Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia: Volume I
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Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia: Volume I

Authored by Lou T. M. Kahssay
Reviewed by Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online, April 21, 2017

The title of the book tells it all. Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia meticulously (and I gather painstakingly) diagnosed the problem and shortcomings of the Ethiopian written system (commonly known as Ethiopic or Geez) in particular and the language in general, and came up with a radical departure from the traditional Ethiopian orthography. “Due to the Ethiopic alphasyllabic script and fusional nature of the Ethio Semitic languages,” says Lou Kahssay, “it is difficult to maintain alphabetical order for the majority of word derivations and inflections without reforming the orthography to some degree. The existence of too many word derivations, widespread spelling inconsistencies and a large number of characters in the Ethiopic writing system means only a small fraction of words in Ethio Semitic languages can be entered in any dictionary let alone to be ordered alphabetically.” (Preface)

Lou Kahssay is not the first author to come up with a proposal of reforming Ethiopian alphabets; he himself is aware of reforming endeavors wrought since the classic Ethiopian civilization, and he also acknowledges in Chapter 14 of the book some reformers including Emperor Menelik, Ato Alemu Habte Meekaeil (1924), Mehanidees Ayyana Beru (1931), Dr. Aleme Woriq [Worq] (1931), Aleqa  Keedane Welid [Wold], Ras Immiru, Ato Abbebe Retta, Blatta Merisiei Hazen Welide Qeeriqos [Qeerqos], Dr. F. C. Laubach etc. Writers like Ato Haddis Alemayehou and educators like Dr. Abraham Demoz are also acknowledged as part of the reform movement.


What makes Lou Kahssay different from the above reformers is the fact that the aim of his book “is to call for a comprehensive language reform that will improve communication in Ethiopia. Improved communication will provide Ethiopia with the tools it needs for unprecedented social and economic advancement in its history.” (Preface) His argument makes sense because a country like Ethiopia at a take off stage of its development and with a transforming ideology as its guiding policy, social change and reforms become the necessary vehicles to facilitate the country’s efforts for a much bigger agenda of competing in the global economy.

Proposed language Reform for Ethiopia is a voluminous large book that runs into 329 pages with 5 parts and 14 chapters and additional part 6 with appendices and endnotes. This book really contributes immensely to the educational curricula in Ethiopia in general and the language, creative writing and literature, and humanities departments of the respective Ethiopian universities in particular. The succeeding chapters of the book contain big ideas ranging from the evolution of the Ethiopian alphabets in the context of written culture, to the Ethiopian grammatical challenges, to morphology and modularization, to language crisis; and to alphabetic, typographic, and orthographic reforms.

Moreover, Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia renders powerful proposals at standardizing the Geez alphabets and Ethiopian numerical in the context of new innovations and newly introduced software aimed at computerizing Ethiopia. In regards to the latter, thus, the author craftily (and with amazing dexterity at that) discusses the plethora of Unicode systems and critically examines specific keyboard layouts and their applications, but he also appreciates the “unique and innovative Ethiopian keyboards.”

Ultimately, the book aims at fostering and promoting orthographic harmonization for Ethiopian languages including Amharic, Tigrigna, Afan Oromo (Oromiffa), and other minor languages. While Proposed Language Reform is conceptually appealing to the higher institutions of learning in Ethiopia, Lou Kahssay goes beyond theoretical underpinnings to underscoring ‘legislation for language protection and standardization’ and I suspect he will not be fully satisfied until and unless ‘Government initiated and funded’ translation efforts are in place and implemented.

The author, however, is not an idealist and does not harbor any illusion with respect to his grand proposal of language reform in Ethiopia. On the contrary, he candidly discusses “The Politics of Reform: Previous efforts and opposition to language reform” in chapter 14 of his book.

Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia is at once a challenge to all Ethiopian and Ethiopianist scholars and a formidable compendium with innovative ideas of reform, and for this reason alone I enjoyed reading the book and I am tempted to recommend it not only to be placed on every book shelf of the universities and public libraries but also to be a required book for courses in the humanities and social sciences. My recommendation of the book as a manual for Ethiopian educators is without reservation in spite of the fact that I am one of the few Ethiopian scholars and educators who is in favor of preserving rather than eliminating some of the Ethiopic characters dubbed ‘redundant’ in this book. I personally don’t see redundancy in the Geez alphabets; what could be redundant in Amharic are not redundant in Tigrigna because the latter’s characters entail different pronunciations and meanings. On top of this, we have yet to study the purpose and meaning of the wonderful Ethiopic phonetic alphabets designed to virtually capture any sound in the larger ecology that surrounds us. In this regard, the English language and other Indo-European languages are deficient compared to Ethiopic.

The deficiency of English and/or Latin vis-à-vis Ethiopian alphabets, in fact, is well understood by the author of this book and is reflected in his argument: “…the proposed system for the Romanization of Ethiopic (Table 9.5) is intended to closely replicate Ethiopic sounds or phonemes as much as possible using letters of the Latin alphabet at the same time providing a one-to-one transliteration of letters as unique as the Ethiopic script.” However, the author further argues, “the lack of enough consonants in the Latin alphabet to represent many ‘no-European’ Ethiopic phonemes and the fact that the Latin alphabet does not have enough vowel letters to represent all seven Ethiopic vowels.” (p. 156); The author, of course, comes up with some kind of redemption of the deficiency by providing “diagraphs uniquely developed for Ethiopic” as shown on Table 9.6 and Table 9.7 (p. 159)        

The author’s concerns of fusional language and the intricate nature of the Ethiopian characters is understandable, but it is equally important to critically examine the richness of Ethiopic as a result of fusion that in turn gave power to the Ethiopian language to evolve complex allegorical and symbolic as well as literally expressed phrases and sentences generally known as Wax and Gold; the wax is the literal meaning and the gold the figurative meaning of a word, a phrase, or a sentence. The ancient Ethiopians and the geniuses who invented the Geez alphabet were venturing at discovering meaning in existence, and it is for this reason that most Ethiopian languages are fusional and hence sometimes they pay a price with heavy morphemes embedded in them, that are invariably difficult to identify.


However, I don’t see any contradiction between Lou Kahssay’s elegant and pristine ideas of language reform and my idea of jealously guarding and preserving the Ethiopian alphabets. The analogy and/or parallel that can reinforce the above rationale could be what I call ‘renovating landmarks without altering their basic structure’. It is in the latter sense that Lou Kahssay’s book should be embraced by all scholars who might advance pro and con ideas in language reform.

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