Ethiopian professor delivers lecture on linguistic issues

Photo courtesy of Ninara, Flickr

Language has always served as a determining factor in shaping cultures and history. Language is how people communicate and learn, and therefore its influence is evident in all threads of life. Language, however, can be a source of conflict, and this is often the case in Ethiopia.

Ramapo Schomburg Distinguished Visiting Scholar Professor Zelealem Leyew Temesgen of the Department of Linguistics in Addis Ababa University of Ethiopia delivered a lecture this past Monday in which he discussed issues relating to language in Ethiopia as well as how to combat some of these problems.

Temesgen began by looking at the diverse range of major and minor languages in Ethiopia.

“We have about 80 to 100 languages,” said Temesgen. He explained, however, that some people believe there are up to 200 languages, and that the estimates are “a matter of identifying languages in cultures.”

According to Temesgen, the lingua franca, or national official language, of Ethiopia is Amharic. He explained that Oromo is also a “very big language” and is the second lingua franca.

“In terms of native speakers, it is even bigger than Amharic,” he said.

Ethiopia is also bi-scriptal, meaning that the country uses “two vibrant scripts,” according to Temesgen. He explained that there is the ancient Ethiopian script, or the alternative Latin script.

“It’s a matter of choice, even though there’s a big difference,” he said. He went on to reveal that people like himself prefer the Ethiopian script for its ties to the past and conservation of culture, but that some opt for more modern Latin script is more neutral and applicable throughout the world.

Competition between languages often cultivates conflict, though. According to Temesgen, there is debate over issues like which language or script school systems should use and what should be the standard throughout the country.

Temesgen also explained that endangered languages is another problem that Ethiopia faces. Endangered languages exist all over the world, but according to him, “In Africa it is very, very particular.”

“More than 10 percent, I would say, of the languages that we have in different African countries are endangered at different levels,” he said.

Temesgen explained that languages are dying off in a gradual process, and he is interested in combating their extinction through documentation. By finding ways to document languages, they never truly die.

Temesgen also discussed throughout his presentation the impact colocialization and the English language has had on Ethiopia and other African countries. He explained that Ethiopia uses an endoglossic language policy, meaning that they use the indigenous language. Other African countries, however, will use an exoglossic language policy, meaning that they use a non-indigenous official language, according to Temesgen.

Temesgen explained that Ethiopia has never officially been colonized unlike other African countries, which is why they do not have an ex-colonial language. Therefore English, Leyew Temesgen stated, is currently an international language.

Temesgen’s lecture revealed the various layers of Ethiopia’s language and its historical and present impact that many people in America are otherwise unaware of. Students and faculty alike seemed intrigued by his presentation and all the information he disclosed.

“It was very refreshing to have foreign problems discussed on a local level,” said junior Angelica G. Pasquali.

Language is the key to communication, acting as a tool to binds communities together. It has both created wars and mended them, fostered peace and destroyed it. Language touches each person everyday, and the layers to Ethiopia’s languages is a testament to its power.

“Language affects everything,” said Temesgen.