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Senamirmir Projects: Interview with Ato Girma Getahun

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Aleka Desta's Life
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Senamirmir: No Amharic dictionary has been published after KBT and YAMQ with the level of collection and quality exhibited in them. Is this because we don't need Amharic dictionary anymore or are there other explanations?

  • KG = Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis
  • KWK = Aleka Kidane Wold Kifle
  • DTW = Aleka Desta Tekle Wold
  • KBT = Kissate Birehan Tessema
  • AYMQ = Addis Yamarènya Mezgebe Qalat

Ato Girma Getahun:  Yes, we need Amharic dictionaries which cater for beginners, advanced learners and professionals. We need dictionaries with newer editions to keep up with the development in the language and literature. Yet, the only monolingual Amharic dictionary published since AYMQ is AQM mentioned above. The latter is a product of a collective effort, and it was supposed to benefit from being a successor to KBT and AYMQ, as well as from decades of research and development in vocabulary and literary outputs. Despite all these advantages, however, the work is neither richer in vocabulary or meanings, nor is it informative in etymology, proverbs/sayings, idiomatic expressions and orthography. It is poorer in its organizational methodology for word entries, having adopted syllabic-based rather than consonant-based alphabetic order.

Several other monolingual and bilingual dictionaries have been published over the decades since AYMQ. However, these were by and large specialist dictionaries for neologisms in politics, philosophy, science and technology.

A revised and updated edition of AYMQ is long over due. In my opinion such an edition should adopt the ha-le-he-me alphabetic order whilst retaining the consonant-based word entries. With a revision of definitions to correct errors and include modern nuances and with inclusion of popular neologisms since the 1970s AYMQ can become an indispensable reference material for years to come. This undertaking however requires a dedicated team with a financial backing.

Senamirmir: As an author, what has been the most difficult challenge for you?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I can hardly consider myself as an author. Yet, from limited experience in efforts to promote children’s literature and Amharic orthography, the absence of established and well-resourced publishing firms is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing authors. Their absence is a manifestation of a more fundamental problem: the low level of material and intellectual culture in the country. Novices and well-known authors face the daunting tasks of financing the writing, printing and distribution of their own books. With no editors, proof readers and literary critics ensuring the quality and merits of a manuscript and with no guarantee to sell even a few thousand copies of the published work authors have to labour in a risky and discouraging environment.

Senamirmir: Senamirmir asked this question in the past, it is here again. Why there are only few books published by Ethiopian authors?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The answer to Q.2 should also serve here. Less than half of the population of the country is literate (including the semi-literate). Of these a very small percentage can afford to buy books for leisure reading and for self improvement. Few authors can manage to live on proceeds from the sell of their books, if at all. The overwhelming majority of cities and towns do not have public libraries, many elementary and secondary schools function without them. Is it any wonder that few books get published in the country? In fact the few books published by authors nowadays are printed in small print runs than at the time of the Derg, the only exceptions perhaps being political works such as the self-exonerating and sensational interviews of Mengistu Hailemariam, a butcher of the Ethiopian youth of the 1970s.

Senamirmir: Lack of effort in educating the public, the inadequate marketing and distribution system, and financial strain appear to be part of the problem for Ethiopian writers. Do you agree with this view?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Poverty is the prime cause of the low level of material and intellectual culture. For millions of people on the margins of survival literacy is a luxury they cannot afford. The literacy campaign of the Derg, lauded internationally, was short lived; the high rate of elementary schools enrollment achieved by the current regimes is also undermined by high rate dropouts. Such efforts by the state and communities are hampered by abject poverty. Also no amount of marketing strategy, succeed without the financial empowerment of the poor.

This is not to deny the advantages of raising the awareness of the literate/educated public by drawing attention to their own poverty of reading culture, and to their lack of understanding of the disabling environment within which Ethiopian authors and literary figures operate.

Senamirmir: Can you give us a summary of what the challenges are for today's authors?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Writing creative literature suitable for children/young adults; mutual support to fill the void created by the absence of publishing firms; diversifying the genre of creative literature; working for the establishment of a standard orthography are some of the challenges facing today’s authors.

Senamirmir: Do we have your word now, when your book--the translation from Aleqa Teklé’s Chronicle is published, you will comeback and share about it with Senamirmir community?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Yes, gladly. It would be madness to refuse a generous promotional offer!

Senamirmir: What is something unique we should have, but haven't learned from Aleka Desta Tekle-Weld?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Three things come to mind: orthography based on etymology; critical love/respect for indigenous languages and body of knowledge; and the preservation/promotion of them with reforms which are informed by linguistic science and a greater understanding of other Semitic languages.

Senamirmir: Spanning about two decade between 1955 and 1970, four major dictionaries were published; all of them by Ethiopian scholars who were educated by Kasse-Gedame-Orineted schools. It is safe to say that there hasn't been a similar work with that magnitude by anyone else since then. What do you make of this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Assuming that these dictionaries are KBT, AYMQ, Yamarènya Sène Qalat (YSQ) by Tefera Werq Armèdé’s (1954/5), and Amarénya beAmarènya Mezgebe Qalat (AAMQ) by Liqe Mezemèran Moges Uqube Giyorgis (1967/8), the compiler of YSQ was educated in modern schools and university. He probably also served as minister of education in HSI reign, though I could not confirm this from verifiable sources at the moment. Moreover YSQ and AAMQ are smaller works with limited vocabulary and basic definitions. Another work which is even smaller than the latter two, but which should be mentioned in connection to the period is yeAmarènya Metsèhéte-Qalat (Part 1) by Mesfèn Lèssanu (1959/60).

Admittedly no publication of comparable size and comprehensiveness to that of KBT and AYMQ have been published since the 1970s. But it is not safe to claim no dictionaries of the smaller types have been published since 1970s. For example Addis yeAmarènya Mezgebe Qalat by Efrém Aseffa Weredewerq (1999/2000) and AMQ mentioned above were published in the last decade. The latter is especially notable since it provides definitions for some 25,000 carefully chosen main and subentries. Its provision of definitions, etc. also follow modern lexicographic techniques. A syllabic system of word entries, the dropping of homophone letters of the alphabet, and the deliberate omission of well established neologisms make it a disappointing work though.

Senamirmir: The four dictionaries the question refers to are 1)Mäshäfä Säwasew Wä-gess Wä-mezgebä Qâlât Häddis (MSGMK) by KWK 2)Mezgebä Qâlât; Tigrigna—Amharic (MKTA) by Aba YOHANNES GABRA EGZIABHER; 855pp, [1949Eth, 1957Gr], 3)KBT, 4)AYMQ.

Ato Girma Getahun:  A clarity in the original question could have avoided the misunderstanding here. Either stating the four dictionaries or inserting a descriptive phrase such as ‘monolingual and bilingual dictionaries’ could have been helpful. As it stood the assumption of monolingual Amharic dictionaries was unavoidable both by interviewees and readers.

Now, in comparison to the two monolingual dictionaries (KBT and AYMQ) and the two bilingual dictionaries (KWK and MQTA) no lexicon has been published that match them in quality or comprehensiveness. The only one that come close and deserve mentioning is the aforementioned AMQ. However, for its main deficiencies and limitations pointed out above AMQ cannot deserve to be in ‘premier league’ along with the four.

Senamirmir: Most of linguistic books, related to Ethiopian languages and published in the last 15 years, were by scholars from countries other than Ethiopia. Can you comment on this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I am not sure about the veracity of the statement which formed the basis of the question. Even if we ignore dissertations, senior student essays, articles published in journals and proceedings, it is still doubtful if more books published in the last 15 years were produced by foreign scholars than by Ethiopians.

Publication is also partly a function of having access to resources. I believe scholars from developed countries always fare better in this respect. The resources made available to them by institutions and funding bodies are immeasurably better than those made available to Ethiopian scholars at home or abroad.

Senamirmir: Aleka DTW writes "I have in mind that I will publish another dictionary with lexicon collection that includes animals, plants, and regions and people names with their definitions". It appears that this plan wasn't materialized to the end in his lifetime, but are you aware of any work to fulfill his dream?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not know any substantial monolingual Amharic glossary, let alone specialist dictionaries of plants and animals. Nor do I know if there is a project to make DTW’s wish a realty. In complete absence of any ground work to allow compilation of such dictionaries, the task was too ambitious even for the indomitable DTW to undertake in the 1970s. Taxonomy of Ethiopian floral and faunal resources, and a development of Amharic technical terms were/are requirements if dictionaries are to provide reliable definitions or scientific descriptions to Amharic names of plants and animals. Leaving other considerations aside, developments in these respects were lacking in the lifetime of DTW.

Notable developments in the last two decades include the publications of A Glossary of Ethiopian Plant Names by Wolde Michael Kelecha (4th ed., 1987); Science and Technology Dictionary by Academy of Ethiopian Languages (1996); The Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea (8 vols. 1989-2003?); and small booklets on fauna, such as Ethiopia’s Endemic Birds (1980).

With such resources it is now possible to compile specialist Amharic dictionaries of flora (and to a less extent of fauna) which may serve as basis for subsequent compilations of more comprehensive dictionaries.

Senamirmir: In summary, how do you put the legacy of Aleka Desta Tekle-Weld?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Thanks to DTW, and his predecessors, KG and KWK, a good foundation has been laid for two cornerstones of Amharic language: an impressive lexicon and orthography based on etymology. These legacies can serve as bases for future edition of dictionaries and standardization of spelling of Amharic, rather like the service rendered by Samuel Johnson’s dictionary to English lexicon and orthography.

Senamirmir: Finally, thank you so much; it was an honor to have you at Senamirmir.

Ato Girma Getahun:  Thank you.

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© Senamirmir Project, 2006