(Ethiopian) Writing System

Baye Yimam, Ph.D.

(Associate Professor & Head of Department of Linguistics, 1992)

Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

(Translated by Samuel Kinde and Minga Negash)


What motivated to comment on this topic are the issue and debate surrounding our languages in the current set-up. It is not out of spontaneity but rather out of a changing political pressure that this issue has surfaced. Therefore, to properly understand the origin, evolution and growth of our languages, the political issues will also have to be studied well. To do this, one has to be not only a linguist but also, I believe, a politician by trade. But I am not a politician. In view of this, I shall address the issue from a linguist’s point of view. If, however, I happen to touch upon issues that might have political content, it is my wish that it will be known that I do so only in my capacity as an average Ethiopian citizen.

With regard to the status of our languages, the focus of my writing will be "Feedel" and the script. To do so, I might have to refer to linguistics and literature as well. Therefore, my writing will be as follows: First, I shall touch upon issues that pertain to linguistics and writing. I will do so because I believe these issues will help to build my case for later discussions. Then I shall discuss about the origins and evolution of writing and then proceed to the current issues.

Section 1.1

The foundation for any languages are sounds. Sounds make phonemes. The phonemes in turn make up words, the words then sentences and so on. Sentences fully describe a thought. As expression of thoughts, a language is a collection of sentences.

People express their ideas in a given language through speaking. It is only 5000 years ago that people started writing (1). This is a short time. Even today, many a nation and nationality use the spoken word to exchange ideas. The situation in our country is not different from this.

To express thoughts through writing, symbols that represent sounds, words or phonemes are needed. These symbols have to be, of course, understood by the users of the language. Languages that have these symbols are called written languages whereas those that do not have them are known simply as spoken languages. This art of expressing thoughts through symbols is called writing and the nature of writing as writing system. Script is the term that is used to describe the symbols as a whole (2).

Section 1.2

There are three types of writing systems in the world; namely, logographic, syllabic and alphabetic. The logographic system was used first around 5000 years ago (3). Its place of origin is in the areas of Palestine and Syria (4).

In the logographic system, one symbol represents one word. A language of 100,000 words, for example, could have symbols as many as 50,000 - 60,000. Note that synonyms will share the same symbol. The old Chinese writing system is one example (5).

In the syllabic system, a symbol represents not a sound but a phoneme. What we call a phoneme is a combination of a vowel and a consonant. In this system, the numbers of symbols needed for a given language is determined by the number of basic sounds used. For example, if a language has 25 consonants and 5 vowels, the total number of phonemes will be 125 (25x5). And to represent these 125 phonemes, 125 symbols will be needed. A user will have to clearly and distinctively know each of these 125 symbols. That is when we say a user is "literate".

In the syllabic system, it is possible only to point out to the phonemes but not the vowels and consonants that comprise it. This is possible only in what is called the alphabetic system. This writing system originated from the syllabic systems used in the Semitic languages of the Middle East. It is also called the Greek Alphabet because its origin is strongly tied to the Greeks. The Romans later adopted it from the Greek and helped its wide usage in their colonies in the Latin language. As a result, this system is now known as the Latin alphabet. The majority of the Western world uses this alphabet. African countries which were colonized by the West also do use this script.

Section 1.3

The Ethiopians are the only people that differ from the users mentioned above. The difference lies in the fact that our writing system, unlike the Greek and the Latin which use the alphabetic system, is the prior syllabic system (6). This system was introduced to the northen part of Ethiopia approximately 2500 years ago by the Semitic Sabean people of Southern Arabia. As a result, this version of the Feedel (script) is also known as a Sabean script (7).

(The looks of the Sabean script are included in the original paper...but could not be reproduced here for e-mail ASCII format. 29 distinct characters comprise the sabean script..some look like the current Ethiopics, some resemble characters found in Hebrew, Arabic etc.)

Even though this writing system is basically a syllabic system, the vowels inside each phoneme are not represented by a number of vowels but by a single vowel. This vowel is "AA" (ASCII can not represent it but it is the Ethiopic equivalent as used in "AAre..gud fela, AAre ykrta, etc..."). As a result, sentence like [Kasa meTa] (Kasa has come) would have been written as [Ks mT]. A user would read the last sentence as the desired [Kasa meTa] only from experience and from the context of the writing. In this particular example, a user would read [Ks] as Kasa or perhaps Kasu because it is the first word in a sentence and a sentence usually starts with a proper noun or a name.

In this system, a sentence is written from right to left and then back to right! The system was used for a long time in the northen part of Ethiopia, particularly, Yoha until the Axumite time whence it gave way to Geez.

The Geez language became a written language only after it took 24 of the 29 Sabean characters and modified 16 of them into a different look. It also took 2 additional characters from the Greek script, namely, P and PP (the P as in Abune Petros).

In addition to the change in the form of the 16 characters, Geez adopted a number of different vowels instead of the 1 used by Sabean. The style of writing was also restricted and modified to left to right. Geez used such a script and writing system between the 4th and 7th century.

In the same way that Geez took and modified Sabean scripts to become a full-fledged written language, Amharic also took the Geez scripts and became a written language. However, unlike Geez, Amharic took all the 26 characters of its predecessor, among which we find the "extra" characters that make similar sounds in the "ha" , "se", "Se", etc, family. It is believed that it is because of the pressure from the church and the state that all these characters were maintained.

On top of the 26 characters, Amharic also needed additional characters to represent sounds that it acquired from Cushitic languages. This was done by placing a small bar (or hat) on top of 7 characters that were inherited from Geez. Examples are "she", "che", "Ce", "je", "Gne" or "Ne", "He" and "zhe". Amharic had now, by this time, 33 characters. The total number of syllables is accordingly 231 (33x7).

There haven’t been changes in the rather large number of shapes and variations in the script adopted by Amharic, mainly due to the influence of the church and the state.

Section 1.4

Like Amharic, Tigrigna and Oromigna became written languages by taking the Geez script (Feedel). Even though I do not know about the Tigrigna, the native of Illubabor, one Aba Anesimos Nesibu was the one who started writing Oromigna in the Geez Feedel to teach the Gospel. This has indicated, in addition to the Literacy Campaign of the late 80’s, that other Ethiopian languages could use this script to become full-fledged written languages. The basic argument is that all Ethiopian languages could become written languages by taking the basic Feedel and making similar modifications. And this argument is not forwarded without any basis. Most of the languages in our country are similar in the look and quantity of their basic sounds. For example, if we take the case of Oromigna and Amharigna, we will find out that out of the 27 consonants in Amharic, 23 of them are used in Oromigna. In the same token, out of the 24 consonants in Oromigna, 23 of them are found and used in Amarigna. If such kind of remarkable similarities exist between two or more languages, the script used by one of the languages could also be used by the other effectively. And it has been done so far.

Part II

In general, if the origin and growth of Feedel (Ethiopics) is as indicated above from Sabean to Geez; from Geez to Amarigna, Oromigna, Tigrigna etc and in the future, to Wolaitgna, Afargna etc, then what brought the question of replacing it by Latin for some of Ethiopia’s languages (7)?

For this question, one Addis Ababa University professor (Tilahun Gameta), had tried to give an answer in a TV program broadcasted on November 7, 1991 (tikimt 29, 1984 E.C). According to the interview he gave in the TV program, the following were the reasons cited for this change to the Latin script:

1) The Latin alphabet has 26 characters whereas the "Sabean" has 186 characters.

2) The "Sabean" script makes it difficult to differentiate between the long vowels and short consonants.

3) Type writers and computer word-processors use the Latin script. As a result, using the Latin script will save researchers and linguists traveling to North America and Europe for conferences etc. from the necessity of carrying "Sabean" based word-processors and type-writers.

4) Unlike the "Sabean" script, the Latin script is easier and takes shorter time learn how to read and write.

5) If we insist on using the "Sabean" script, we will need to introduce additional symbols to indicate syllables, accents, shortening and lengthening of sounds. Manufacturing a type-writer for such additional symbols will cost a lot of money. Using such symbols will also take long time to type.

6) Until now, we do not have much Oromo literature written using "Sabean" except the works of Aba Anesimos. It is also not difficult to translate the few available ones to a Latin based one. Since it is like starting from nothing, it will not hurt to start using Latin.

7) There are a lot of foreigners who would like to learn Oromigna. Using Latin instead of "Sabean" will help these people.

8) Since the technologically advanced countries like the US and England use the Latin script, using the same script will help us to mingle with a lot of people. In addition, our neighbors, the Somalis and Kenyans use Latin and our adopting it will help us to promote closeness.

9) If our students learn using the Latin script at the elementary and secondary level, it will be easier for them to learn English and French languages since these languages use the same script.

Part III

(Translation by Minga Negash, Rhodes University, South Africa)

Though the number of reasons (listed above) total nine, they could have been summarized (best) by the first three. One could also add one additional factor. They are: linguistic (1&2), technological (3&5), educational (4,6,7 &9) and social (6 & 8). I will concentrate only on the four. Since the reasons are not only linguistic, some of the points that I shall be raising may slightly deviate me from my (main) topic. Readers should take note of the context in which the topic (writing systems) is being discussed.

Before going into the details of the arguments, I would like to comment on the use of one key word. It is the word "Saba" that is used in the context of "yeSaba feedel" (Saba scripts). Basically the scripts that we are using today are not "yeSaba feedel". This is not controversial. As noted above, we do not see any one who writes (using these scripts) from right to left (in the land of Ethiopia). The script in use is not Sabean (yeSaba). It is Geez script. Foreigners refer to it as "Ethiopic". If the speaker has made this note inadvertently, it is not a problem. It could be corrected easily. However, I do not believe that this is the case. I think the selection of the word is a carefully planned one. It is aimed at preempting questions that may have implications on state (Ethiopian) nationalism. It is designed to counter arguments that may be raised in defence of Geez. For instance, if someone says Latin scripts are foreign, the pre-prepared counter argument will also emphasis that Geez scripts too are foreign. The basis for my statement is what I encountered in Germany at the 1986 symposium on Omotic and Kushitic languages. At that conference, a sympathizer of the Oromo Liberation Front presented a similar opinion. Since then the use of the word "yeSaba" (as a counter argument) has continued and is being promoted (by certain quarters). Whatever the purpose may be, the scripts that are in use today are not "yeSaba feedel". It is Geez. And Geez is not an immigrant; it is indigenous. Its birth place is Axum; the heart land of ancient Ethiopia. Geez mentions Sabean. This is not only necessary but also proper. What would have been improper is if Geez had gone oversees by ignoring what had been in use in the nearby places for centuries.

Today Geez is no longer a spoken language. However, Geez scripts have been serving the languages of many nationalities. The scripts do not belong to only one nationality. It has become the "feedel" of Ethiopia. In short, Geez language died a long time ago after inheriting its "feedel" to Ethiopia. The language's birth place is Ethiopia and its nationality is Ethiopian. It does not exist in any other place. Therefore, it is one of our cultural treasures that makes us distinct from other peoples (nations).

Let us now concentrate on the alleged reasons for adopting Latin scripts. The first issue raised is about the number of the scripts. Geez scripts number more than Latin. This situation is alleged to have implications on making someone literate. How true is this point? If we compare the two scripts grossly (without an insight), the argument looks plausible. If we take that line of argument, the "fact" looks that the Latin scripts are "26" while that of Geez are "189". The point however is not on the number of scripts per se but on what they (the scripts) indicate. The Latin scripts indicate sound while the Geez scripts indicate syllables (keelem). There is a difference between the two. As noted earlier, a syllable (keelem) is a combination of vowels or vowels and consonants. Sound is not a combination. It has no combination but it is a singular (neTela) thing. Thus, before we start comparing the two scripts, we have to realise this point and further, we have to decide on the nature of the parameters used for comparison. If our basis of comparison is sound, then there aren’t many differences between Latin and Geez. If we say the Latin has 26, then Geez has (only) 27. This number (27) is arrived after counting from "haa" to "PPe". If the comparison is script (keelem), again there isn't much difference. The reasons is that Latin has 130 (26x5) scripts while Geez has 189 (27X7). This of course is when we count all the scripts; from "Kabe'e" to "sabe'e".

Under these circumstances, one may (naively) support what the speaker has said: An individual who wants to become literate in Latin has to know the 26 scripts; not 130 (kelemoch). However, this is not a correct statement. Each Latin script has at least two forms. For instance if we take "a", it has two forms. It has both capital and small letters. Again, if we take "b", it has three forms. Capital, small and its cursive form. All the other alphabets follow similar situations. Therefore, the total number of Latin scripts is not what the speaker has claimed. They are at least sixty (60). Moreover, unlike the Geez scripts, the signs of the Latin scripts do not follow patterns. Each script is distinct and therefore different from the others. As a result of this, one has to study each character on its own in order to become literate. Unfortunately, this is the only method of knowing them. In contrast, Geez scripts can be studied by relating them to one another.

With regard to the time frame that is need for learning Latin scripts, again it is difficult to take seriously what the speaker has said. The belief that a student can learn the Latin scripts within (just) a month is doubtful. Even if one takes this statement seriously, what one may learn during this period can not go much; beyond distinguishing the characters. He can not read and write using Latin in such a short period of time. The two skills (knowing the alphabets versus using them) are different. The fact that one knows the Latin alphabets does not imply that he is able to read and write (by using them). The names of Latin scripts and the sounds that they represent are different. Let us take the letter "a". Its name is "aa". However, the sound it represents is not always "aa". This script is represented as "aa" in situations like [da] "be", [da'so] 'temple, [tasi:] 'hatchet' type of Oromigna words. In many other situations, for example in [bar'u:] "learn", [garba] "slave" [kam] "which" it is read as "a'". This implies wherever the reader finds the letter "a" he has to make a choice among competing (confusing) meanings. Therefore, words like "beru" can be read as "baru" or still another person can read it as "beru". This confusion can not be realised from the forms of the scripts. Hence, knowing only the names of the Latin scripts is not of (any) help for reading (Oromigna) correctly. In order to overcome the problem, one has to learn (afresh) the reading process. This requires education on its own. It is not a skill that can be obtained by (from) knowing the scripts. This point is not difficult to conceptualize. It is a common experience of most people who (learn) use the English language.

In contrast to the speaker's assertions, an individual who becomes literate in Geez scripts will be able to read and write until he or she dies. Whenever he encounters a new word, the individual does not have to consult a dictionary to see how the word is read. In addition, even through in form (be'ayinet) the number of the scripts are 189, their real number is not that high. That is, as noted above, Geez scripts are not very different from each other. Once the first sets (base) of Geez scripts are known, most of the other scripts can be studied easily by making orderly extensions (to the base). Mostly, it involves adding a dash (-) either on one of their sides, or on their bottoms (legs), etc. In short, the scripts are not totally dissimilar. I feel that all those teachers who were involved in the literacy programme are aware of this fact. The problem lies not on the scripts (themselves) but on the method of teaching. Hence, a teacher who understands well how the Geez scripts are formed should not have a problem to teach all the scripts in a (relatively) short period of time.

Let us move to the second reason for adopting Latin, that is: Geez scripts are weak in representing long sounds and stresses. This is correct statement. If there is one reason for adopting Latin, this should be the only one. Geez scripts in their present form can not show clearly stresses and/or long sounds. As a result of this, alternative (ashami) meanings can be created. For instance, in the Oromigna word of "beru", short and long vowels can not be identified (from the script). In addition the consonant (r'e or rr'ee) can not be known whether it has to be stressed. Therefore, the whole word is subject to different interpretations.

This problem, however is arising only if the word is found in isolation (out of context). When we move into a phrase situation, whether it has to be stressed or not and short or long can be known from the context in which the word is said. Oromigna news readers have been solving this problem by looking at the context.

In Amarigna too the problem exists. For example in the word "gena" the "n'e" can be stressed or not. As a result of this, the word can have two meanings. Nonetheless, this confusion can be solved by looking at the context in which the word is said. In the sentence "ato kasa legeNa beg yigezalu" (Mr. Kasa will buy a sheep for Christmas), the "n'e" will be stressed. While in the sentence " kasa gena mesa albelam" (Kasa has not yet eaten his lunch), the "n'e" will not be stressed. This is an issue that any speaker of (any) language could see the differences; without any education.

The Latin script too is not immune to this problem. For example if we take the English language, words like "export" are read (understood) either as verb(s) or as noun(s). This means it is impossible to tell whether they are nouns or verbs, from the scripts. This is known from the context in which they are used. The reading of verbs and nouns is also different. Again, this difference can not be known from the forms of the script; but from the context.

There is one important lesson we get from this discussion. Both the Latin and Geez scripts and writing systems (for that matter any other script) can not always exactly represent a word as desired by the speaker. Context is the only way to overcome this. Context is a tool that helps us to remedy whatever a writing system fails to represent a word or sound adequately. In all the writing systems, there is always a difference between a sound and the symbol that represents it. For example, someone was said to have remarked: "English is a langauge where ‘Bombay’ is read as ‘Calcutta’." In view of this, the alleged shortcoming of Geez script and writing system pales because anyone who knows how to read and write in this script will never read ‘Bombay’ as ‘Calcutta’; unless, of course, he/she is insane.

Despite this, though, there have been a number of attempts to overcome this alleged difficulty to represent long and short sounds. I shall mention only two of these studies (14). One of the studies suggests placing dots on top of the stressed sound and after the long sound.

However such a remedy does not look feasible because of the belief that it will require additional symbols on current type-writers. This was, of course, repeatedly mentioned by the speaker as the reasons outlined (in 3 and 5) to resort to the Latin script. This, however, is basically a technological problem; not a linguistics problem. It is the job of people in the technical fields to design, produce and market an efficient writing tool that helps to write a given script. A lot has been done with this regard. For example, this article itself (the Amharic) was written using a computer software. The computer is based on the Latin script but the software itself converts each typed Latin script to that of the Geez. That is why, as opposed to what the preacher said, a researcher will never need to carry around a type-writer whenever he/she travels for conferences etc. All he needs to carry is the diskette for the software and the document.

Other writing systems also use similar methods to overcome this difficulty. The Chinese writing system has the most number of scripts in the world. However, it has never been discarded and replaced by the Latin script by saying that it is not convenient for today’s technology. what has changed is not the script but technology itself. Not only has technology produced a type-writer for it but also software have been written for using the Chinese script. In addition to being a writing system, this script, like other scripts, is also a symbol of identity of a people. That is why, let alone replace it by another script, even changing it was not an option. I believe the Geez script should also be treated in a similar way. As mentioned before, this script is ours and is found in only in our country (Ethiopia). Therefore, I believe, it should be a national symbol that should bring pride. Like all national heritage and assets, it should be protected and taken care of but not sold and replaced as an ordinary item.

But this doesn’t mean, it shouldn’t be improved. For example there is another method for addressing the problem of indicating stressed and long sounds. The method involves not symbols such as dots but, like Latin does, writing the "sads" (6-th) consonant of the stressed sound and the vowel. For example the Amharic word "gena" (Christmas), could be written as: "gen na" to show that ‘n’ is stressed. In the same token the Oromiggna word "beru" could be written as "beru Au" to show that "Au" sound is long and that "r" is stressed.

In my opinion, this method looks more feasible than the first one. It avoids the difficulty of placing more symbols in writing tools. It also requires less characters than that would be needed if Latin was used. For example "beru Au" will require only 4 characters in Geez but 6 in Latin. Thirdly, this method can serve not only Amariggna and Oromiggna but other Ethiopian languages if enough research is carried out.

If this solution becomes feasible, there will be no linguistics reason to resort to the Latin script. And I do not think there is any reason why it shouldn’t be feasible. With this in mind, if there is any reason to resort to the Latin script, it can not be a linguistic reason but rather, perhaps, a political one. If it is indeed a political reason, then it should come as such and not clothed in the garb of linguistics. As indicated above, the Geez script, after the Geez language ceased to be used, does not have exclusive ownership relationship with any other language. The only relation it has, today, is with the country as a whole. It is now the script of Ethiopia as a whole and not that of a single nation or nationality. That is why any nation/nationality could use it as its own by improvising on it. All indications over the years are along the same lines. However, despite this, if a nation/nationality decides to use some other script, it is its right. But giving inadequate reasons to discredit the Geez script by self-appointed spokesperson does not provide a solution.

Part IV

The last point mentioned by the speaker in the TV program is in fact more of literature and not a linguistics one. It should be understood before hand, that the following discussion might divert from the linguistic discussion I pursued so far. The speaker tried to point out above that, except for the works like "meShafe qulqulu", the Oromo language does not have much literature written in the Geez (Ethiopics) script. Even the ones written in this script, according to the speaker, could be translated to a Latin based script in a short time.

It is possible to isolate two basic understandings from the above statements of the speaker. The first one is that for any nation or nationality to have a literature, all works need to be written in its language. The other point, much related to the first one, is that any literary piece written in Amharic is the heritage of only the Amhara people. However, for anyone who understands the fact that Amharic is the lingua-franca of the country, it is clear that such an outlook is far from reality in a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country such as Ethiopia.

Since the beginning of the 20-th century, the fact that the central government has been administering the country in a modern bureaucracy in a unitary political system by using the Amharic language in administration, education and mass communication has helped the language grow and expand. Writers who are the products of this system and who hail from the various nationalities that constitute the country have presented their works to the public in this language because they understood that the language has become a common language. Among these writers are the Oromo writers, Fitawrari Deressa Amente, Tadesse Liben, Kajela Wako, Beka Nemo and Solomon Deressa. Particularly, Yilma Deressa and Solomon Deressa (16, 17) had realized that Amharic literature is an Ethiopian literature and had made tremendous contribution by pointing out its weaknesses and outlining their vision for the path it should pursue. Just because writers such as S. Deressa and Y. Deressa had used Amharic, it can not be argued that their work is not the heritage of the Oromo people.

In a multi-lingual society, the ownership of a literary piece written in a given language is determined not by the identity of the language itself or by the ethnic origin of the writer, but rather by the social-life the writings reflect and the society they are written about. For example if we take Tsegaye Gebre Medhin’s "Boren" and "Atete" (17) poems, we realize that even though they were written in Amharic, the messages they carry reflect the culture of the Oromo people. In the same token, the play "Oda Oak Oracle" (18) that was written in English is a literary piece that reflects the ancient culture of the Wolaita people. Hence, if we are led just by the language used to decide whose heritage are Tsegaye’s works, we will end up attributing the first two works to the Amhara and the last one to the English or the American people. On the other hand, if we use the content of these pieces to decide whose heritage they are, it becomes clear that the first works are that of the Oromo and the last one that of the Wolaita people. If one insists in classifying the writer by the language he/she produced the article, we will end up in the nonsensical game of classifying the writer as Amhara or English. But the fact of the matter remains that the both the writer and his works are much bigger than counting ethnic groups and carry the identity of Ethiopian-ness.

Most of Ethiopia’s writers have tried many a times to leave a positive impact on the minds and lives of their readers, by transcending ethnic differences and concentrating on issues that affect the whole populace of the country. The characters in their writings were not given roles based on their ethnic identity but by their contribution to the themes the writers want to pass through these literary works. For example, Haddis Alemayehu had used Gojjam in "Fkr Iske Meqabr", Addis Ababa in "Lmzhet", and Illubabor in "WenjelegNaw DagNa" as backdrops for his novels. His themes in these works were about the social, political and economic injustices done on our people in the past Feudal system while his characters were the likes of Dr. Hagos Berhe, KegNazmach Gurmesa Birana and Asaye Mebratu who were taken from the different nationalities of the country.

In a similar token, veteran writers of the country had contributed their share in the long struggle of the people for equality and justice because they were not slaves of narrow nationalism and were able to consider the plight of the Ethiopian people as theirs. Abe Gubegna who could be cited as an example was sent to exile. The likes of Bealu Girma had sacrificed their lives. The literary works of these people were written for the Ethiopian people and the heritage belongs to none other than the Ethiopian people. Today, when self-appointed people who claim to stand for the interest of the various nationalities, go about claiming that a nation/nationality has no or little prior literature just to divide it with the rest of the country, they are denying the common life and History shared at least eighty years by the people of this country. Despite this, the literature of a nation/nationality can flourish, not out of the blues, as the speaker pointed out, but by starting from the written heritage this group has shared with the rest of the country’s people. As much as Amarignna reached its current status by the experience it inherited from the Geez literature, any future development of Oromo literature or any other nationality’s literature need to start from the experience and heritage of the Amarignna one. This is so because as long as nations and nationalities live and interact together, this type of intermingling and inheritance of culture is an inevitable natural process beyond the control and intervention of humans.

Let us go to the last point. It is again not a linguistic point. As mentioned as item no 8, the speaker had said that the use of the Latin script will enable the Oromo people to interact with the rest of the world that uses the same script, particularly the neighboring countries of Somalia and Kenya. The message of this argument is clear. Does that mean, though, the Oromo people will establish a friendship with Latin script using people in other parts of the world, just because they started using the same script? If the Oromo people, on their own and separate from the rest of the Ethiopian people, had to establish such a friendship, the reason can not be that of script but, perhaps a political one.

However, it is clear that what the speaker really wanted to address is this political issue, but covered in the guise of script. The speaker has tried to argue that the Ethiopian people do not own the Geez script by conveniently ignoring the changes and the additions that were made to the Sabean script. He has also tried to argue that the Oromo people haven’t benefited from their association with the rest of the Ethiopian people, again by conveniently ignoring and denying the Oromo literature works written by veteran Ethiopian writers. The speaker has also tried to argue that the future progress of the Oromo people is not tied to the rest of Ethiopians but with other people who use the Latin script. All what these show is the preparation that is being made to isolate the people. It is now easy to see that the Latin script is being used as part of this preparation. The fact that not even a single advantage was mentioned if the Oromo people continue to use the Geez (Ethiopic) script is a clear indication of this hidden political motive.

Even though, as shown above, there is no linguistic reason why the Latin script should be adopted in favor of the Geez script, the following difficulties will be encountered if it is insisted to use Latin scripts for Oromignna or any other Ethiopian language.

1) Anyone who is trained only in Latin script needs to learn how to read and write in the Geez script if he/she is to go and work in the other part of the country where Geez is used. As a result such a person needs to be literate twice! In terms of time and money, this will cause a tremendous amount of difficulty and inconvenience.

2) Such a measure will also transform the country from a multi-lingual one to a multi-script one. In the same token that one region could adopt Latin, another region could decide to use Arabic script. In other words, an Ethiopian who wants to travel and work in any parts of the country will have to learn at least three scripts and writing systems!

3) The problem does not stop here. Any communication and correspondence with the central government will no longer be done in one writing system but, possibly, with three. In such an event, the central government will have to make additional preparations. All written materials regarding national issues will have to be printed in all the three writing systems. The cost of human labor and training for such an undertaking will not be trivial. If it is decided to hold all such correspondences with the center in only one writing system, the center’s problem might be alleviated but not those of the people. It won’t still save each citizen from being required to learn at least two writing systems; the one being the local regional writing system while the other is the center’s writing system.

4) Even though the speaker has said above that he doesn’t think that the Oromo people will miss anything from things written in the Geez (Ethiopics) script, I, on the other hand still think that it is a required learning for everybody to study the country’s common History (whether good or bad) written and archived in our own script. For this, one needs to learn the Geez script. The understanding and knowledge of a nation/nationality in a region about national and broader issues will grow to be extremely limited if it is insisted that its people should learn the future through written material written in the new scripts only. This will eventually cause a much narrower and limited outlook; much worse than the present.

5) Any future Literacy Campaign will have to focus not only for the totally illiterate part of the populace but also to those who were already literate in the Geez (Ethiopics) script. Isolating and educating the totally illiterate ones will eventually make those that use only the Geez, illiterates too. In general, the whole situation will end up in rendering all those new literate citizens as illiterates. Now, the amount of money that has to be spent and the time to be invested on re-educating all these people in a new script is not trivial at all.

6) The expense is not going to be limited to basic literacy campaigns only. It will be necessary to re-write all teaching and learning materials in the Latin, and possibly, the Arabic writing systems. Judging from where the country stands now, the money and resources that will be spent on such a venture is tremendous. When we realize that, there is no linguistic and technical reason why this should be done to start with, the situation becomes not only worrisome but also sad.

True, it is fitting to mention a valid fact here; that is, it is advantageous if a nation/nationality learns in its own language after an adequate preparation. But that doesn’t mean that each and every nation/nationality has to use a different writing system to do so. All of them could use the same writing system. Doing so will have the advantages mentioned above as points 1-6 and equally importantly, no disadvantage. In short for multi-lingual under-developed countries like Ethiopia, it is uni-script and not multi-script that holds a clear advantage. Adding multi-script to a multi-lingual society results in more problems.


1 - Diringer, D., 1962, Writing, London: Thames & Hudson, p.13.

2 - I shall use the word "Feedel" or script for any symbol that could be used for writing. The symbol could stand for sound, phoneme, syllable or word.

3. It used to be called "pictorial system" and was used in ancient Egypt, and Aztecs in South America. In this system, pictures represent whole ideas. There is a school of thought that considers this as the beginning of painting art rather than literature. Since this is a controversial class of system, it is not included in the discussion.

4. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 29, pp. 982-1035.

5. ibid.

6. There are people who think that it is alphabetic instead of syllabic. For the details, look at the work of Tadesse (1990).

7. Gelb, I,J., 1952. A study of Writing, University of Chicago Press, p.27.

8. Tekle Tsadik Mekuria, Egyptian, Sabean and Geez Scripts, Addis Ababa, Tesfa Printing Press, pp. 17.

9. Bender, et al. 1976, The Ethiopian Writing System, in Bender at el, Languages of Ethiopia, London, Oxford University Press, pp. 120-128.

10. Ethiopian Languages Academy, Research and Recommendation on the Amharic Feedel.

11. It was H.E. Ato Abebe Reta who presented this modification.

12. Even though this issue has come to the forefront this time, it was nonetheless around for some time now. Ato Haile Fida had presented a paper on this issue on "Tateq", a publication of Ethiopian students in Europe. The details are given in pp. 24-49 of the 1964-65 issue of the publication. The speaker’s article also had appeared in the Hidar 8, 1984 issue of "Bekelcha Orommia".

13. I do not understand how the speaker claimed the number of letters in Geez is 186. It is in fact 189.

14. For details, you may look at the report of the Ethiopian Languages Academy in 1979 (E.C).

15. Fitawrari Yilma Deressa, 1933 (E.C), "Ye-Addis Zemen Mezmur sle NetSanet kbr ye-Ethiopia weTat tSehafiwoch yederesut", Addis Ababam Ethiopia, Merha Tibebe Printing press.

16. Solomon Deressa, 1969 (E.C). The Amharic Dine Novel, Addis Reporter, pp. 17-22.

17. Tsegaye Gebre Medhin, 1966, Issat wey Abeba, Boren, pp. 51-53, Atete, pp. 87-89.

18. Berhanu Zerihun, "Yederasian Tarnet", Menen Magazine, 13-th year, Number 9, pp. 16-18.

Translator's Note: The above is a translation of an article of Professor Baye Yimam of AAU who wrote in the journal of AAU Teacher’s Association in response to Prof. Tilahun’s article. The article was published in "Wyiyit"- "Dialogue" (Vol. I No 1, 3rd series, March 1992).

I trust Prof. Baye will understand the desire to translate this important piece to English and share it to the community of Ethiopian language lovers and eventually have it archived next to the other piece. All copyrights belong to the editors of "Dialogue" and Prof. Baye. All mistakes in concept, translation, terms etc. could be attributed to the translator and not the writer or editors. A particular area of possible errors will be in the translation of the more technical terms like "qelem". (Samuel Kinde)