Ethiopian history is not three thousand years! (Ephraim Isaac, PhD)
An open letter to an inquisitive young Ethiopian sister
Ethiopian history is not three thousand years!
Dear Beloved Ethiopian Sister,
Thank you very much for your important question about the origin and extent of Ethiopian history.
Thank you for inspiring me to write this response.
I am prompted to write the response to your question in a public forum. I do so because many of your doubting friends to whom you refer would also be able to see my answers.
You write, “Edeminot, I would like to ask you something if you have [the] time. [Many] people … specially the young…have doubts about our 3000 years history … they ask [for] evidence… Some comment that[one ethnic group] wrote the history like they want… [But] they doubt if our history is even 100 years…. Can you suggest [to] me [a] good book… about Ethiopia?Thank you, Sir”[M.B.]
I have always known young Ethiopians to be bright and inquisitive. Over 600 years ago it was written in Mashafa Berhan (please see my own translation The Book of Light, EJ Brill,1973) from Emperor Zar’aYa’eqob (1434-68) time: “all the peoples of Ethiopia are thirsty for knowledge”. So, I am really not surprised to know that our young continue the ancient tradition of our people to be thirsty for knowledge. I am especially happy that they are inquisitive about our common history. May the Almighty bless them and open the door for them to learn and teach.
Right at the outset, let me tell you that the young people are right to say that we do not have a 3000-year history. We have a 10,000-year common history! Going back to about 10,000 years, all the peoples who inhabit Ethiopia-Eritrea-Horn of Africa today had one single common ancestry.
As you probably know, I am a student of ancient Semitic and Afroasiatic languages. So, my answer here to your question about a common Ethiopian ancestry and heritage is based on a sound ground of the study of Ethiopian languages and conclusions reached by the leading international experts of historical linguistics– scholars from Russia, France, Germany, Israel, Australia, USA, et.al. My own Institute of Semitic Studies publishes the major scholarly publication in this field: Journal of Afroasiatic Languages.)
About 10,000 years ago, one single nation or community of a single linguistic group existed in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Horn of Africa. That nation had one culture and one language. For lack of better terminology most scholars call that language Proto-Afroasiatic (PA.)Most, if not all the languages of Ethiopia today, definitely Ge’ez, Oromifa, Amharic, Tigrigna, Afar, Gurage, Hadiya, Kambaata,Somali, Sidamo, and all the other languages known as Semitic and Cushitic as well as Omotic that including Wolaytta,Hamar, Amuru, Boro, Anfillo,Ari,et.al. are branches of oneancient language spoken by one people.
This is not just my view. As I said above,it is the view of impartial worldwide linguists. They are scholars who study ancient languages and the origin of languages objectively and scientifically. They do deep linguistic research objectively and might have not even visited Ethiopia, like some of the subjective (tiraaznataq) social scientists who think they know everything about our country after a year or two of a visit and study, and whose writings often mislead not only our youth but also our educators.
My sister: the study of languages is not social science speculation. The relationship of most of the languages of Ethiopia today and the other languages of the world is based on serious scientific research — a systematic and in-depth comparative analysis of languages and historical linguistics.
As an example, it is easy to find words in Oromifa that are identical to Hebrew or Ge’ez, two closely related Semitic languages. For instance, Oromifa words like ana (I),ati (you), abba (father),lubbu (soul, heart), kalē (kidney), dīmā (red),garā (abdomen, throat) baē (come out, come), simbro (bird), rēti (goat), sa’a (cattle),jir ā (dwell, live),gibē/goba (hill),‘ol (upward),‘akkam (how? like what?), māl (what, why) etc. are interesting proto-Afroasiatic terms that have cognates found also in Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Certainly such specific words point to a strong relationship of one or two languages. They are important, but not even definitive for our basic conclusion.
What really determine the relationship of languages are not only similarities in core vocabularies, but more importantly grammar. It is not the relation of words but the formal analysis and identification of thestructure (morphology) of the languages. In this regard, almost all Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Horn of Africa languages of today originate from one language, PA. We can conclude that the Ethiopian speakers of these languages today descend from one primordial family.
Unfortunately, not on account of their own fault, our young people are not up to date on the study of ancient languages and ancient world history, particularly their own. On the contrary, some half-baked foreign experts of Ethiopia and political philosophy condition them. I elaborate these problems in the following three points: a) reading of available social science writings that focus on our differences instead of on our similarities and common heritage; b)the recent powerful worldwide political philosophies that questioned the validity of our past history and cultures and influenced the world view of the my generation of Ethiopians; and c) the deficiency of our modern educational system going back to the last century.
First the question the youth raise about the origin of our Ethiopian history or the assumption they make about its chronological extent is distorted unfortunately by reading the books of some modern half-baked foreign academic “experts” of Ethiopia,anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists. Unquestioning or trusting Ethiopian students and teachers have transmitted the writings and thoughts of these mostly foreign scholars to our generation of Ethiopians. Many of these fellow Ethiopians, close friends of mine included, are educators in our schools and professors in our universities and leaders in our institutions.
Social scientists make legitimate contribution in their respective fields. However, most of them do not study ancient languages and literatures. So, they often rush into historical, anthropological, and sociological judgments. Their conclusions are based on “field research” or translated documents, conclusions “lost in translation”.
Worse still, anthropologists and social scientists, even some historians, focus on what superficially differentiates Ethiopian ethnic/linguistic groups, not on what fundamentally unites them, or what they have in common.
1. There are two incidents I still remember vividly. In the mid-60s when I was a student at Harvard, I was hired as an Amharic teacher for the Peace Corps. The first night at the dinner for all the teachers, a sociologist asked me where I was from. Of course “Ethiopia,” I said. “No”, he said,“are you Amhara, Oromo, Gurage, or Tigre?” “I am an Ethiopian,” I repeated. “So what language do you speak?” I responded, “I speak Oromo, Amharic, and Tigrinya, Hebrew, know words in Gurage, and know many other foreign languages.” He went on, “So, what is your religion?” I replied, “I believe in One God”. Finally, he was frustrated with me and walked away. Some might say that his motives were malicious. I cannot judge. He could have just been naively inquisitive.
2. In 1967, when I was back home as Director General of the National Literacy Campaign of Ethiopia, I was invited by the students of the then Haile-Selassie I University to speak at the annual meeting of Union of Ethiopian Students. After my talk I was invited to sit for dinner at the table for the student leaders. Our conversation quickly turned to the question of nationalities. One student asked me whether I had read William Shack’s book, The Gurage. I happened not only to have read the book but I even also knew the author personally, so I told him. He said, “I am a Gurage, and I did not know that we Gurages are an industrial people until I read this book”. It was a pity that he had a foreigner to make him proud of his ancestry, as all Ethiopian should know and be proud of their respective heritage or ancestry. Read More