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Senamirmir Projects: Interview with Ato Girma Getahun

Up-Close and Personal
Aleka Desta's Life
Aleka Desta's Work
Aleka Desta's Legacy

Senamirmir: If we can start from the term "Aleka" appellation, can you describe what it means; how it is designated?

  • 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:  Addis Yamarènya Mezgebe Qalat (AYMQ, p. 736) provides three definitions of the term: (a) the eldest (of siblings); (b) chief (of a tribe, clan, etc.); and (c) any senior officer, master, commander or a person in position of leadership. In the last sense, especially in the context of ecclesiastical ranking, aleqa is a title given to a ‘vicar’ or administrator of a church, or to one who excels in scholarly achievements on a religious subject. Within the church, the title is perhaps given by a bishop or some other senior cleric in recognition of administrative service or scholarly achievements.

Senamirmir: Can you discuss about Aleka DTW's work both his published and unpublished work?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not have a complete list of his published works. By far the most significant published work is his dictionary cited above. Earlier published works include (3 booklets, the last published in 1935), and the edition of Aleqa Kidane-Weld Kiflé’s dictionary (published 1955/6). DTW’s edition of , another work of KWK, was posthumously published by the Frobenius Institut (1986).

His editions of religious texts for the Artistic Printing Press includes (together with ), and .

As for unpublished manuscripts I have no idea. He had plans to compile Amharic dictionaries of flora and fauna, and of place and personal names (AYMQ p.7). Whether he had actually worked on such projects is hard to say.

Senamirmir: Share with us your view on his Amharic dictionary which was published 1970; the lexicons collection, order and sequencing, accuracy, readability, quality of typesetting and printing.

Ato Girma Getahun:  The first thing that comes to mind in the assessment of AYMQ is degree of comprehensiveness. Over 1200 pages of the dictionary were packed with lexicon of the language including its archaic terms, idiomatic expressions and other utterances, gleaned from published and unpublished sources, oral literature folk songs and day-to-day conversations. Compared to nearly 1400 pages of KBT the length of AYMQ may not seem all that remarkable, especially considering the fact that it came out 11 years after KBT. However, page for page comparison is misleading, since it overlooks important considerations such as whether pages were filled with concise entries and definitions, and whether entries of derived stems were limited to the essentials, and so on.

This brings us to quality of definitions of AYMQ. The dictionary provides concise and precise definitions to the extent traditional church education could allow. Any assessment of the quality of definition which ignores the limitations of educational background of the lexicographer, or the non-existence of a substantial body of indigenous lexicographic works, or the limitations of the language for scientific discourse would be highly biased and anachronistic. The only monolingual Amharic dictionary which came out before AYMQ was the impressive KBT. Compared to the latter, AYMQ has already made tremendous improvement in providing more precise and concise definitions.

Precise definitions are partly a result of a profound understanding of the origins of words and their variation of forms in interrelated languages. AYMQ is furnished with etymological information which provide incite into original meanings and special nuances of the words peculiar to Amharic.

A fourth quality of the dictionary is its consistent orthography, itself a testimony for the author’s discipline and depth of understanding of Amharic etymology.

Finally a radical and one might add linguistically sound, system of word entries. The system which is based on consonantal alphabetic orders was long adopted by European linguists and lexicographers; but Ethiopian compilers of Amharic glossaries or dictionaries, with the exception of KG and KWK, used other methods such as syllabic order, or groupings of rhyming words, two/three/four-letter words and so on. By adopting the consonantal order, following KG/KWK, DTW not only showed his understanding of the non-syllabic nature of the Ethiopic writing system, but also the radicalism to go against ill-informed or misconceived tradition.

In fact it is this radical tendency which may explain why the dictionary could not become a well-thumbed reference work by traditional and modern scholars and the public at large. DTW believed following KG/KWK, in the antiquity or permittivity of the a-be-ge-de alphabetic order. The jury is out on this claim. Nonetheless he was determined to ‘reintroduce’ and popularize the a-be-ge-de alphabetic order against the established and widely used ha-hu-hi-ha syllabic order. This preference was unfortunate as its radical departure from the conventional system hampered its accessibility. The alphabetic order being unfamiliar to many potential users, it made searching for words a frustrating experience. Only those determined to take a moment to learn the alphabetic order and consonantal arrangement of word entries could benefit from its otherwise unmatched resourcefulness.

The quality of printing and binding of the dictionary, as indeed those of KWK and KBT, is impressive. Compared to many current shoddy cost-cutting publications, AYMQ looked like a product of a golden age.

Senamirmir: The depth of his relationship with Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé can be measured by his work in that he edited and published the magnificent Geez-Amharic dictionary by Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé, but do we know if he had collaborated with other scholars?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Not that I know of.

Senamirmir: In his time, was he close to Addis Ababa University (AAU), the highest educational institution in the land at the time, in any matter? Does the university use his work for courses?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Frequent citation of definitions from AYMQ indicates that the lexicon was a standard reference material at the university. However, the etymological orthography DTW strictly observed following KG/KWK was completely ignored along with the a-be-ge-de alphabetic order. Reform minded scholars, teachers and authors both inside and outside the AAU were predominantly inclined to ideas of simplification of the alphabet. Many seemed to have no time to considerations of etymology; to the relevance of ‘redundant’ letters of the alphabet to other Semitic languages of Ethiopia; or to the relationships of Amharic with these and other languages of the Middle East. Given that the ha-le-ha-me alphabetic order was a ‘convention’ used for centuries many did not see a need to change it either.

Senamirmir: For a moment if we may digress a bit; the idea of reforming or simplifying the Ethiopic alphabet has persisted to this day. Certainly, nothing is wrong with the underlying intention, but most efforts gone dry or simply ignored as if the supposedly problem is not vital or chronic. Now, from your experience, do you believe the alphabet system embodies an impediment for learning by any degree? What benchmark do those folks use even to suggest a reform?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The debate on whether we should reform the alphabet continued for at least three-quarters of a century without any satisfactory conclusion. It is far from being concluded at present. In my opinion The debate was doomed in part for the following reasons:

  1. It treated Amharic in isolation, as if the alphabet only matters to Amharic and not to any other Ethiopian languages; (for instance all discussions of reducing homophone characters to one excluded considerations of the needs of Tigrinya, Geez and other languages of Ethiopia, as if the loss of ‘hameru ha’, ‘haylu ha’ or ‘aynu a’ do not matter to these languages).
  2. As explained in my response above (see Q.6C of Part I) the debate had ignored the etymological and phonemic significance of homophone characters.
  3. The assumption underlying the main argument for reform, namely that the alleged cumbersomeness or multitudinous of the alphabet hinders the spread of literacy and learning, has not been substantiated, as far as I know, by empirical studies.
  4. All proposals of reform have excluded a pragmatic approach to accommodate the needs and wishes of major stake holders. One such approach could have been a formal recognition and streamlining of the de facto systems already in place. As in Chinese and Japanese two or three standardized systems can be adopted: one or two simplified systems for non-formal or semi-formal writings (personal letters, messages, Internet usage, etc.) and a formal one based on the complete alphabet and a standard orthography based on etymology (religious and state documents, legal papers, etc.). Whereas such an approach could have paved the way to reach consensus for the achievement of orthographic standard(s); the approach of the reformers have always been to introduce one simplified system by fiat, thereby causing stiff resistance from traditionalists.

It always amazes me to hear the claim that the size of the Amharic alphabet is a hindrance to literacy and learning, especially from modern scholars who know too well that the complications and sheer size of the Chinese writing system did not hinder the achievement of fully literate societies in most of the far eastern countries which use scripts essentially based on it. Yet, the alleged complexities of the Amharic system could not even come close to be compared to the Chinese system.

No, the hindrance to literacy in Ethiopia is not posed by the large number of ‘syllables’ and by the irregularity of their vowel markers. The obstacles lies elsewhere: in poverty, disease, underdevelopment, lack of socio-economic stability and in the absence of good governance.

Senamirmir: Now back where we left off, he was responsible for completing and publishing the Geez-Amharic dictionary, which he credited to Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé and Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis; a demonstration of monumental intellectual integrity and the highest order loyalty to the truth. How common is this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Until the introduction of modern education and the printing presses in Ethiopia, the traditional system of church education was almost exclusively based on oral studies. In the system the teachings of masters were memorized and transmitted to new generations with proper accreditations. As a testimony for the existence of such a tradition one can mention Mel’ake Bèrehan Admasu Jemberé’s in which over 1600 religious poems were recorded as transmitted from generation to generation with accreditation to their composers. Another example may be the work of Negadras Gebre-Hèywet Baykedany (1924) which was posthumously published by his friend Pawlos Menameno. In this respect DTW’s intellectual integrity is remarkable, but not exceptional.

Senamirmir: What do we know about Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis who was an influence on Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis (1825-1908) was one of the great scholars of the traditional school in the 19 century. He was a native of Ankober, knowledgeable in the scriptures and other religious and secular literature. Fleeing from religious persecution he lived in Massawa, Rome and Palestine for many years. In Massawa he compiled a vocabulary which served as the basis for KWK’s lexicon. In Rome he helped Ignazio Guidi compile his dictionary (Vocabulario Amarico-Italiano, Roma, 1901). Exposure to foreign languages, especially to Arabic, Hebrew and Latin, and collaboration with Guidi must have provided ample opportunities to familiarize himself with concepts of modern linguistics and lexicography. KG entrusted the completion of his work to KWK who lived with him for ten years as his acolyte and student.

Senamirmir: In his "Amharic-English Dictionary", Thomas Leiper Kane gives credit to Aleka DTW and KBT saying that if it was not for their dictionaries, his work would have been "a little more than an updating of the available Amharic-foreign language dictionaries". And yet he states the two authors were "without linguistic training". Would you like to comment on this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Kane’s view is neither unique nor groundless. Many modern scholars on Amharic language and literature would share his view. Both KBT and DTW had no modern education. They had no training in modern linguistics and lexicography. However this belies the fact that DTW was much more knowledgeable in etymology and lexicographical methodology than many modern Ethiopian lexicographers who benefited from advanced education in languages and literature. DTW was familiar with the dictionaries of renowned linguists, and learnt from their methodologies. With the exception of the alphabetic order, the system of word entries of his dictionary (as in deed that of KWK) follow their arrangements. Compare his dictionary with Amarènya Mezgebe Qalat (AMQ, Addis Ababa, 2001), a dictionary recently published by ELRC of the AAU to see the superiority of the system of his word entries.

Senamirmir: When Aleka DTW published KWK's dictionary with Artistic Printers, it was with no charge to him and his own dictionary was printed by Artistic also with low budget. No government or institutional backing for his work in anything what so ever; it was just him and him alone. Is there any explanation how he did it? Why our generation failed miserable to follow his exemplary independency.

Ato Girma Getahun:  I am not sure if it was independence which was utmost in his mind when he did it alone. Given the choice he would have preferred to work in collaboration with like-minded scholars who share both the work and financial burdens. In the absence of publishing firms, even today, writers have to do everything on their own: from editing and proofreading, printing, and distributing the self-published works.

What is exemplary is his fantastic devotion to his purpose and his dogged and relentless determination to achieve them. He persevered in a discouraging environment, even when he felt he was fighting a battle already lost.

In any given age, only few would devote their life to some lost, marginalized or unpopular cause, as these demand huge personal sacrifice together with disinterest in material and financial gains. Times have also changed; a highly monetized global economy appears to leave little room for ascetic lifestyle in order to pursue one’s idealism or lost causes.

Senamirmir: It appears that there are only few people who know Aleka DTW and his work and the prospect for better development in the near future is not promising. What seems to be the problem?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Ethiopia’s quest for modernization has unresolved inherent problems. One such problem is to do with the attitudes of the educated and political class who persist in trying to adopt foreign systems of ideas and values without a thorough understanding of their own. A product of western-oriented modern education system, they tend to ignore or denigrate local tradition, ancestral wisdom and customary practices. As a rule they pay little attention to preserving what is valuable in their own society before trying to introduce an alien system lock, stock and barrel. One reason for this attitude could be unwillingness to pay attention to details, since this requires effort, patience and discipline. A blanket reform is easier to advocate than one which is discriminating. For instance instead of learning why homophonic letters of the alphabet exist and what important roles they played in Ethiopian languages, it is easier to advocate the rejection of those considered redundant for Amharic script in isolation. Similarly, it is easier to stick to familiar dictionaries with familiar yet unsatisfactory system of word entries than use those which adopt unfamiliar but satisfactory system. DTW challenges established wisdom; as such it may not become popular with the educated and political class who resent a work which reminds them of their inconsistent spelling, and so on.

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© Senamirmir Project, 2006