November 20, 2008

Extinction of the Ethiopian Languages Qemant Geez Weyto Quaregna and Gafat

The progressive extinction of the indigenous Ethiopian languages of Qemant,Geez, Gafat, Quaregna and Weyto is discussed. The focus will be on the language of Geez. The extinction of the other four minor languages will reinforce and prove that the cause of the extinction of Geez many centuries ago is still valid today due to the emergence and dominance of Amharic. The main anthropological concepts of culture, language, ethnicity (ethnic group) and environment (adaptation) of these five major extinct languages is discussed.

The QUAREGNA language may have been similar to Qemant or archaic Amharic. There is little information about this language and the people of that area now identify themselves as Amharas. Some still identify themselves as Quara or Quarey due to oral history that identifies them as such.

GEEZ is one of Ethiopia’s oldest languages is Geez and the Ethiopians believe that this language was given to them by God. The speakers of Geez were known as the Agazians and their origin is obscured in the mist of time. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to pinpoint the causes of the decline and extinction of Geez but the hypothesis can be conjectured by analyzing the development of the culture, language, environment, and adaptation of the Agazian people during the changes that took place around 700 A.D. Cultural, ethnic, and environmental aspects of Amharic (South of Geez area) contributed to why this language slowly headed into extinction. The Ethiopians believe that their multi-ethnic society existed during the era of the Pharaohs about 4000 years ago. During this time period, the Ethiopian Agazian (Axumite) tribe spoke their unique Semitic (more correctly Ethiopic) language called Geez. In addition, the Agazians built monuments and governed distant colonies of Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen. The Agazian Empire extended into certain parts of southern Ethiopia too and as a result, much of southern Ethiopia’s population, language, and culture were influenced. According to historians, the Agazian Empire (Axumite Empire) was a world power comparable to the ancient empires of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Persia. The Agazian tribe eventually evolved into three separate major branches of ethnic groups. The following is the list of the three major Ethiopian Semitic languages in the order of being most closely related to Geez: Tigre, Tigringa, and Am(h)arigna (Amarigna) among others. Amharic, the most Southern of these three languages expanded further south while Tigre expanded to the West and Tigrigna remained at the locality where the Geez people originally lived where it was confined by the Red Sea and the lowlands of the Western region of Axum.

GAFAT is another language that slowly headed into extinction due to the emergence and dominance of Amharic. During the reign of Emperor Fasilida in the 17th century, Gafat was the common language spoken among the Ethiopians who lived in the Blue Nile area of the province of Begemder which is now present day province of Gonder. Unlike Geez, the Gafat language is classified as being Afro-Asiatic Semitic while some classify it as Cushitic. The cultural, ethnic, and environmental interaction of the Gafat language with Amharic culture and dominance contributed to why this language slowly headed into extinction. First, the Gafat people were known for being the bravest of soldiers; for this reason, the Amharic speaking Amhara Emperors recruited them as soldiers. Thus, their career as soldiers for the Emperor of Ethiopia (and allies of the Amhara people (Amhara Culture), eroded the Gafat language and culture. Second, since the Gafat people were surrounded by the Amhara people from the North and East, the Gafat people had no choice but to adapt to the culture and environment of the Amhara people. These are very significant anthropological facts because culture is a result between the environment and human beings; therefore, culture is knowledge. Also, culture is a way of survival if human beings are able to adjust to their environment and with each other.

QEMANT is the third major ancient Ethiopian language that slowly headed into extinction due to the emergence and dominance of Amharic. The Qemant are an ancient Cushitic people living in Northwestern Ethiopia near Lake Tana. This language is a branch of another "almost" extinct Ethiopian language called Agaw. Nevertheless, the Amharic language and culture of the Amhara people slowly forced the Qemant people to abandon their language along with their pagan Hebraic religion. The scripts they use is Ethiopic but earlier travellers have reported that there was a script used by the Qemant. In addition there are remamnts of their language within the Amharic type they use in their daily conversations today.

Finally, WEYTO is the fourth major ancient Ethiopian language that slowly headed into extinction due to the emergence and dominance of Amharic. The Weyto lived near Lake Tana where their language was spoken. The hippopotamus dwelt in this region and these animals were used for food and their skins were used as shields for the Amharas (some classify these Weyto as Hippopotamus Culture people). The Weyto tribe practiced their traditional pagan religion and they were not Christians like the Amhara ethnic group. For this reason, the Weyto were not allowed to enter the homes of the Christian Amhara peoples because they believed that their presence would bring them bad luck. The Amharas never learned or adapted to the language of the Weyto. In a sense, the Weyto language was kept a secret from the Amhara peoples so that they could use it as a secret language. Thus, the language of the Weyto people died out and today they are an indistinguishable ethnic group from the Amhara people. This is true because the Weyto adapted to the culture and language of the Amhara. The classification of this language is uncertain; however, it is probably classified as being Eastern Sudanic or Cushitic. In sum, since the Weyto people were surrounded by Amharic speakers, they had no choice but to conform to the major language of Amharic and their Cushitic culture was absorbed by the Amhara culture.

In conclusion, the indigenous dominant language of Amarigna and its Ethiopic scripts expanded from the central province of Amhara. Ethiopia is a multiethnic society with over eighty languages and with over two hundred dialects. Thus, Ethiopia is an excellent country to study the evolution of new languages and the extinction of old ones. In addition, the Ethiopians viewed Amharic as being a language of nobility; for this reason, many Ethiopian tribes desired to speak it, aside for use as trading communication. In other words, the Ethiopians highly esteemed and glorified Amharic and considered it as the language of Kings (Lisane Negus). It is important to know that language is described as being a very complex system of symbols. Language in some sense defines culture; however, language does not define cultural identity. For this reason, it is not possible to know a language without knowing the culture.

References; Emperor Tewodros Ethiopian Library, Washington DC