A little about the Amharic language

Amharic is the language of the Amharas, one of the major tribes of Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie (The power of the Trinity) was an Amhara and sought to make it and English the main languages of Ethiopia. French was, for a while, a popular alternative and a number of words in modern Amharic also come from the Italian invasion. There are apparently 83 languages in Ethiopia giving rise to about 200 dialects. Ge’ez is the old language of the Orthodox Church and introduces the ‘ in the middle of a word to indicate a glottal stop.

To show how different these tribal languages are I will give four greetings with a rough English translation. I will use our script to give an idea of how they sound

  • Amharic greeting is classically Tenastilygn – a shortened form of the sentence Igzeehabeeyer Tena Yisterlygn  – May God give you health for me.
  • In Oromifa – Neggaa, Fiya, Errga – Hello, how are you, it’s nice to smell you. In this situation I think the ‘smell’ is conceptually ‘to have your presence with us’.
  • In Wolaitata – Sero Lo’oo Lo’oo Fiedaitey – Hello, How are you., nice to see you.
  • In Hadeyan – Tuuma, Tuuma. Hello, hello!

Haile Selassie attempted to make Amharic the common Ethiopian language and it was taught in primary and secondary school with English being added later in primary school. English was the official language of tertiary education. After Haile Selassie was murdered the era of Mengistu HaileMariam (The kingdom of the power of Mary) sought to elevate other tribal languages with English as the second language, leaving Amharic for the Amhara tribe. It is thought by many that, whereas Haile Selassie was seeking to unite the country, Mengistu was seeking to divide the tribes to make the country easier to rule.

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Above the sign is in Oromifa which uses the Roman script and a lot of doubling of letters eg baanke. In the middle Amharic, And below English. Addis Ababa is officially a Federal State but used to be Oromo territory so that comes first and Amharic is in smaller letters.

Certainly when I went back after the overthrow of Mengistu I experienced some trouble from this. I was living in the Wolaita area and patients coming from the Hadeyan area only 40 km down the road could frequently not be understood by the staff. The present government seems to now have a three language policy.

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The 3 languages used here are symbols, Amharic and English. In voting, because so many are illiterate each party has a symbol to show the voters whom they should choose. I never saw a radar gun on that road!

In Amharic there are two ‘t’s – both normal for them but with very different meanings. Also with ‘k’s and ‘ch’s  differences which we describe as soft or explosive. You can get into real trouble. I was in the bank with a couple of friends and our business was drawn out. I said to my friends  ‘Chiger alle?’ thinking I was saying ‘is there a problem?’ but actually saying ‘do you have pubic hair?’ Embarrassing for them and for me, when it was explained. But their letters are written differently and so easily read but not easily heard by us, who think anything like a ‘t’ sound is in fact a ‘t’. In Amharic ‘sebake’ and ‘sebake’, depending on how you sound the ‘k’  means a ‘preacher’ or ‘a bearer of false tales’.

In English we have many letters and letter groups with same or different meaning. We spell Monday with an ‘o’ and say it with a ‘u’. We have the ‘ou’ and say it differently in the following – cough, mouse, tough, through – and pronounce it differently in each word. We have the one letter eg ‘t’ and pronounce it differently in different words. The ‘t’ in tough and the ‘t’ in take are made with the tongue in very different places. Or more significantly the ‘c’ in cat and centipede. Say them and see how your tongue is in a different position for each. We have f’s and ph’s which sound the same. In some of the languages you don’t differentiate p’s and f’s, so people, when they speak in English  go to fray or pray at church; they wear certain clothes either because it is the new fashion or new pashion, without recognising the difference. In Amharic if you know the syllabet you can read it with the correct sound even if you maybe cannot understand it!

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The fidel is not really an alphabet but a syllabet. The second line is basically the ‘l’ sound but the seven syllables as go across from left to right are le,lu, lee, laa, ley, li, lo. There are 238 basic syllables and another 79 special ones, punctuation marks and numbers.

I once told a patient that, as I had spent hours fixing the problems which his venereal disease had caused, ‘that if you have sex with anyone apart from my wife after this, I will kill you!’ I used the sound for my instead of the one for your. Fortunately he spoke in Oromifa and after my Amharic speaking fellow workers got up from the floor, having ceased rolling around in laughter, they translated what I had meant to say!

Learning another language is always a challenge and we all make mistakes!

Dominic Cartier

King Jafir the second.

Most people know something about Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. One of his titles was King of kings. This is no reference to the Biblical title of Jesus whom Christians call King of kings, although Haile Selassie was an Orthodox Christian. The word king is defined as a noun meaning ‘a male sovereign or monarch; a man who holds by life tenure, and usually by hereditary right, the chief authority over a country and people.’ In many countries, however, there can be multiple kings. The term here is used to define a life-time position of authority over a group of people. Thus in Haile Selassie’s time there were many who were called kings. I, for instance, in southern Ethiopia have sat at a meal between the Buna king and an American Ambassador acting as the co-translator from the Buna king’s language to Amharic and then by me from Amharic to English. The king was there all powerful over his tribe even though by that time Ethiopia was a so-called democracy.

One of the kings under Haile Selassie was King Jafir II. His father King Jafir I introduced Islam into the Oromo people in the Jimma area of Ethiopia. The story as told from the Muslim and the Christian sides varies and isn’t of relevance to this article.

King Jafir II was born in 1861 and reigned as king 1878 to 1932. His palace although made out of mud still stands and is a major tourist site near Jimma. Unfortunately it is beginning to crumble.

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The king was a big man said to be over 7 feet tall.
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The open window is suitable for the average sized person; the closed one was specially built for him to look out over his kingdom!
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On the left you see an Ethiopian teenager sitting on Jafir’s chair. In the centre is his super-duper king-size bed. And on the right a double minaret-ed mosque which is just outside the palace.
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The outside of the palace. It has many rooms in part at least because he had many children. I have not been able to find a family tree for him but as a Muslim he was entitled to as many as four wives and many important people had even more.
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Children’s rooms were upstairs and the courtyard below for their pleasure both for personal involvement (eg in swordsmanship) and for watching various contests and acts.
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Overlooking Jimma city from the palace. Jmma is one of the larger Ethiopian cities.
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Jafir was king of a very fertile countryside – famous as the homeland of coffee.

I enjoyed my visit there.

Dominic Cartier.

 

Old photos from Ethiopia.

I cannot boast of being a good photographer. Here are a few photos from the past with a bit of explanation. The first photo was taken through an airplane window. The smokiness is real in that without electricity every home has an open fire, and picture was taken early in the morning.

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Ethiopia has 70 percent of the mountains found in Africa.  The highest is Mount Dashen at 4543m (14930 feet). It also has one of the lowest and hottest places in the world. The Danakil depression is 125m below sea level.
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The north is also famous for its 11 churches, hewn out of rock. The place is called Lalibela, where an Ethiopian Emperor of that name set out to restore the region to Christianity after a Muslim invasion. The churches are outstanding, being of a single piece of rock! Some believe that English knights, fleeing from Jerusalem during the wars there, helped in the building. This is maybe supported by the inclusion of the English Tudor rose in so many of the carvings. Others say that, at night time, angels came and helped in the building.

 

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There are seven monasteries of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Lake Tana from which the Blue Nile starts its journey into Egypt. Above is an example of the multitude of paintings painted  in typical Ethiopian style. They are found in abundance in these monasteries. Not in this painting which is of an angel watching over Mary and her Son but interestingly you see amongst the many paintings  two saints whom most of the churches don’t recognize. Kidus Pilatus (St Pilate) – sainted because he was the only one who sought to have Jesus released, when he was being tried before His crucifixion. Another called the Cannibal Saint, who supposedly loved eating human flesh but has been sainted because he gave a glass of water to a thirsty girl. The story is that Mary put her hand on the scales when he was being tried after his death.
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I don’t think they make the horses drink petrol, but these little carts are a very common form of transport in the countryside. Although the car per population ratio is low the car accident per number of cars is very high. One of, if not the highest, in the world.
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On a straight open bitumen road. Note the rocks placed to warn motorists. It doesn’t help if you are just topping a hill and the rocks start just over the top!  See lake Shalla in the distance – the deepest lake in Ethiopia. Its depth is 257 metres and its area 12X15 km.