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Why Geez matters

By Godofai Tgiorgis
April 04, 2012

Many people have raised several issues as to why Geez should not become an official language. Regardless of the adequacy, I have tried, in response, to reason out as to why it should. This one too is a follow up to the ongoing debate whether or not Geez deserves consideration. The objection suggests that bigger political and economic issues have to be solved before even people think about Geez if Ethiopia is to eradicate inter-ethnic contradiction. The following is the spirit of their argument summarized:    

Geez, compared to democratic and economic rights, is less important if not insignificant.  Pushing Geez to the front to become an official language while burning economic and political problems are kept in the dark is, therefore, misplacing, knowingly or not, priorities. It is therefore wise to spend more time and energy fighting for those bigger issues than trying in vain to bring a dead horse, Geez, back to life again. Wise because once the political and economic problems are solved so will the problems of language, local or national regardless. What manifests as language problems is inherently aspect of the prevalent political and economic problems; hence, focus should be given to those issues not to Geez.  

This is a sound argument I encountered so far from Geez’s detractors. However, I am not sure if, unlike the claim, the suggestion is also true. Ethiopia’s objective condition suggests that the language divide and the appetite for a foreign language just to avoid Amharic are no less a threat compared to the issues critics pointed out as priorities. Founding a common language that everyone accepts is therefore of immediate necessity and paramount importance to avoid such occurrences and further divisions. Geez therefore matters not only for what it is, a rich and a heritage language, and for what it promotes (unity) but also to put an end to those conflicts.  

At present the price the country will pay due to its failure to implement one national language may not be visible but no doubt it is going to be hefty on the long run. Recurring interethnic conflict and division among one another disguised in language will continue to generate friction. Minorities’ anger and frustration against bigger ethnic groups will also be there when forced to use a language they did not choose. Dissatisfaction of bigger ethnic groups who are forced to use languages or alphabets chosen by minorities they consider alien will also be there. Pointing fingers of blame at one another will thus become wider and wider gradually leading to the country’s breakdown. Conflict after conflict Ethiopia will thus become the hub of perpetual war regardless however big or small the magnitude is.  

Yes declaring freedom to use vernacular language is one step forward to mutual understanding. However, that alone guarantees the hard won freedom at the local level. The ethnics are more than an island. They are interdependent. Therefore they need a means to communicate with one another, a national language. Without a national language, localized freedom is nothing but a barrier. There is Amharic of course but given the prevalent sentiment only few seem to be interested. Plus if even interested majorities of the people do not know the language much and are still locked in the dark not to know more by their regional leaders. The regional leaders are still unwilling to let Amharic prevail in their soil again because they do not like it, an attitude they voice in public or behind the doors.  

Amharic committed no crime but minorities refuse to use it because they associated it with discrimination and subjugation they suffer in the hands of past administrations. They take it as a representative of the old rule and reminder of old wounds. To heal old wounds they had to break old bonds. Hence they run wild to adapt Arabic, English or Latin as a substitute as a reciprocation, or revenge if you like. This in turn has become a threat to national identity and unity on the long run because the new languages, by planting a different psychology, are promoting a psychology of being different, the other. What was local strife in between brothers is poised to become a relation if not a quarrel between foreigners.  This will no doubt lead to border demarcation later down the road as the relationship sours more and more and become cause of wars.

I do not have to go to great length to show Ethiopians my concerns are legitimate and correct. See OPDO or OLF as an example. They embraced Latin alphabets not because Latin represents Oromigna more than Geez alphabets but because they disliked Amharic. For they see in it past repression, they did not even bother to think of it as an option. They simply rushed to find a substitute for it and had therefore to import and implant Latin in their region. The same thing is true of those who opted for Arabic or English. Behind their decision to embrace foreign language lies in the fact that using Amharic implies giving in the freedom they fought hard for. We have thus different imports because the new languages signify, however the wrong way, power and independence over past rulers and their legacies. What does this hold in terms of future probabilities? One cannot speak for certain but it is not difficult to guess this is a bad precursor, an omen if you like.  

 Putting Geez instead does not rule out the omens. Only if minorities come to their senses will the danger fade away. However one can also see Geez minimizing the dangers. Geez promotes unity by providing a platform up on which a psychology of oneness flourishes. It promotes oneness based on a common will. Geez therefore can serve as a deterrent of wild expectations. It can reign in on the proliferating and quickly spreading foreign languages before the domestic ones, in their own country, became estranged.  One should look at Geez, therefore, as a means to solve the problem the country is facing due to discontents people face through language both at the local and the national levels. 

With such issues in mind, the choice Ethiopia has is therefore clear: it has either to leave things as they are and see the division go wider and deeper or adapt a consensual official language that will bring the people together. If it opted for the first, peace, harmony and smooth integration among ethnics will continue to be bumpier because ethnics (minor or bigger does not matter) will have rough relationships with one another. They will always resist to using the language they think does not represent their will.  Also its impact on the political and economical transition the country is aiming to achieve will be negative because such tension will corrupt the spirit of cooperation.  Adopting a consensual language, Geez, is therefore a must to avoid those obstacles and to adapt and implement communal policies.      

Concerned Ethiopians, observing minorities’ reluctance to use Amharic, have started to embark in a new direction in an attempt to create a national language.  Dr. (Debato) Mesfin Arega’s AmOromigna is one for example. Amoromigna is Amharic sprinkled with some Oromigna and other minority words intended to address concerns about the exclusiveness of Amharic.  It is an attempt to create harmony in the use of Amharic as an official language. Not only that, it is also an effort intended to create an official language acceptable to all Ethiopians. By far this approach is the best because it attempts to solve a domestic problem using home grown resources available. Motive aside it is truly Ethiopian in all its endeavors.  It is therefore one option we can count on in search of lasting solutions.

Amoromigna, however an option, cannot be a cure to all the concerns people voice as to what they should have as an official language.  The first problem is Amharic itself.  No matter how cosmetic changes one puts to it to make it look inclusive, the image people still will have will be negative. Convincing people to accept that will prove difficult because it leans more into saving Amharic than creating a unifying language that binds all the people. Second is Amoromigna itself. Since it includes only selective usages, words and phrases, people still will feel that the effort is nothing more than filling in Amharic’s short comings. This is not to add the issues people will have about the discriminative nature of the name itself. Therefore this is not the solution that serves Ethiopia’s needs.   

Another alternative is to use four languages namely Amharic, Tigrigna, Oromigna and a vernacular one simultaneously in one ethnic administration or region. This will no doubt help people to easily communicate without giving in their independence and identities. Moreover it will make them efficient in various domestic languages and can navigate anywhere without any problems. However, this option too has at least two disadvantages. First, it favors the bigger ethnics.  Minorities are forced to shoulder the burden to pacify bigger ethnics’ oppositions. It is therefore not going to be a surprise if minorities refuse. Second, the logistics that the country will spend will be staggering.  It is expensive. Given these problems and the economic condition the country is in, this option too is not promising.   

Geez therefore is the best choice Ethiopia has so far.  It is cost effective. It is economical and void of many complications. This does not mean that Geez does not involve costs. It does but it is less compared to the other options. The biggest hurdle for Geez is instead the two namely the narrow and chauvinist nationalisms. These two camps, however diametrically opposed to each other, are extremely opposed to Geez. They oppose Geez because Geez is opposed to their mainstay, conflict and divisions. They don’t want to witness their divisive walls scramble, because Geez is for unity, in front of their eyes.  To avoid that, they oppose Geez in full force employing different tactics.

The extremists have to do this because they capitalize on language differences. By instigating divisions, instilling fear and enmity, marginalizing and giving separate identities to others, these extremists have claimed Ethiopia as their exclusive rights. Ethiopia has been the bread basket for their selfish interests and the only way they can secure this advantage is by fomenting language based conflicts. But the time has come now, a time Ethiopians want to see the division end. Ethiopians need unity; they need it for their wellbeing and progress. They also need Geez because it gives them a platform, an opportunity to realize that wellbeing and progress.  No matter how odd and old Geez therefore matters because it will bring them unity that brings the progress by putting an end to language painted divisions.  

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