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Interview with Dr. Getatchew Haile

Senamirmir:   What are the writing systems used in ancient Ethiopia?

Dr. Getatchew:   Which period is "ancient Ethiopia"? The inscriptions (the texts on stones, written before the advent of the parchment) are in Greek, Sabaean, and Ethiopic (Ge'ez).

Senamirmir:   Is not Ethiopic script syllabic?

Dr. Getatchew:   Perhaps a few words to define "syllable" may be necessary before answering this question. A word can be divided into consonants and vowels and/or into syllables. A system that has symbols for the consonants is called consonantal, and a system that has symbols for the syllables is called syllabic. A syllabic writing system recognizes only the syllables and creates symbols (diagrams) for each of the syllable. It neither recognizes the consonants and the vowel nor creates symbols to represent them. In that sense the Ethiopic writing system is not syllabic. Most symbols of the Ethiopian writing system, that is, most signs in the "fidel" , represent a consonant and a vowel, not a syllable. For example, bu, bi, ba, be, bo, are each a pair of a consonant and a vowel. In the Ethiopian writing system, each of these pairs is represented by one symbol. You have to identify these symbols as signs representing a consonant and a vowel. But they are not necessarily syllables; if they are it is just accidental, which happens only when a combination of a consonant and a vowel produces a syllable, which is not always the case. For the sake of illustration, let us have these one-syllable English words: "bay", "bed", "sun", "girl", "sink", and "germ". As we can see, the first three have three letters and the last three have four letters. But they are all words of one syllable. See how the dictionary divides them. If so, a syllabic writing system would use one symbol for each. But since the English (or the Latin) writing system is not syllabic, but consonantal, it used a combination of consonant and vowel symbols to represent them. This is true also of the Ethiopian writing system. Even though each of the six words ("bet", "bed", "sun", "girl", "sink", and "germ") is of one syllable, one would use more than one sign to reproduce them in Ethiopian fidel . In Ge'ez and Amharic, "sar" ("grass"), "bet" ("house"), "ayn" "("eye") are words of one syllable. If you can write each of these with one symbol of the Ethiopic or Amharic alphabet, then the system is syllabic; if not, it is not. As you know, you need two letters for "sar" and "bet" , and three letters for "ayn". Let us have more examples: the words "meskel" ("cross"), "sibket" ("preaching") and "sigdet" ("prostration") are composed of two syllables: mes.qel, sib.ket, and sig.det. If you can write each of these words with only two symbols of the Ethiopic or Amharic alphabet (i.e. one symbol for each syllable) then the system is syllabic; if not, it is not. You need four (not two) symbols (i.e. letters) for each of these words. Our system is consonantal like the English, not syllabic.

Senamirmir:   Do we know the history of Abugida and Halehame alphabet order? Why was the Halehame order accepted over Abugida? Does it make a difference?

Dr. Getatchew:   In principle a language does not need more than one order for the symbols of its alphabet. In that sense, one of them, either Halehame or Abugida, is redundant and superfluous. For me, the redundant and superfluous one is the Abugida order. I do not think that its introduction goes far back into history. I believe it is a recent copy of the Hebrew order of the alphabet, made most probably by Aleqa Kidane Wold Kifle, who used it for ordering the words of his Ge'ez-Amharic dictionary. The other order, the Halehame, on the other hand, could be as old as the alphabet itself. Which order the system should we follow today is not important. It does not make any difference as long as the order is universally taught to avoid confusion. But it is interesting to know, if we could, why we Ethiopians follow this order, Halehame, while the other sister languages follow the "aleph bet" (alphabet) order. Second, there is no need to destroy history. We have to stick to our Halehame. Third, the letters have numerical values, given to them according to the place they have in the alphabet. This, regardless of its importance, requires the preservation of the order. There is no need for disrupting the "kokeb qotariwoch" ("star gazers"), who tell us about our future by calculating the values of the letters in our names.

Senamirmir:   What is the future of Ethiopic script? If it should be adopted by languages that require some "modification", what should be done?

Dr. Getatchew:   The future of Ethiopic script is as bright as you and I want it to be or as bleak as opponents of anything Ethiopian and the cultural revolutionaries want it to be. If its opponents take power and control the national education, they will suggest writing Amharic in Latin script; a parliament with handpicked members will issue a decree and their judiciary will enforce "the law of the land". People will complain for a few years, the school children, faced with the choice of being literate or illiterate, will gradgingly comply.

Modification is not wrong. All scripts are modified when adopted by a language. Initially an alphabet is created to fit the linguistic sounds of the language for which it is created. That in itself is a modification, albeit of the raw material. People create only as many symbols as there are linguistic sounds in the concerned language. When a nation or an ethnic group decides to make its language a written one, it either modifies one of the existing alphabets or creates a new one. The greatest discovery of mankind is the idea of picturing (or painting or writing) the linguistic sounds, not the production of the pictures (the letters) themselves, which anyone can do. There is nothing wrong if the Ethiopic script is modified. In the past it has been modified more than once, e.g., to use it for writing Ge'ez, and later for writing Amharic. More examples could be given.

Senamirmir:   Is it safe to suggest that the Ethiopic writing system was nurtured and protected by Ethiopian Orthodox Church until the advent of modern state?

Dr. Getatchew:   Yes. Education started at religious institutions. Using education by the government came much later.

Senamirmir:   Sadis-bet fidel at (the six order forms) in the Ethiopic script have been the subject of intensive researches for their peculiar characteristics. If you can tell us more about them. What would be a possible explanation for lack of uniformity in their forms compared to the rest of the orders, ge'ez, ka'ib, salis, etc.?

Dr. Getatchew:   There is another important point to be made in this connection. Initially, the symbols were created only for the consonants. The crafters never thought of creating signs for the vowel. They thought if every word was written with the consonants only, the reader would have no difficulty in supplying the vowels from his mind while reading. So what they created was the first order (called Ge'ez) to represent the consonants. Creating the vowel signs, or modifying the consonant signs to represent both the consonant and the vowels, was done much later in the history of the Halehame or fidel, when it was found that one cannot depend on the intuition of the reader. At the time of this (second) modification, those responsible for the modification made one serious mistake. Instead of keeping the consonant signs (I mean the first row) for the sound that does not need a vowel, they assigned it to the sound that needed the vowel "e". So, when writing, for example, the name "beqele", they made us use the first row that has no vowel sign (the "leta" letters). If they were thinking correctly, this, written in the "leta" letters, would have been read "bql".

Now that they have assigned the "leta" symbol (the symbol that has no vowel sign) to the service of the sound that needs the vowel "e", they had to think how the sound that does not need a vowel should be represented. For example, the "l" and "g" in "belg" have no vowels. If the "leta" symbols were not taken, we could write them as the English do, with what we now call "le" and "ge". Therefore, they have to create "vowel signs" or modify the first order to represent the sound that does not need a vowel sign. The result is the "sadis" forms. Therefore, one can say that the problem started when they exchanged the place of the first (ge'ez) order with that of the sixth's (sadis). The first, with no vowel sign attached to it (the "leta" ones), should have been "sadis", because the "sadis" has no vowel, especially when it closes a syllable, e.g. when it comes at the end of a syllable or a word.

Now let me come to your question. The "sadis" indeed looks confused. It became confused for of two reasons. The inventors (the modifiers) had followed a system, more or less, when they created the "sadis". That system has been violated in the course of time. The "sadis" of the seventh century is slightly different from that of the modern time. Second, the problem the inventors faced was where on the "leta" symbol to add the "vowel" sign. By the time they came to "sadis", after adding signs for "ka'ib", "salis", "rabi'" and "hamis", the places on the body of the "leta" symbol, called "ge'ez", had taken. So, they placed it wherever there was a free space. The vowel sign is a small sign that took a shape like capital "L". You can see it on many of the symbols; and with many, it has lost its original shape in the course of time.

At any rate, the question is important only for historians, because for the school child it does not matter. For the child, each of the seven forms of a letter is as strange as the other and as is independent of the others. The child's responsibility is how to grapple with the result, not with the theory. If you remember, we all noticed the lack of any system or uniformity much later in life when we started questioning everything that is given. On the whole, the mistake was done when the people who introduced the vowel signs decided to attach the signs to the consonant signs, instead of keeping them independent and leaving the business of combining them to us. We could have combined them by putting them independently side by side as other nations do.

Senamirmir:   How distinct are the "Ha" , "Sa" , "Tsa" , and "A" in Ge'ez?

Dr. Getatchew:   They were very distinct, but today few people know the distinction. I have not met yet an Ethiopian liq that knows how to use them correctly. By this, I am not blaming any one. These symbols are confused even in the epigraphic sources, indicating that we lost some sounds at least as early as at the beginning of writing Ge'ez. The teachers have not made the effort of teaching the right spelling which researchers have reconstructed with the help of sister languages.

Senamirmir:   In Amharic writing, the letters indicated in the previous question represent the same sounds; however, their use seems to lack uniformity and generate dispute. Is there a clear line?

Dr. Getatchew:   As I said when answering your question 4, people create only as many symbols as there are linguistic sounds in the concerned language. They do not invent more than one symbol for a sound. In other words, there were initially as many symbols as there were linguistic sounds that the inventor observed in the language for which he tailored an alphabet. In the course of time some sounds disappear from the language (leaving their symbols behind) while new ones could appear. This is what happened to Amharic. Invention of new symbols or modification of the existing ones would solve the second problem, as Amharic, indeed, did. But what do people do in the first case? You would say they should discard the symbols of the disappeared sounds. They do not need them if their sounds are not there. Well, that is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, the books preserve them. The sounds have indeed disappeared, but not the words. So how would a literate person in Ge'ez and Amharic read the books with letters that he has not been taught? Second, there is a sentimental attachment to them. I, for one, will miss them as much as one would miss an aspect of one's culture.

Yes, there is lack of uniformity in spelling Amharic words. I have seen many letters addressed to me with my father's name (Haile) spelled in endless (and awful) ways. However, the dispute is not because there was no uniformity in the mind of the people who invented them but because of the ignorance of their users today. They confuse them because no one taught them how to use them. Just imagine an English-speaking child taking up writing a composition the day after he mastered his a, b, c! He would not go very far, not anywhere near what a child who mastered his Halehame would do, which is what we do. As soon as we know the fidel , we write Amharic, without learning how to spell Amharic words. Our problem is how to use these few letters. We need teachers to make us literate before we complain. Our problem is not different from that of the Israelites. Unlike the Arabs, we (and the Israelites) have lost the linguistic sounds that were supposed to be represented by five symbols -- the two of the three "h"s , one of the two "a"s , the one of the two "s"s , and the one of the two "ts"s . And unlike the Israelites -- who preserve them, learning how to use them -- we proposed to discard them because we are not literate in them. The effort should not be how to eradicate letters but illiteracy.

Senamirmir:   Do we know how Amharic borrowed Ethiopic script and who did it?

Dr. Getatchew:   You probably have seen Amharic words written in Latin script. Suppose this practice continued until writing Amharic in both Ethiopian fidel as well as Latin script became finally normal. Would the generation that came after the event know "how Amharic borrowed Latin script and who did it"? In the days when only Ge'ez was the written language, it was quite normal for the chroniclers and other men of pen to insert Amharic words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in their Ge'ez compositions. They gradually started writing an entire piece, such as a poem, in Amharic, using the Ethiopic (i.e. Ge'ez) scripts.

Using Amharic as a written language was a revolutionary event. Only a few communicated in Ge'ez at any given time in our history. Using Amharic in communication meant communicating with the Amharic-speaking population, a quantum leap in our political and social history. The answer to question 5, under "Language", has to be revisited at this point.

Senamirmir:   What was the impact of Gragn Mohammed's destruction on Ethiopic script and to documents written with the script?

Dr. Getatchew:   Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi did not destroy any Ethiopic script. Ethiopian rulers did not destroy any language either. Only now do we see the present rulers aspiring to restrict the use of Amharic because it is one of the factors that united us as a nation. They attack Amharic because it is an impediment to their aim of creating mini states out of one Ethiopia. What the Imam did was destroy Christianity, which included burning churches, monasteries and Christian manuscripts (books). That was a destruction on an epic proportion. The country never recovered culturally from that devastation. On the other hand, the Imam was one of the few rulers who were able to create a united Ethiopia, which was much larger than the Ethiopia of Atse Haile Sellassie. So there is a significant difference between our present rulers and the Imam on the question of the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. The major thing the Imam and the TPLF have in common is that both are enemies of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

Senamirmir:   What was the writing system used by Gragn Muhammed?

Dr. Getatchew:   Imam Ahmad was a Muslim who spoke Arabic and Amharic, in addition to his tribal language. I would assume that he used Arabic script for Arabic. His chronicler, Arab Faqih, wrote the Futuh al-Habasha ("The Conquest of Ethiopia" by the Imam) in Arabic. He would not write about the exploit of the Imam in a language that the Imam could not read. Amharic was rarely used as a written language at that time. So I would not say he used it in writing as he spoke it. He was clearly in communication with Libne Dingil, the Atse of Ethiopia who he pursued. I do not know if this was done through letters or oral missives. At any rate, his rule was not firmly established to think of communicating with his subjects in writing. He was on continuous war with Ethiopia.
Senamirmir Project, 2001