A CHALLENGE TO ETHIOPIAN ENGINEERS & TECHNOLOGISTS

Key-note address by Ato Terrefe Ras-Work

I would like to thank the organizers of the E-Mail conference who gave me the opportunity to deliver a virtual opening address to all participants. I shall start my presentation by quoting from the statement I made to the 10th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies that was held in Paris in August 1988.

On that occasion I said, "...I should like to share with you my fascination and indeed my admiration of the Ethiopian alphabet - briefly examine its origin - discuss its uniqueness and even its supremacy in the world of writing - consider its applicability to other languages." I concluded my presentation at that same conference by quoting August Dillmann who in April 1857 wrote, "..... the Ethiopians entirely abandoned the path followed by the rest of Semites and they struck out another path which rewarded their efforts far better, and gave a notable proof of their genius. Starting from the fundamental conception of Semitic writing - that the written consonant is a body in which inheres unseen a soul, a vowel, by which alone it becomes audible - they set to work to indicate the kind of vowel present in the particular consonantal character, by attaching to it small strokes or rings. This device was appropriate and sufficient, and being governed by very exact rules it brought about the development of the original consonantal script into a highly perfected syllabary, which for completeness and effectiveness leaves little to be desired...Foreign influences are not to be thought of in this matter: the invention of the system was the work of the Abyssinian people."

I had advocated on that occasion that we should "market" the Ethiopian alphabet to other African countries whose mother tongues were as yet unwritten. Whenever the concerned people decided to write their language they invariably turn to the Latin alphabet. Such a choice is good because the Latin alphabet is more efficient than for example Arabic or Chinese for example. But if you stop and ponder the Latin alphabet is no match to the Ethiopian alphabet in its use of written symbols to represent sounds - which after all is the sole object of writing.

Unlike the Latin alphabet, the Ethiopian alphabet;

- eliminates the need of spelling (a great relief)

- it has a built in formula to create new characters to represent new sounds

(e.g. the newly created "ve" from "be")

- whatever you hear you can write (because it is completely phonetic)

- it is easy to learn

( no more than 6 weeks if you use a logical teaching method such as Hahu Bekelalu)

With all of these inherent virtues one would hope that many languages would adopt this alphabet as their method of writing provided of course they are made aware of its value. Hence my suggestion then that we "market" our alphabet. Alas, let alone attracting other African countries to use our alphabet, even our Oromo and Somali speaking compatriots opted to use the Latin alphabet to write down their mother tongue. The main reason that is advanced for this migration to a foreign alphabet is technological - It is claimed that the Ethiopian alphabet is difficult to type, it is not adapted for telex and computers, and it is difficult to learn etc. That is the Challenge:

There is no doubt that those who have made the political decision to opt for the Latin alphabet have been ill advised. It is therefore important that those of us who are in the field of information technology explain to the decision makers that technologically, the Ethiopian alphabet is equally as manipulable as the Latin one. Let it be explained that Ethiopian engineers and technologists have done a lot of work to adapt the Ethiopian alphabet to various writing aids such as typewriters, telex machines and lately to bilingual telex and data transmission terminals as well as a variety of computer software programs. It is true that more needs to be done. I am particularly happy that the Ethiopian Computing and Information Technology Association (EthCITA) has been created which I am sure will contribute a lot to this endeavor. The Ethiopian Diaspora spread the world-over absorbing various cultures will surely add to the betterment and improvement of our country's singular contribution to mankind i.e. its unique alphabet. Ethiopians should develop innovative computer supported methods of teaching the alphabet. We need to develop games in Amharic, Tigrigna, Oromigna etc. so that children, wherever they may live, learn their mother tongue and also acquire a working knowledge of the lingua franca of the country, Amharic. This indeed would be the one distinguishing character that unites us as a people and as a nation. Let us not forget that the State of Israel was recreated after centuries of non existence as a political entity because its Diaspora maintained its language, religion and culture.

Our country today is one of the least developed countries in the world. We should pull ourselves up with our own cultural boot straps. For this we need to develop information technology support in the language of the people. No one but Ethiopians can do this job. In conclusion I salute the organizers who have taken the brilliant initiative to call this E-Mail conference which I trust will connect many scholars and engineers from around the world including those of our colleagues in Ethiopia itself. I wish you success in your deliberations. I thank you for your attention.