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The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Oromo. Not as simple as ABC

Oromo is the most commonly-spoken first language in Ethiopia. 

There are Oromo speakers in nearby countries, too, and all together the language (or languages, because there are various varieties of Oromo) are spoken by about twenty five million people (though I've also seen that figure quoted as forty million).

The alphabet in which Oromo is written down is, and has always been, a deeply political thing.

The Oromo language was first written down by slaves in the 1840s, and these people used the Roman alphabet, but in the 1870s the conquest of Ethiopia by the Emperor Menelik gave rise to a decree that the Ge'ez script should be adopted by all the languages of the country.

That state of affairs carried on for about a hundred years but then, after a military coup, the written Oromo language switched back to the Roman alphabet again (the Roman alphabet was already being used by Oromo speakers outside Ethiopia, and it was also used in areas controlled by the Oromo Liberation Front). The switch back to the Roman alphabet happened in 1991.

But recently something odd has happened. The Oromo language is still written in Roman letters, but the order of the alphabet has been changed. It now starts L A G I M Aa* S.

The educational authorities claim that a USAID funded study on early literacy in Ethiopia recommended this change. The educational authorities, when challenged, also came up with an additional reason for starting the alphabet with an L: it's the commonest initial letter for Oromo words... 

...except that L isn't the commonest initial letter for Oromo words (it's actually thirteenth commonest: very close, as it happens, to L's traditional place in the alphabet, which is twelfth). Additionally, the USAID study didn't suggest that the order of the alphabet has anything to do with Ethiopia's literacy problems. (It largely blamed the habit of the children and the teachers of not turning up for school, and for the fact that even if you do turn up the schools have hardly any equipment.) 

So why has the change really happened? 

There are those who say it's to isolate Oromo speakers from the rest of the world, and so to disadvantage Oromo as a written language. There are those who say it's been done by people still sulking about the 1991 decision to revert to the Roman alphabet.

I don't know one way or the other. But I rather think that the limited amount of money the educational authorities have might be better spent not re-writing text books, but making sure that their schools have any books at all.

Word To Use Today: politics. This word comes from the Greek politēs, citizen, from polis, city.

*Aa is a long A sound, as in father.

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