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The Case for the Reform of the Ethiopic Script
Unique in Africa, Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest civilizations with its own writing system that has been in continuous use since antiquity. The Ethiopic script, also called the Giiz (Ge’ez) script, has seen many revisions throughout its millennia-old history, which have improved it significantly, and is long overdue for another (and perhaps last) revision.
There have been very few great civilizations in history without a writing system or without a writing system that didn’t improve overtime. Writing is one of humanities greatest inventions, if not the greatest invention ever, but one that grew and became more sophisticated with human progress. In a sense, writing was not (and could not have been) invented overnight—it had to go through thousands of years of development involving several civilizations and countless generations including ours.
Writing as we know it today, in which, human thought or utterance could be encoded and made available for others to read and reconstruct the original thought or utterance to some degree of accuracy was a relatively recent development and was independently developed by at least two ancient civilizations—in Mesopotamia (3,200 BC) and in Mesoamerica (300 BC). The Sumerians of Mesopotamia (in what is today Iraq and parts of Syria) developed the concept of writing more than five-thousand years ago laying the foundation for most scripts of the world, including all the Semitic scripts and the European scripts in use today.
Starting from Cuneiform scripts (and, in other areas, the Egyptian hieroglyphs), the writing systems started to change eventually branching out in Ancient Axum and the Middle East into more developed forms of scripts, including the ancient Semitic scripts of the region. In Ethiopia, the script developed into Proto-Ethiopic, which was the precursor to the Old Ethiopic. Inscriptions in the Proto-Ethiopic script began to appear in northern Ethiopia around 900 BC. Today, stone inscriptions from this era are found among other places in Yeha, Tigiray.
In what may be considered as the first major revision of the writing system, Proto-Ethiopic developed into what can now be referred to as Old Ethiopic in the 1st century AD. Like its ancestor, the Old Ethiopic was an abjad (i.e. a script with consonants only) like the modern day Hebrew and Arabic scripts.
This script did not allow for vowel indications and therefore the reader was required to guess the vowels based on context. Therefore, abbaba (father) and abeba (flower), for example, would be spelled exactly the same as ABB (or EBB). This was because, there were no vowels except the glottal stop (‘) spelled as A or E whenever it appeared at the beginning of a word but almost never inside a word. Like its ancestor, Old Ethiopic had letter names for all 26 of its letters.
The second major revision occurred during the 4th century reign of King Ezana. Ezana modified the Old Ethiopic script by incorporating elements of vowel signs, which it never had previously, to become an ebugeeda (abugida) or alphasyllabary with seven orders called giiz, kaiib, salis, rabii, hamis, sadis and sabii, which are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th orders respectively.
Every consonant was cleverly made into a set of seven characters or glyphs, each of which represented the consonant’s fusion with one of the seven vowel sounds of Ethiopic. The script at this time lost its letter names and became vocalic merely by reflecting the sounds of each of its characters. Although the revision created a world-class writing system for its time, the downside was that the number of characters suddenly skyrocketed to about 200 from just about 26.
The third major revision occurred after the decline of the Axumite Kingdom and the incorporation of new sounds from Ethiocushitic languages. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Amharic and Tigirinya became written languages even when Giiz didn’t entirely cease to be used in official circles. However, the influence of the Agew, Oromiffa and other Ethiopian Cushitic languages was strong enough to create brand new characters to represent new sounds, significantly enlarging the Ethiopic script.
There have also been many other revisions (although relatively less significant), which include new characters created for new sounds adopted from European languages (eg. the sound represented by the Latin letter V) and the ever increasing characters that fuse a consonant with two vowels (eg. lua, mua, rua, etc). Today, the Ethiopic characters number about 276 not including the Ethiopic numerals, the Ethiopic punctuation, and new characters specifically created to represents sounds for many languages in Ethiopia that were previously never written.
Ethiopia’s first alphabetic standard ES 781:2002 (2012) contains a whopping 504 characters, including for new characters for the languages of Awinigee, Mieen, Murisee, Qimanit, Suree, Sebat Beit and Khamitaniga (for the history of the development of ES 781:2002, refer to Yacob, 2005-2006, pp. 121-140). As stated in Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia (2016), such a large number of characters is a “testament to the weakness of the Ethiopic script to accommodate new languages without unnecessarily swelling again” (p. 26).
The complicated shapes and the large number of characters in the script, was first recognized by none other than Emperor Mineelik (Menelik) himself. The tech-savvy Emperor was disappointed to find that the first keyboard that arrived in the nation (which of course was a typewriter with the Latin keyboard) couldn’t be modified at least during his life time to type using the Ethiopic script because Ethiopic had too many characters. Although, Ethiopian innovators eventually devised a method for typing a ligated version of the Ethiopic script, the typewriter for the first time exposed the greatest weakness of the Ethiopic script–its sheer size.
Minelik started the first effort in modern time for improving the Ethiopic writing system, which continued during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. Before and after the Italian invasion, there were many individuals who made proposals for the improvement of the scrip including the proposal to eliminate redundant characters, the proposal to implement similar vowel indicators to all characters in the same order, and/or the elimination of the seven vowelic orders entirely in favour of a true alphabet (with consonants and vowels that will be derived from within the Ethiopic script itself).
Before the development of writing, oral traditions were employed to pass information from generation to generation with a great risk for errors and miscommunication. The invention of writing changed human civilization because it revolutionized the way information was stored, processed and transferred. However, Ethiopic still needs to improve in order to be utilized better in the information age. Ethiopic is not able to properly support today’s computer- and information-dependent society and economy. Often times, our scientists and engineers and architects, doctors and about everybody else revert to the Latin script even to process complex data and other information because without the reform Ethiopic is not compatible with modern technology.
Other than the ability to type on a computer keyboard, currently Ethiopic is not an easy system for word segmentation, stemming, collation, and other computer based processes fundamental to a 21st-century communication. It is for this and many other reasons that Ethiopic must be reformed to be able to serve the modern age like other nations have reformed their writing systems in different ways and for different reasons in the last 100 years (examples include: China, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Somalia, Turkey, and Vietnam).
With respect to the implementation of the Ethiopic reform ideas that have been simmering for more than the last 100 years, there is no doubt that society will always choose the progressive idea once enough people agree with its benefits. The question therefore is not if but when.
* From the publisher of Proposed Language Reform for Ethiopia: Volume I. To contact the publisher visit http://www.threequa.com To contact the author send email to [email protected] or visit his social media page at facebook.com/ethiofeedel