The following is a translation of an article by Professor Baye Yimam (AAU) that appeared 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) and translated for EEDN. The following disclaimer by the translator also appeared with the article.

I trust Prof. Baye will understand the desire to translate this important piece to English and share it to the EEDN community 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 errorswill be in the translation of the more technical terms like"qelem".

Caveats. The name of the translator is not mentioned in the article. Chora regrets that we are unable to recognize by name such a dilgent contributor to Ethiopian Education. We will rectify this grave mistake as soon as we can.


Part I - Introduction

Part II - Issues raised by Dr.Tilahun

Part III - Response from Dr. Baye

(Ethiopian)Writing System

Baye Yimam, Ph.D.

(AssociateProfessor & Head of Department of Linguistics, 1992)

Addis AbabaUniversity, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia



What motivated to comment on thistopic are the issue and debate surrounding our languages in thecurrent set-up. It is not out of spontaneity but rather out of achanging political pressure that this issue has surfaced.Therefore, to properly understand the origin, evolution andgrowth of our languages, the political issues will also have tobe studied well. To do this, one has to be not only a linguistbut also, I believe, a politician by trade. But I am not apolitician. In view of this, I shall address the issue from alinguist’s point of view. If, however, I happen to touchupon issues that might have political content, it is my wish thatit will be known that I do so only in my capacity as an averageEthiopian citizen.

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

Section 1.1

The foundation for any languagesare sounds. Sounds make phonemes. The phonemes inturn make upwords, the words then sentences and so on. Sentences fullydescribe a thought. As expression of thoughts, a language is acollection of sentences.

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

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

Section 1.2

There are three types of writingsystems in the world; namely, logographic, syllabic andalphabetic. The logographic system was used first around5000 years ago (3). Its place of origin is in the areas ofPalestine and Syria (4).

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

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

In the syllabic system, it ispossible only to point out to the phonemes but not the vowels andconsonants that comprise it. This is possible only in what iscalled the alphabetic system. This writingsystem originated from the syllabic systems used in the Semiticlanguages of the Middle East. It is also called the GreekAlphabet because its origin is strongly tied to the Greeks. TheRomans later adopted it from the Greek and helped its wide usagein their colonies in the Latin language. As a result, this systemis now known as the Latin alphabet. The majority of the Westernworld uses this alphabet. African countries which were colonizedby the West also do use this script.

Section 1.3

The Ethiopians are the only peoplethat differ from the users mentioned above. The difference liesin the fact that our writing system, unlike the Greek and theLatin which use the alphabetic system, is the prior syllabicsystem (6). This system was introduced to the northen part ofEthiopia approximately 2500 years ago by the Semitic Sabeanpeople of Southern Arabia. As a result, this version of theFeedel (script) is also known as a Sabean script (7).

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

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

In this system, a sentence iswritten from right to left and then back to right! The system wasused 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 writtenlanguage only after it took 24 of the 29 Sabean characters andmodified 16 of them into a different look. It also took 2additional characters from the Greek script, namely, P and PP(the P as in Abune Petros).

In addition to the change in theform of the 16 characters, Geez adopted a number of differentvowels instead of the 1 used by Sabean. The style of writing wasalso restricted and modified to left to right. Geez used such ascript and writing system between the 4th and 7th century.

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

On top of the 26 characters,Amharic also needed additional characters to represent soundsthat it acquired from Cushitic languages. This was done byplacing a small bar (or hat) on top of 7 characters that wereinherited 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 ofsyllables is accordingly 231 (33x7).

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

Section 1.4

Like Amharic, Tigrigna andOromigna became written languages by taking the Geez script(Feedel). Even though I do not know about the Tigrigna, thenative of Illubabor, one Aba Anesimos Nesibu wasthe one who started writing Oromigna in the Geez Feedel to teachthe Gospel. This has indicated, in addition to the LiteracyCampaign of the late 80’s, that other Ethiopian languagescould use this script to become full-fledged written languages.The basic argument is that all Ethiopian languages could becomewritten languages by taking the basic Feedel and making similarmodifications. And this argument is not forwarded without anybasis. Most of the languages in our country are similar in thelook and quantity of their basic sounds. For example, if we takethe case of Oromigna and Amharigna, we will find out that out ofthe 27 consonants in Amharic, 23 of them are used in Oromigna. Inthe same token, out of the 24 consonants in Oromigna, 23 of themare found and used in Amarigna. If such kind of remarkablesimilarities exist between two or more languages, the script usedby one of the languages could also be used by the othereffectively. And it has been done so far.

Part II

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

For this question, one Addis AbabaUniversity professor (Tilahun Gameta), had tried to give ananswer in a TV program broadcasted on November 7, 1991 (tikimt29, 1984 E.C). According to the interview he gave in the TVprogram, the following were the reasons cited for this change tothe Latin script:

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

2) The "Sabean" scriptmakes it difficult to differentiate between the long vowels andshort consonants.

3) Type writers and computerword-processors use the Latin script. As a result, using theLatin script will save researchers and linguists traveling toNorth America and Europe for conferences etc. from the necessityof carrying "Sabean" based word-processors andtype-writers.

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

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

6) Until now, we do not have muchOromo literature written using "Sabean" except theworks of Aba Anesimos. It is also not difficult to translate thefew available ones to a Latin based one. Since it is likestarting from nothing, it will not hurt to start using Latin.

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

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

9) If our students learn using theLatin script at the elementary and secondary level, it will beeasier for them to learn English and French languages since theselanguages use the same script.

Part III

(Translation byMinga 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 willconcentrate only on the four. Since the reasons are not onlylinguistic, some of the points that I shall be raising mayslightly deviate me from my (main) topic. Readers should takenote of the context in which the topic (writing systems) is beingdiscussed.

Before going into the details ofthe arguments, I would like to comment on the use of one keyword. It is the word "Saba" that is used in the contextof "yeSaba feedel" (Saba scripts). Basically thescripts that we are using today are not "yeSabafeedel". This is not controversial. As noted above, we donot see any one who writes (using these scripts) from right toleft (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 noteinadvertently, it is not a problem. It could be corrected easily.However, I do not believe that this is the case. I think theselection of the word is a carefully planned one. It is aimed atpreempting questions that may have implications on state(Ethiopian) nationalism. It is designed to counter arguments thatmay be raised in defence of Geez. For instance, if someone saysLatin scripts are foreign, the pre-prepared counter argument willalso emphasis that Geez scripts too are foreign. The basis for mystatement is what I encountered in Germany at the 1986 symposiumon Omotic and Kushitic languages. At that conference, asympathizer of the Oromo Liberation Front presented a similaropinion. Since then the use of the word "yeSaba" (as acounter argument) has continued and is being promoted (by certainquarters). Whatever the purpose may be, the scripts that are inuse today are not "yeSaba feedel". It is Geez. And Geezis not an immigrant; it is indigenous. Its birth place is Axum;the heart land of ancient Ethiopia. Geez mentions Sabean. This isnot only necessary but also proper. What would have been improperis if Geez had gone oversees by ignoring what had been in use inthe nearby places for centuries.

Today Geez is no longer a spokenlanguage. However, Geez scripts have been serving the languagesof many nationalities. The scripts do not belong to only onenationality. It has become the "feedel"of Ethiopia. In short, Geez language died a long time ago afterinheriting its "feedel" to Ethiopia. The language'sbirth place is Ethiopia and its nationality is Ethiopian. It doesnot exist in any other place. Therefore, it is one of ourcultural treasures that makes us distinct from other peoples(nations).

Let us now concentrate on thealleged reasons for adopting Latin scripts. The first issueraised is about the number of the scripts. Geez scripts numbermore than Latin. This situation is alleged to have implicationson making someone literate. How true is this point? If we comparethe two scripts grossly (without an insight), the argument looksplausible. If we take that line of argument, the "fact"looks that the Latin scripts are "26" while that ofGeez are "189". The point however is not on the numberof scripts per se but on what they (the scripts) indicate. TheLatin scripts indicate sound while the Geez scripts indicatesyllables (keelem). There is a difference between the two. Asnoted earlier, a syllable (keelem) is a combination of vowels orvowels and consonants. Sound is not a combination. It has nocombination but it is a singular (neTela) thing. Thus, before westart comparing the two scripts, we have to realise this pointand further, we have to decide on the nature of the parametersused for comparison. If our basis of comparison is sound, thenthere aren’t many differences between Latin and Geez. If wesay 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), againthere isn't much difference. The reasons is that Latin has 130(26x5) scripts while Geez has 189 (27X7). This of course is whenwe count all the scripts; from "Kabe'e" to"sabe'e".

Under these circumstances, one may(naively) support what the speaker has said: An individual whowants to become literate in Latin has to know the 26 scripts; not130 (kelemoch). However, this is not a correct statement. EachLatin script has at least two forms. For instance if we take"a", it has two forms. It has both capital and smallletters. Again, if we take "b", it has three forms.Capital, small and its cursive form. All the other alphabetsfollow similar situations. Therefore, the total number of Latinscripts is not what the speaker has claimed. They are at leastsixty (60). Moreover, unlike the Geez scripts, the signs of theLatin scripts do not follow patterns. Each script is distinct andtherefore different from the others. As a result of this, one hasto study each character on its own in order to become literate.Unfortunately, this is the only method of knowing them. Incontrast, Geez scripts can be studied by relating them to oneanother.

With regard to the time frame thatis need for learning Latin scripts, again it is difficult to takeseriously what the speaker has said. The belief that a studentcan learn the Latin scripts within (just) a month is doubtful.Even if one takes this statement seriously, what one may learnduring this period can not go much; beyond distinguishing thecharacters. He can not read and write using Latin in such a shortperiod of time. The two skills (knowing the alphabets versususing them) are different. The fact that one knows the Latinalphabets does not imply that he is able to read and write (byusing them). The names of Latin scripts and the sounds that theyrepresent are different. Let us take the letter "a".Its name is "aa". However, the sound it represents isnot always "aa". This script is represented as"aa" in situations like [da] "be", [da'so]'temple, [tasi:] 'hatchet' type of Oromigna words. In many othersituations, 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 theforms of the scripts. Hence, knowing only the names of the Latinscripts is not of (any) help for reading (Oromigna) correctly. Inorder to overcome the problem, one has to learn (afresh) thereading process. This requires education on its own. It is not askill that can be obtained by (from) knowing the scripts. Thispoint is not difficult to conceptualize. It is a commonexperience of most people who (learn) use the English language.

In contrast to the speaker'sassertions, an individual who becomes literate in Geez scriptswill be able to read and write until he or she dies. Whenever heencounters a new word, the individual does not have to consult adictionary to see how the word is read. In addition, even throughin form (be'ayinet) the number of the scripts are 189, their realnumber is not that high. That is, as noted above, Geez scriptsare not very different from each other. Once the first sets(base) of Geez scripts are known, most of the other scripts canbe studied easily by making orderly extensions (to the base).Mostly, it involves adding a dash (-) either on one of theirsides, or on their bottoms (legs), etc. In short, the scripts arenot totally dissimilar. I feel that all those teachers who wereinvolved in the literacy programme are aware of this fact. Theproblem lies not on the scripts (themselves) but on the method ofteaching. Hence, a teacher who understands well how the Geezscripts are formed should not have a problem to teach all thescripts in a (relatively) short period of time.

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

This problem, however is arisingonly if the word is found in isolation (out of context). When wemove into a phrase situation, whether it has to be stressed ornot and short or long can be known from the context in which theword is said. Oromigna news readers have been solving thisproblem by looking at the context.

In Amarigna too the problemexists. For example in the word "gena" the"n'e" can be stressed or not. As a result of this, theword can have two meanings. Nonetheless, this confusion can besolved by looking at the context in which the word is said. Inthe sentence "ato kasa legeNa beg yigezalu" (Mr. Kasawill buy a sheep for christmas), the "n'e" will bestressed. While in the sentence " kasa gena mesaalbelam" (Kasa has not yet eaten his lunch), the"n'e" will not be stressed. This is an issue that anyspeaker of (any) language could see the differences; without anyeducation.

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

There is one important lesson weget from this discussion. Both the Latin and Geez scripts andwriting systems (for that matter any other script) can not alwaysexactly represent a word as desired by the speaker. Context isthe only way to overcome this. Context is a tool that helps us toremedy whatever a writing system fails to represent a word orsound adequately. In all the writing systems, there is always adifference between a sound and the symbol that represents it. Forexample, someone was said to have remarked: "English is alangauge where ‘Bombay’ is read as‘Calcutta’." In view of this, the allegedshortcoming of Geez script and writing system pales becauseanyone who knows how to read and write in this script will neverread ‘Bombay’ as ‘Calcutta’; unless, ofcourse, he/she is insane.

Despite this, though, there havebeen a number of attempts to overcome this alleged difficulty torepresent long and short sounds. I shall mention only two ofthese studies (14). One of the studies suggests placing dots ontop of the stressed sound and after the long sound.

However such a remedy does notlook feasible because of the belief that it will requireadditional symbols on current type-writers. This was, of course,repeatedly mentioned by the speaker as the reasons outlined (in 3and 5) to resort to the Latin script. This, however, is basicallya technological problem; not a linguistics problem. It is the jobof people in the technical fields to design, produce and marketan efficient writing tool that helps to write a given script. Alot has been done with this regard. For example, this articleitself (the Amharic) was written using a computer software. Thecomputer is based on the Latin script but the software itselfconverts each typed Latin script to that of the Geez. That iswhy, as opposed to what the preacher said, a researcher willnever need to carry around a type-writer whenever he/she travelsfor conferences etc. All he needs to carry is the diskette forthe software and the document.

Other writing systems also usesimilar methods to overcome this difficulty. The Chinese writingsystem has the most number of scripts in the world. However, ithas never been discarded and replaced by the Latin script bysaying that it is not convenient for today’s technology.what has changed is not the script but technology itself. Notonly has technology produced a type-writer for it but alsosoftware have been written for using the Chinese script. Inaddition to being a writing system, this script, like otherscripts, is also a symbol of identity of a people. That is why,let alone replace it by another script, even changing it was notan option. I believe the Geez script should also be treated in asimilar way. As mentioned before, this script is ours and isfound in only in our country (Ethiopia). Therefore, I believe, itshould be a national symbol that should bring pride. Like allnational heritage and assets, it should be protected and takencare of but not sold and replaced as an ordinary item.

But this doesn’t mean, itshouldn’t be improved. For example there is another methodfor addressing the problem of indicating stressed and longsounds. The method involves not symbols such as dots but, likeLatin does, writing the "sads" (6-th) consonant of thestressed sound and the vowel. For example the Amharic word"gena" (Christmas), could be written as: "genna" to show that ‘n’ is stressed. In the sametoken the Oromiggna word "beru" could be written as"beru Au" to show that "Au" sound is long andthat "r" is stressed.

In my opinion, this method looksmore feasible than the first one. It avoids the difficulty ofplacing more symbols in writing tools. It also requires lesscharacters than that would be needed if Latin was used. Forexample "beru Au" will require only 4 characters inGeez but 6 in Latin. Thirdly, this method can serve not onlyAmariggna and Oromiggna but other Ethiopian languages if enoughresearch is carried out.

If this solution becomes feasible,there will be no linguistics reason to resort to the Latinscript. And I do not think there is any reason why itshouldn’t be feasible. With this in mind, if there is anyreason to resort to the Latin script, it can not be a linguisticreason but rather, perhaps, a political one. If it is indeed apolitical reason, then it should come as such and not clothed inthe garb of linguistics. As indicated above, the Geez script,after the Geez language ceased to be used, does not haveexclusive ownership relationship with any other language. Theonly relation it has, today, is with the country as a whole. Itis now the script of Ethiopia as a whole and not that of a singlenation or nationality. That is why any nation/nationality coulduse it as its own by improvising on it. All indications over theyears are along the same lines. However, despite this, if anation/nationality decides to use some other script, it is itsright. But giving inadequate reasons to discredit the Geez scriptby self-appointed spokesperson does not provide a solution.

Part IV

The last point mentioned by thespeaker in the TV program is in fact more of literature and not alinguistics one. It should be understood before hand, that thefollowing discussion might divert from the linguistic discussionI pursued so far. The speaker tried to point out above that,except for the works like "meShafe qulqulu", the Oromolanguage 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 basedscript in a short time.

It is possible to isolate twobasic understandings from the above statements of the speaker.The first one is that for any nation or nationality to have aliterature, all works need to be written in its language. Theother point, much related to the first one, is that any literarypiece written in Amharic is the heritage of only the Amharapeople. However, for anyone who understands the fact that Amharicis the lingua-franca of the country, it is clear that such anoutlook is far from reality in a multi-ethnic and multi-lingualcountry such as Ethiopia.

Since the beginning of the 20-thcentury, the fact that the central government has beenadministering the country in a modern bureaucracy in a unitarypolitical system by using the Amharic language in administration,education and mass communication has helped the language grow andexpand. Writers who are the products of this system and who hailfrom the various nationalities that constitute the country havepresented their works to the public in this language because theyunderstood that the language has become a common language. Amongthese writers are the Oromo writers, Fitawrari DeressaAmente, Tadesse Liben, Kajela Wako, Beka Nemo and SolomonDeressa. Particularly, Yilma Deressa and Solomon Deressa(16, 17) had realized that Amharic literature is an Ethiopianliterature and had made tremendous contribution by pointing outits weaknesses and outlining their vision for the path it shouldpursue. Just because writers such as S. Deressa and Y. Deressahad used Amharic, it can not be argued that their work is not theheritage of the Oromo people.

In a multi-lingual society, theownership of a literary piece written in a given language isdetermined not by the identity of the language itself or by theethnic origin of the writer, but rather by the social-life thewritings reflect and the society they are written about. Forexample if we take Tsegaye Gebre Medhin’s"Boren" and "Atete" (17) poems, werealize that even though they were written in Amharic, themessages they carry reflect the culture of the Oromo people. Inthe same token, the play "Oda Oak Oracle"(18) that was written in English is a literary piece thatreflects the ancient culture of the Wolaita people. Hence, if weare led just by the language used to decide whose heritage areTsegaye’s works, we will end up attributing the first twoworks to the Amhara and the last one to the English or theAmerican people. On the other hand, if we use the content ofthese pieces to decide whose heritage they are, it becomes clearthat the first works are that of the Oromo and the last one thatof the Wolaita people. If one insists in classifying the writerby the language he/she produced the article, we will end up inthe nonsensical game of classifying the writer as Amhara orEnglish. But the fact of the matter remains that the both thewriter and his works are much bigger than counting ethnic groupsand carry the identity of Ethiopian-ness.

Most of Ethiopia’s writershave tried many a times to leave a positive impact on the mindsand lives of their readers, by transcending ethnic differencesand concentrating on issues that affect the whole populace of thecountry. The characters in their writings were not given rolesbased on their ethnic identity but by their contribution to thethemes the writers want to pass through these literary works. Forexample, Haddis Alemayehu had used Gojjam in "FkrIske Meqabr", Addis Ababa in "Lmzhet",and Illubabor in "WenjelegNaw DagNa"as backdrops for his novels. His themes in these works were aboutthe social, political and economic injustices done on our peoplein the past Feudal system while his characters were the likes ofDr. Hagos Berhe, KegNazmach Gurmesa Birana and Asaye Mebratu whowere taken from the different nationalities of the country.

In a similar token, veteranwriters of the country had contributed their share in the longstruggle of the people for equality and justice because they werenot slaves of narrow nationalism and were able to consider theplight of the Ethiopian people as theirs. Abe Gubegna who couldbe cited as an example was sent to exile. The likes of BealuGirma had sacrificed their lives. The literary works of thesepeople were written for the Ethiopian people and the heritagebelongs to none other than the Ethiopian people. Today, whenself-appointed people who claim to stand for the interest of thevarious nationalities, go about claiming that anation/nationality has no or little prior literature just todivide it with the rest of the country, they are denying thecommon life and History shared at least eighty years by thepeople of this country. Despite this, the literature of anation/nationality can flourish, not out of the blues, as thespeaker pointed out, but by starting from the written heritagethis group has shared with the rest of the country’s people.As much as Amarignna reached its current status by the experienceit inherited from the Geez literature, any future development ofOromo literature or any other nationality’s literature needto start from the experience and heritage of the Amarignna one.This is so because as long as nations and nationalities live andinteract together, this type of intermingling and inheritance ofculture is an inevitable natural process beyond the control andintervention of humans.

Let us go to the last point. It isagain not a linguistic point. As mentioned as item no 8, thespeaker had said that the use of the Latin script will enable theOromo people to interact with the rest of the world that uses thesame script, particularly the neighboring countries of Somaliaand Kenya. The message of this argument is clear. Does that mean,though, the Oromo people will establish a friendship with Latinscript using people in other parts of the world, just becausethey started using the same script? If the Oromo people, on theirown and separate from the rest of the Ethiopian people, had toestablish such a friendship, the reason can not be that of scriptbut, perhaps a political one.

However, it is clear that what thespeaker really wanted to address is this political issue, butcovered in the guise of script. The speaker has tried to arguethat the Ethiopian people do not own the Geez script byconveniently ignoring the changes and the additions that weremade to the Sabean script. He has also tried to argue that theOromo people haven’t benefited from their association withthe rest of the Ethiopian people, again by conveniently ignoringand denying the Oromo literature works written by veteranEthiopian writers. The speaker has also tried to argue that thefuture progress of the Oromo people is not tied to the rest ofEthiopians but with other people who use the Latin script. Allwhat these show is the preparation that is being made to isolatethe people. It is now easy to see that the Latin script is beingused as part of this preparation. The fact that not even a singleadvantage was mentioned if the Oromo people continue to use theGeez (Ethiopic) script is a clear indication of this hiddenpolitical motive.

Even though, as shown above, thereis no linguistic reason why the Latin script should be adopted infavor of the Geez script, the following difficulties will beencountered if it is insisted to use Latin scripts for Oromignnaor any other Ethiopian language.

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

2) Such a measure will alsotransform the country from a multi-lingual one to a multi-scriptone. In the same token that one region could adopt Latin, anotherregion could decide to use Arabic script. In other words, anEthiopian who wants to travel and work in any parts of thecountry will have to learn at least three scripts and writingsystems!

3) The problem does not stop here.Any communication and correspondence with the central governmentwill no longer be done in one writing system but, possibly, withthree. In such an event, the central government will have to makeadditional preparations. All written materials regarding nationalissues will have to be printed in all the three writing systems.The cost of human labor and training for such an undertaking willnot be trivial. If it is decided to hold all such correspondenceswith the center in only one writing system, the center’sproblem might be alleviated but not those of the people. Itwon’t still save each citizen from being required to learnat least two writing systems; the one being the local regionalwriting system while the other is the center’s writingsystem.

4) Even though the speaker hassaid above that he doesn’t think that the Oromo people willmiss anything from things written in the Geez (Ethiopics) script,I, on the other hand still think that it is a required learningfor everybody to study the country’s common History (whethergood or bad) written and archived in our own script. For this,one needs to learn the Geez script. The understanding andknowledge of a nation/nationality in a region about national andbroader issues will grow to be extremely limited if it isinsisted that its people should learn the future through writtenmaterial written in the new scripts only. This will eventuallycause a much narrower and limited outlook; much worse than thepresent.

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

6) The expense is not going to belimited to basic literacy campaigns only. It will be necessary tore-write all teaching and learning materials in the Latin, andpossibly, the Arabic writing systems. Judging from where thecountry stands now, the money and resources that will be spent onsuch a venture is tremendous. When we realize that, there is nolinguistic and technical reason why this should be done to startwith, the situation becomes not only worrisome but also sad.

True, it is fitting to mention avalid fact here; that is, it is advantageous if anation/nationality learns in its own language after an adequatepreparation. But that doesn’t mean that each and everynation/nationality has to use a different writing system to doso. All of them could use the same writing system. Doing so willhave the advantages mentioned above as points 1-6 and equallyimportantly, no disadvantage. In short for multi-lingualunder-developed countries like Ethiopia, it is uni-script and notmulti-script that holds a clear advantage. Adding multi-script toa 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 usedfor writing. The symbol could stand for sound, phoneme, syllableor word.

3. It used to be called"pictorial system" and was used in ancient Egypt, andAztecs in South America. In this system, pictures represent wholeideas. There is a school of thought that considers this as thebeginning of painting art rather than literature. Since this is acontroversial class of system, it is not included in thediscussion.

4. The New EncyclopaediaBritannica, Vol. 29, pp. 982-1035.

5. ibid.

6. There are people who think thatit is alphabetic instead of syllabic. For the details, look atthe 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 ofEthiopia, 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 whopresented this modification.

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

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

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

15. Fitawrari YilmaDeressa, 1933 (E.C), "Ye-Addis Zemen Mezmur sleNetSanet kbr ye-Ethiopia weTat tSehafiwoch yederesut", AddisAbabam 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, Number9, pp. 16-18.