Ethiopic script has been in use since 100 BC. It is the only indigenous
African alphabet still in use today.
But it was only in 1991 that the Ethiopian Science and Technology
Commission (ESTC) first displayed the Ethiopic alphabet on a computer.
The reaction of one European was: "It is impossible - how did you do it?"
recalls Dr Nega Alemayehu, a lecturer in information technology at
Addis Ababa University.
But as Ethiopian computer programmer Mesfin Belay points out:
"The greatest breakthrough was not in developing an Ethiopic alphabet
programme or software, it was ratherto come up with the idea.
"Just as you have software in Japanese, Korean or Arabic there was
no reason why one can not develop Ethiopic script."
Quicker than handwriting
Daniel Admasse, an Ethiopian who studied in Sweden, claims to have
been the first person to come up with the idea of computerising "fidel", as
Ethiopians call their alphabet.
While studying in Sweden he helped produce materials for an Ethiopian
studies conference. Some of theconference texts were in Ge'ez, the
ancient language which is the ancestor of modern
But he found that in Sweden he had no means of printing Ethiopic script.
"So the burden of writing by hand in Ge'ez letters and reducing them using
a camera fall on me," Daniel recalls.
"My handwriting was bad. Because of that incident I said to myself why
shouldn't I develop an Amharic computer programme?".
"I started working on it in 1982 and developed an Ethiopic WordPerfect
version 2.01 in one year".
Daniel returned to Ethiopia in 1987, and set up a team of computer
programmers at the ESTC. There they developed Ethiopic software
ranging from a disc operating system to a desktop publishing
"So we had a complete set of Ethiopic computer programmes in Fidel and
the Amharic language by 1991, which meant one could take computer
courses in Amharic even if one didn't know English."
Daniel has since developed an Ethiopic version of WordPerfect 6.0.
He says the first challenge was to design the fidel characters. This was
done using a computer programme known as font manager.
Lots of letters
The second challenge was to put the 276 characters onto the English
language keyboard designed to accommodate only 26 letters.
Each character in the Ethiopic alphabet represents a syllable: a
combination of consonant plus vowel. There are 33 consonants and seven
So 33 of the keys are assigned to the different consonant sounds, which are
used in combination with keys such as "control" and "alt" to create the
"The English keyboard was made to recognise only 26 characters, but to
make it recognise 276 Ethiopic characters the computer programmers
have to override the rules in the computer," Daniel explains.
"This was made possible by using the keyboard handler program."
Ethiopic characters also have to be attuned to American Standard Coding
for Information Interchange (ASCII)which assigns letters to the numerical
codes which the computer works with.
The third challenge was printing. The printing of Amharic characters was
complicated in the earlier generations of printers Daniel says, but has
become simpler with more recent laserjet printers.
Therefore any Ethiopic alphabet software is a package which deals
with the designing of characters, keyboard layout and printer set-up.
Some Ethiopian computer engineers in Canada have also been developing
Ethiopic software independently, out of a sense of patriotism, Dr Nega says.
But the enthusiastic rush to develop software led to a new problem: lack of
standardisation. Today there are at least 35 Ethiopic software products
available, each with its own character set, encoding system, typeface names, and
"However efficient and fast a keyboard layout is, it is useless
unless accepted as a standard by users," Dr Nega argues.
The lack of standardisation also makes it difficult to transfer
documents from one computer to another - including e-mail.
The problems of Ethiopic computing have resulted in the creation of the
Ethiopian Computer Standard Association (ECOSA), of which Dr
Nega is president, and the North American-based Committee for
Ethiopian Computing (CEC).
The two groups are working on standardisation of the Ethiopic script
on the computer.
"We have come together to face the challenge," says Dr Nega, who is
optimistic about finding a solution.
"The sooner we standardise Ethiopic script computing, the faster we hop
on the global information superhighway."