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Northeast African Studies 6.3 (1999) 75-88

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Conflict of Ethnic Identity and the Language of Education Policy in Contemporary Ethiopia

Teshome G. Wagaw
The University of Michigan



This paper examines the current language policy of Ethiopia, especially its significance for the educational systems of the country. 1 The policy in its present form was proclaimed in 1991 after the present government drove out the former Marxist-Leninist military junta that had ruled the country for the preceding 20 years. 2 The language policy, along with other human rights and ethnic-related policies, was incorporated into the new constitution that took effect in 1996.

The language policy provides for Ethiopia's more than 90 language groups to develop and use their respective languages in the courts, in governmental and other political entities, in cultural and business communications, and in education. The policies do not, however, specify which, how many, or in what order the languages should enjoy priority in governmental support for further development, nor do they hint at any limits as to the number and extent of the languages. In the absence of such specifications, the presumption is that all of them should have the right to find the necessary resources, whether through competition for governmental support or through other means. Practical considerations would suggest that given limited resources in the country or any given linguistic community, the law should provide some guidelines to balance the ideal and the practical. It does not do this; consequently, eventual conflict among the tribal groups is almost certain. [End Page 75]

The Antecedents

The classic notion of Ethiopia as a "museum of peoples" is legitimate, when one considers that Ethiopia is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world and remains to this day a multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual country. Amharic, arguably the most ancient written African language on the continent, has been the official language of the Ethiopian state since 1270. Its precursor, Ge'ez, is the liturgical and devotional language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the language of literature and learning for those who pursue vocations in the church. Ethiopia's present population of almost 65 million speaks at least 70 different languages and many more local vernaculars. 3 For the most part only Ge'ez, Amharic, Tigrigna, and Oromigna are written languages. The number of first-language speakers of the numerous other languages is also relatively small, as shown in Table 1.

According to the data presented in Table 1, some 33 percent of Ethiopians speak Amharic as their mother tongue. Perhaps 80 percent or more of the total population speak and use Amharic either as a first or second language. Between 40 and 50 percent speak a variant of Oromigna, the language spoken by the second largest number of mother-tongue speakers of an Ethiopian language. Tigrigna is the mother tongue of some 6.07 percent of the population. The other languages are spoken by relatively smaller segments of the population. Some of these, especially those identified by linguists as Ethio-Semitic, Amharic and Tigrigna, share similar characteristics and derive from the same Ge'ez roots. The other languages are very different from one another, and most have not as yet developed their own written characters. The issues surrounding whether the existing Ethiopic syllabary or Latin alphabet should serve as the basic characters are very complicated, and the question a matter of great controversy. Since any decision would have political implications, and since the constitution limits the power given to the central government, any action taken potentially has grave consequences for communal development and for teaching and learning within the national polity.

Oromigna, in all its variation, lacks its own alphabet and has a very limited modern literature. Over the last couple of decades, a controversy has arisen among Oromigna scholars and politicians. Some, in their effort to develop Oromigna as a language of work and learning, have argued that using the Latin [End Page 76] alphabet instead of the Ethiopic syllabary would enhance the language and empower mother...


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