November 26, 2020

Ge'ez: The Untapped Ethiopian Treasure


Studies show One of Ethiopia’s oldest languages is Geez. The speakers of Geez were known as the…

Avatar: Zemen Mekonnen
By Zemen Mekonnen

Zemen Mekonnen is a Content Creater at Addis Zeybe. She is a graduate from Addis Abeba University School of Law and Governance.

Ge'ez: The Untapped Ethiopian Treasure

Studies show One of Ethiopia’s oldest languages is Geez. The speakers of Geez were known as the Agazians and their origin is obscured in the mist of time. Ethiopia's multi-ethnic society existed during the era of the Pharaohs about 4000 years ago during which the Axumite otherwise known as Ethiopian Agazian tribe spoke their unique Semitic (more correctly Ethiopic) language called Geez. Ge'ez literature begins with Christianity being declared the state religion around 340 A.D. by King Ezana. However, according to the discovery of an archeological site in Ethiopia, Christianity has existed since 100 A.D.

Ethiopian writings date from ancient times (around 300 AD) up until modern Ethiopian Literature. Ancient Ethiopian writings start with Axumite texts written in the Ge'ez language using the Ge'ez script. The oldest known inscription in the language dates from the 3rd or 4th century and is written in a script that does not indicate vowels. History also shows that the Bible was translated into Ge'ez between the 5th and 7th centuries. Another example of the old Ge'ez script is found on the Hawulti obelisk in Matara, Eritrea. But the oldest surviving Ge'ez manuscript is thought to be the 5th or 6th century Garima Gospels.

Texts from the early Aksumite period are religious (Christian) translations from the Greek language. Up until the 4th century, Aksumite royal inscriptions are common in both Greek and Ge'ez; but from 350 onwards, the Aksumite kings increasingly employed only Ge'ez; and it is likely that the translation of the Bible was embarked on soon after. It was completed by the end of the 5th century. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of the Old Testament and 35 of the New. A number of these books are called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal" according to certain Western theologians), such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch, Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, and Tobit. The Book of Enoch, in particular, is notable since its complete text has survived in no other language. 

Addis Zeybe interviewed Hewan Semon, a history student interested in the past 200 years of Ethiopia, Ge'ez as well as the history and cultures of Addis Ababa. Hewan also uses social media platforms to teach the language on a daily basis. Hewan says “Ge’ez manuscripts are our sources of Ethiopian history. In addition to the versatile manuscripts found in the language, monuments coding the legends of kings were also found coded in this particular language.” The legendary king Bazen was supposed to have been reigning at the time of the birth of Christ in his eighth year (one modern interpretation even depicts him as one of the Three Kings who came to Bethlehem). A tomb is attributed to him in the south-eastern necropolis of Aksum, at the entrance to the modern town on the Adwa road. Near the cathedral is a stone on which is written in Ge'ez "This is the sepulchral stone of Bazen"

The contribution of Ge'ez is not only limited to its literature value. Languages such as Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic and several others in Ethiopia adopted the Ge'ez Abugida (geez alphabet) as their primary writing system. There is linguistic evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Ethiopia since 2000 B.C. Although the language ceased to be spoken popularly sometime between 900 and 1200, it continues as a liturgical language; the period of classical Geʿez literature was between the 13th and 17th centuries.

It is very difficult to single out the causes of the decline and extinction of Ge'ez but the hypothesis can be deduced by assessing the development of the culture, language, environment, and adaptation of the Axumite 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 Axumite tribe eventually evolved into three separate major branches of ethnic groups. These ethnic groups spoke languages birthed from Ge'ez: Tigre, Tigrigna, and Am(h)arena (Amarigna). 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 Ge'ez speaking Agazi people originally lived where it was confined by the Red Sea and the lowlands of the Western region of Axum. 

Currently, the language is used for liturgical purposes in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean OTC and Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholic churches. It was spoken in ancient times and especially during the time of the Aksum Empire. The Tigre language is thought to be the closest language to Ge’ez, being 71% lexically similar to it. Hewan describes the historic artifacts Ethiopia has coded in Ge'ez and the value we lose as a nation because of the extinction of the language by stating that "Disappearance of Ge’ez means lack of access to our books and our past. The issue would then include having to depend on very few individuals who are masters of Ge’ez for Ethiopian history. Let us not forget also that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church still uses Ge’ez for its services; it would mean the church would lose access to its books and its knowledge if the language disappears."

National historical artifacts are contaminants of great value. It is how one gets to know one’s  forefather's culture, societal organisation and way of thinking at the time. Preserving historical artefacts helps to honour a certain culture's past and continues to tell the story into the future. These artifacts encompass primary evidence of what life used to be like at the time they were coded. Hewan adds "Ge’ez manuscripts and historical documents form the majority of our understanding of our past."  

Preserving this treasure of a language therefore is unquestionably important. The best mechanisms to do that are teaching this language intensively using different instruments. Hewan says "We could try and learn. We can send our children to traditional schools (yeneta). In my generation, public schools had already replaced the neighbourhood Yeneta but they still exist. We can try and find ways to send our children to them so they learn the language."

On a governmental level, some efforts are being made to preserve and expand knowledge of the language. Wollo University launched the Ge'ez Language and Literature Unit in the BA program in 2011 E.C and started the program by receiving 19 students. Mekelle University has also launched a program to teach the language. Hewan further adds "I’d suggest the government make Ge’ez a fundamental part of the curriculum". History books are prepared from a mass of historical documents and Ge'ez is a component of the Ethiopian history thus she adds "why not encourage our students to learn it seriously as part of the education curriculum"
Hewan says the government should pay attention and even at times adopt the methodology of teachings that are used by traditional teachers. Addressing impediments hindering advancement of the language Hewan adds "Part of the problem is that the modern school assumes its methods are best the Ministry of Education may try to encompass Ge’ez in the curriculum by rendering it to undergo some methodological /pedantic/ transformations.” Hewan concludes stating "I think it is best if we ask for the consul of the traditional teachers of Ge’ez to come up with a means to best teach this language."