Ethiopia: The Death of the Amharic Language?

By Meron Tekleberhan

Several times now I have come upon articles which declare that the Amharic language is in danger because of the increasing influence being exerted on it by English and other foreign languages. Dr. Befekadu Wakjera cites the writing on the billboards and other advertisements that line the streets of Addis which are frequently presented in a combination of English and Amharic. He argues that the language used on such advertisements pay little or no heed to the structural integrity of either language. 


Dr Befekadu has coined a term for this kind of mixing: he calls it ‘Amareznga’ (roughly put ‘Amhglish’). Similar denouncement of the mixing of English and Amharic in speech among the ‘educated’ and young people is being heard from several corners as has been the anglicizing of given names with uniquely Ethiopian names falling out of favor.


I understand the completely legitimate concerns about the integrity of culture and social character, arguably phenomena closely related to language, which I believe to be at the root of most of the concern. I also empathize with the apprehension of those who lament the corruption of the language for its own sake. In spite of appreciating these concerns, however, I have been unable to personally support the fears being expressed for several reasons.


The first and most important reason is that in my lay opinion all living languages are liable to change or they would no longer be living. The changes that languages undergo as they come into contact with other languages and changing circumstances that require new terminology has been well documented historically with no better language to bear proof of this than the English language itself.


If it is true that languages change and grow as a matter of course then efforts to protect the Amharic language from being influenced by external factors may be tantamount to declaring the language dead in which case any efforts will be just for posterity.


This argument in no way undermines the fear that the Amharic language is succumbing to change at an unnatural speed which bodes extinction as opposed to evolution. The speed in the changes being experienced by the language is of course to the unprecedented level of cultural exchange initiated by the global media explosion. This kind of cultural influence was only possible on a societal level during occupation, although the analogy is not one that should be over stretched.


Another reason why I have failed to share the fears being expressed is my fear of an organized effort to tide the waves of change and the consequences of any such clumsy moves on an already beleaguered educational system. What cannot be denied is the advantages of acquiring an international language such as English in relating to the rest of the world and in taking advantage of the great resources that are increasingly available for personal and national and enrichment. With this in mind I think efforts to protect national languages from the influence of foreign languages should not be seen as synonymous with inhibiting the use of international languages at all levels of education, as the costs of such a move may far outweigh any advantages obtained in retaining the purity of the local language.


A third reason grows out from the argument made by Dr, Assefa Endshaw in his article published in this month’s edition of the ‘Addis Times.’ Dr Assefa offers an amazing historical summary of the Amharic language as a language that grew out of the need for communication between diverse people engaged in commerce and other interaction. He recounts how the languaged developed by borrowing heavily from a range of other languages in such a manner and to such an extent that it cannot be identified with just one particular ethnic group. While this argument was formed against a perceived political and social threat posed against the integrity of the Amharic language it can nonetheless also be used to ward of fears that the language will be forced into extinction because of the current influences being exerted on it by English and other languages. Indeed if we are to base our projection on the historical account provided by Dr. Assefa it is more likely that the language will adapt itself to meet the new challenge and go on to incorporate the changes that need to be made to meet the political, economic and cultural implications of a quickly globalizing world and grow.


A final reason which is not completely detached from two already mentioned but which deserves to be heard separately anyway is the need to allow each new generation the right to use the language in a manner that reflects it best. While this is related to the living nature of languages in general it also speaks of the untenable desire of each generation to freeze frame everything, particularly culture and language at what they used to be at a particular and idealized time. Such inclinations refuse to acknowledge the right of the new generation to use what is essentially their own language in manner that is reflective of the characteristics of that particular era.


It may be that the ‘Amareznga’ best serves the communication needs of a generation whose identity has been influenced by the products of an English speaking culture but is none the less Ethiopian for all that. 


Having said this however I want to make it clear that I do understand the importance of retaining the character of a language to transmit social identity and I value the Amharic language more today for having read Dr. Assefa’s amazing summary of its historical development. It is just important not to forget the changes and development the language had to go through to reach the stage it has at this time. Amharic is language that is very much alive and if we deny it the opportunity to develop and grow in line with the needs and demands of a new era then we run the risk of sentencing it to death or an existence as a relic only appreciated by the scholarly few.  

Meron Tekleberhan is Addis Ababa based reporter for

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