ethiopia feel about the brutal rule by Amharicspeaking political elite for several centuries. It was the violent incorporation and the peacetime imposition of Amharic as Lingua Franka in a multi-lingual country. Amharic was not the language of the majority but language of the ruling elite. So like the English language it was not through democratic choice that Amharic settled down to be a Lingua Franka of Ethiopia.

This is how history plays tricks with people. Once they are in, it becomes more difficult and costly in social, political, and economic terms to get out of it than staying in it. The choice of another Lingua Franka to replace Amharic would require a long and difficult transition which could wreck havoc to the proper social, economic, and political functioning of the Federal State. The rationale given by many non-Amhara political groups for shunning Amharic is the alleged invisible hand, in the Amharic language, of the ambition of Amhara political elite to restore the Amhara hegemony over a unitary Ethiopia. Is this a myth fabricated by the federalists to alienate the Amhara in the course of competition for federal political power or are the Amhara political elitesreally workings towards that end?

Speculation is the worst job a political analysis can be engaged in. Except for some carefree Amhara politicians, who claim that the Amhara are born administrators in public, no Amhara affiliated political group as yet has given an official political statement about an intention of Amhara rule over Ethiopia. It is argued in some political corners that the effort  to restore the political hegemony of the Amhara is not being pushed along the political front. Many feel that it is the noiseless and even the persuasive cultural front that has become a choice of weapon towards that end.

The best feeling English language has given to the world is to drain out British culture from the English language. This has helped one to be culturally Indian but speak English in an Indian way. No English speaking Kenyan claims to be culturally British or is coerced to act like one. Problem arises and disillusionment with a particular Lingua Franka sets in when that particular language is used as an avenuefor acculturation of other people. It is an open secret that Federal public media and private media at federal level are obliged to use the Lingua Franka Amharic but not to overwhelm their channels with cultural features of the Amhara: The drama, the poems, the movies, the songs and dances, the books, including school text books, almost an endless list of outlets are jammed with particular cultural values.

The fact that Amharic is a Federal Lingua Franka has been abused by the media outlets and presented as Amharanized Amharic. This is what is creating uproars against the introduction of Amharic in schools in the autonomous regions. All these years the Federal government paid scant attention to how Amharic can willingly be accepted as Lingua Franka by all Ethiopians. Oromos, Tigrais, Somalis can be willing to take up Amharic at any school level if Amharic is cleansed from Amhara culture. This can be done; and it is the responsibility of the Federal government. Each region, including Amhara Region, has its own media for local mass communication. There is no reason why Channels in Bahir Dar should be replicated in Addis Ababa, the Federal Capital. Anything from this City has to smell diversity!

This week there is a raging debate going on for and against MoE’s statement about the introduction of Amharic beginning from Grade one in all regional states. I don’t really understand why the Minister panicked at the reaction and denied that it was a decision not a suggestion. Is there anything wrong with the decision? What would be the harm to start with Amharic so early enough? I don’t think there is any harm in starting to learn the LinguaFranka early in primary school. Children can benefit from Federal TV and Radio programmes in Amharic. The harm comes when the inculcation of cultural values other than the local in the tabula rasa of the small kids. This would interfere dramatically with the development of the local culture. There could even be confusion in the minds of the children, which could turn out to be dangerous for the mental development of the children.

There are previous experiences of teaching Amharic that led to grievances and even bred hatred towards the language. The examples given in the text books are so geographically and culturally restricted. A primary student in Bale learning Amharic has to be given example of a locality as “Goro” or “Sof Omar” rather than “Qembebit”. Why not “Megerssa be gebeya” rather than “Lema Be Gebeya”? These are simple things that can be done to create trust and willingness unless otherwise there are some other hidden motives.

Amharic is there to stay as a Lingua Franka as long as we need a language in the Federal State we are trying to save from crumbling. Otherwise we would be doing to ourselves what God did to the descendant of Noah who denied them a common language. Unable to communicate the Tower of Babel” they build was abandoned and ruined.   

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