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Northeast African Studies 6.3 (1999) 89-107

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Linguistic Analysis of the 1994 Ethiopian Census

Grover Hudson
Michigan State University


The first national census of Ethiopia was conducted in 1984 and the second in 1994, with some recounting in Afar and Somali regions in 1996. In addition to information on age, gender, marital status, education, migration patterns, housing, and economic activity type, the 1994 census includes considerable information of interest concerning language (Office of Population and Housing Census Commission 1998). Numbers reported in the census are not actual counts of census takers, but projections based on statistical regularities observed in the actual counts. Information on language was collected in even fewer households than other sorts of information, so it is derived even more as statistical projections (Office of Population 1998, 1:1-5).

In seeking linguistic data, census takers had to overcome politically significant ethnolinguistic sensitivities, as well as confusion presented by the varying names of Ethiopian ethnic groups and languages, and logistical difficulties of reaching and objectively sampling the diverse, multilingual Ethiopian population. In fact, the National Population Policy of Ethiopia (Office of the Prime Minister 1993) says nothing that assigns importance to Ethiopian linguistic or ethnolinguistic differences, which would necessitate the collection of linguistic information by the census. Thus, it is a pleasant surprise to find so much linguistic information in the 1994 census, and important also to observe that this information is generally quite consistent with our usually unquantified and often rough intuitive knowledge of the complex Ethiopian linguistic scene.

Linguistically relevant information is tabulated in six tables in vol. 1 of the national census, Results at Country Level: [End Page 89]

2.14. Population size of regions by ethnic group and sex, urban and rural (66-78)

2.15. Population size of regions by mother tongue and sex, urban and rural (79-88)

2.16. Population size of regions by second language spoken and sex, urban and rural (89-98)

2.17. Population size by ethnic group and mother tongue (99-108)

2.18. Population size by ethnic group and second language spoken (109-18)

2.19. Population size by mother tongue and second language spoken (119-28)

Vol. 2, Summary Reports at Country and Regional Levels, adds little to the above, and discussion here is based on the above tables except as noted. Population sizes of ethnic groups given in Table 2.14 equal those of Table 2 of the Summary Reports but differ by seemingly insignificant amounts from those given in Table 2.17, which equal those of Table 2.18. For example, for the five most populous ethnic groups, Tables 2.14 and 2.17 give the size of total populations as follows:

Ethnic Group Table 2.14 Table 2.17
Amharic 16,007,933 16,010,894
Oromo 17,080,318 17,088,136
Tigraway 3,284,568 3,284,443
Somali 3,160,540 3,139,421
Sidama 1,842,314 1,842,444

Ethiopian Languages of the Census

The most important linguistic information abstracted from the 1994 census tables is provided in Tables 1a and 1b: the 77 named languages of the census plus "other languages," their number of mother-tongue speakers, and their number of ethnolinguistic group members. The census defines a mother tongue as "the language used by the child for communication with his family" (Office of Population 1998, 1:11). Table 1a orders the languages by number of mother-tongue speakers, while Table 1b orders the languages alphabetically. [End Page 90] [Begin Page 93]

It has long been said, as an approximation, that Ethiopia has over 70 languages (cf. Bender et al. 1976, 13), and both the number of languages and the number of speakers reported by the census seem reasonably consistent with what Ethiopianist linguists might have expected; see, for example, the 71 languages and their number of speakers estimated over 25 years ago by the Language Survey of Ethiopia (Bender et al. 1976, 15-16), a list that included two Eritrean languages, Tigre and Beja, no longer significantly spoken in Ethiopian territory. I have failed to...


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