Hither & Yonder, Then & Now
There is this post-modern device of demystifying and deconstructing tingz into their constituent parts then the constituent parts of their constituent parts. I didn’t like Zeno’s paradox the first time I heard it as an undergrad philosophy minor; I weary of hearing every generation’s iterative attempts at restating it. Motion is possible.
This device is used to say many of the human categories we say exist (i.e. language, sex, ethnicity, the cosmos itself) don’t. That is not what I am saying. But there is not just Amharic. There are Amharics. I have learned this from my healthy collection of different Amharic translations of scriptures, and my legion conversations with Amharic speakers under three different regimes: absolute monarchy, communism, and pseudo-ethno-linguistic federal democracy.
In order to refer to a region or state or province: absolute monarchists say ጠቅላይ ግዛት (Teqlay gizat) total dominion, communists say ክፍለ ሀገር (kfle hager) partition of the country, and pseudo-ethno-linguistic federal democrats say ክልል (kilil) guarded area. There is arguably a fourth regime in child birth and rearing, but it is too soon to tell whether they will create another word or not for this concept.
In order to say doctor, the absolute monarchists say ባዕለ መድኃኒት (baile medhaneet) the one with medicine, or ሀኪም (hakeem) the arabic loan word for wise man. The communists kept just the latter. The pseudo-ethno-linguistic federal democrats say ዶክተር (dokter).
Since they are both loan words from European languages, this case matters less, but there is a general trend of transition from Italian loan words to English ones. This tracks the multipolar world of regionalism that existed during WWII and before, in which the Italian influence on the Horn of Africa had been there for decades. After WWII, and especially after the fall of the USSR, American worldwide hegemony began to takeover in Ethiopia. The absolute monarchists say ኮረንቲ (korentee), and the latter groups say ኢሌክትሪክ (eléktreek).
Under today’s map, we have a blob called the Amhara region. Although there are deep ties betwixt and between them, these were four independent provinces called: ጐንደር (gwender), ጐዣም (gwezham/gwejam), ወሎ/ቤተዐምሐራ (welo/béteamhara), and ሸዋ/ሠዋ (shewa). Each of these would speak Amharic in their own way, and I would add to the picture, the two chartered cities of አዲስ አበባ (adees abeba) and ድሬዳዋ (dirédawa), where the surplus diverse populations surely have had an effect on speech patterns, and generally the people’s language is considered lower brow and ruder and simplified.
But I’m neither a professional linguist nor philologer. Well, I should say I’m not bound to academe, or any institution for that matter. I do pontificate on these subjects publicly, and some of my kind readers buy me a cortado a month, to share their appreciation, and encourage my professional but independent endeavors.
Dr. Mengistu Tadesse of Debre Birhan University says this about the dialects of Amharic:
Based on the current data, it is reasonable to group South Gondar with North Wollo, South Wollo with North Shewa. North Gondar shall be considered as a separate dialect. The Addis Ababa dialect, i.e. the standard dialect, which may comprise the varieties spoken in various cities throughout the country should be considered as a distinct dialect. East Gojjam and the varieties spoken in Dembecha and Feresbet can be categorized as a single but separate dialect from the others. The latter two are located in West Gojjam. With the exception of those two locations, the variety spoken in West Gojjam is mostly similar to the Addis Ababa one.
Now, let’s look at scripture. This is a screenshot (h/t to Zeraf Books which is selling a reprint) of an Amharic bible from the 1800s. It is allegedly the first of its kind, and was produced in my favorite way by an eccentric individual rather than a committee. God bless Abu Rumi, and his adventures in Cairo, Egypt and eleswhere in the Near East. The Lord knows whether he was a monk or a debtera.
I appreciate, first of all, that this version of Genesis (a name from an Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) pays homage to the Hebrew name. Although, they have it as ብርሺት (birsheet) and I would have rendered it as በርአሥይት (berashyt). In the beginning, at the head…
I spied, with my little eye, four oddities of Amharic in these eight verses alone. The first eight verses of scripture. Very instructive. They are: ቀላይ (qelay), ጸራው (tseraw), ጽዋት (tswat), and ሌት (lét). Now, we know in time, but who knows where Aba Rumi is from in space? I’m exceedingly biased, but shewa and gwender have the superlatively literate scholars and the most adventurous, and so, I assume he is from one of those two places. Prove me wrong. I’ll be delighted.
lét, for night, is something I grew up hearing my late great-aunt በቀለች ይነሡ የእኔቢልህ (beqelech yinesu yeiné’beelih) of ጠራ, ሰሜን ሸዋ (Tera northern shewa) say, as in the phrase, lét te qen, night till day, in other words, all the time. She fell asleep with the lord in 2013, in the year of our lord, in her early 80s. Our people’s ages are always estimates and approximations. Perhaps, this is a clue, that Abu Rumi is a shewan. *shrugs*
tseraw and tsiwat are classic examples of what the late great preeminent Ge’ez scholar of academe Getatchew Haile has highlighted as a generally Amharic, and particularly shewan, linguistic transition of words with the harsh s or TS to harsh T. There are also instances of this move from the harsh S or TS to the harsh CH. tseraw means he called upon him/it. tsiwat is morning. There is an interplay between night and day and evening and morning.
qelay is the only one of these four words that I do not hear at all in any Amharic speech today, or in any Amharic writing today. Certainly not in these here fine interwebs developed and created by Al Gore. In Ge’ez, qelay means the depths, or the deep (sea or waters). In Tigriña (zereba aksum), it means lake. Beginning in the Amharic bible of H.I.M. King of Kings of Ethiopia Emperor Haile Selassie, we see this phrase in Genesis 1:2 translated as በጥልቁ ላይ (be’Tilqu lay) upon the deep. This text reads በቀላይ ፊት (beqelay feet), which could be before the deep, using the Ge’ez word for deep, but is more likely the Hebrew idiom upon the face of the deep.
That’s deep. Someone had to say it. And I’m someone.
Anyhoo, language changes over time and space. I find the dirty nitty-gritty struggle to understand these changes helpful in getting the grander clouds’ eye view of the language, and thus the culture, and thus the society. I hope you find these findings helpful as well.
If you do, please share them with others.