Interview with Dr. Getatchew Haile
Senamirmir: Would you share with us your current research on Ge'ez and other languages.
Dr. Getatchew: There are quite a few Ge'ez and some Amharic texts which have relevance to the history of our country in general and the Christian Church in particular. I have studied, edited, translated, and published a few of them. I would like to continue doing this. The study of old Amharic interests me very much. I have studied some texts in 18th-century Amharic, more than any scholar I know. I have some articles whose completion awaits my attention. The problem is there are not many texts in old Amharic; the few there are what one finds copied in the margins and covers of manuscripts of Ge'ez texts. These are not always legible because they are worn out.
Senamirmir: What led to the demise of Ge'ez from a spoken language?
Dr. Getatchew: I do not know. I do not even know who its speakers were. But it is natural that languages die out when their speakers, especially their children, speak the language of the majority in their neighborhood. In the case of Ge'ez and many similarly disappeared languages, the culprit is Amharic, Tigre, and Tigrean in the north, and Amharic and Oromigna in the South. The disappearance of a language is tragic for anthropologists but highly desirable for the unity of the nation. Does not the Bible say languages were created to be divisive?
Senamirmir: It seems that the general belief is that Ethiopic script originated from Sabaean or South Arabian script. Is there any relationship between proto-Ge'ez (the language) and any of the Sabaean languages?
Dr. Getatchew: There is similarity between the Sabaean (or South Arabic) script and the Ge'ez fidel . They are clearly related but no one knows the nature of their relationship. Did they both come from one origin, as I believe they did, or is one of them (which one?) a descendant from the other (from which one)?
We do not know what proto-Ge'ez looks like. Scholars have proposed that it is the ancestor of the Semitic languages found in Ethiopia, including Ge'ez. But one thing is clear to me: the fact that the Ethiopian script is similar to that of the Sabaean languages has influenced scholars to assume a closer relationship between Ge'ez (or proto-Ge'ez) and South Arabic. This assumption would have not been taken as a firm fact if the Ge'ez fidel was similar to the Hebrew or Arabic or Syriac script. In short, I do not see the closeness of Ge'ez to any of the South Arabic languages being greater than to Arabic or Hebrew.
Senamirmir: What is the state of Ge'ez as a language and what holds for its future?
Dr. Getatchew: The trend is that it will give way to the modern vernaculars, to Amharic and Tigregna in particular. I mention the two languages because they are Ge'ez's natural inheritors. However, Ge'ez, though a dead language, will live forever because a great deal has been written in it. Scholars will come to it again and again.
Senamirmir: Before the advent of the modern state in Ethiopia, what was the medium that helped Amharic to expand?
Dr. Getatchew: When was the advent of modern state in Ethiopia? Amharic owes nothing or nobody to its expansion. It did it on its own. The Church was against it because it was, as it still is, a threat to Ge'ez. Amharic gained prominence when the Aksumite dynasty was overthrown and the royal family took refuge among the Amharic-speaking population. Although the successor to Aksum was the Zague dynasty, the "legitimate" claimants of the throne who took shelter among the Amharic-speaking population must have become Amharic speakers, giving a significant privilege to Amharic. Since then, and especially since the claimants regained (restored) their authority in 1270, as the Solomonic dynasty, Amharic expanded slowly but consistently. The fact that the ruling class became Amharic speakers must have attracted Amharic speakers to the palace as functionaries and non-Amharic speakers to adopt it in the course of time. Another factor is the fight among religious leaders to win the hearts and minds of the people. The "fighters" must have been forced to use it, in place of Ge'ez, in order to attract Amharic speakers to their versions of Christianity. These included the Catholic missionaries, the Orthodox clergy, and later the Protestant missionaries. They all had to use the language of the people they targeted, the Amharic-speaking Christians.
Senamirmir: What were the early writings of Amharic?
Dr. Getatchew: The war songs praising Amde Tsion (1314-1344), Dawit (1382-1411), Yeshaq (1414-1429) and Zer'a Ya'iqob (1436-1468).
Senamirmir: What do you think about the diminishing role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in promoting the Ge'ez language and education?
Dr. Getatchew: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been a religious as well as an educational institution from the fourth through the nineteenth centuries. The reason is clear: the Church needed educated and trained manpower for the execution of her mission. Needless to say, the state, which had no schools of its own, had benefited from this. But in the nineteenth century, the state discovered that it needed people with secular education, an education with a syllabus that differs in many respects from that of the Church's. This has to be done by the states, not by the Church. As a result, children have since a choice of school systems. The Church's role as an educational institution will continue, offering the same education to students who want to serve the Christians with their spiritual needs. Other students, who would have come to Church schools because of no other choice, will go to secular schools. That is how the Church's role seems diminished. In fact, their education should have not been the Church's responsibility in the first place.
Senamirmir: What is the role of Ethiopian scholars in the scholarship of Europeans who are credited with "authoritative" works on Ethiopian languages and literature system during 17th to 19th centuries? Were they, indeed, "assistants"?
Dr. Getatchew: Investigation, in the form of research and exploration -- resulting in discoveries and inventions -- is a highly revered tradition in the Western, especially since the Age of Enlightenment, while it has not been so in Ethiopia. Our fathers have honored the tradition of learning from their fathers and teaching what their fathers have learned and taught them. There was little room for doing research other than to understand the spiritual and symbolic messages of the Bible. When Western explorer met Ethiopian teacher, each did, at the encounter, what he/she did by tradition: the Western scholars asked to explore, and the Ethiopian scholars answered to teach. This means that what happened at the encounter could be explained in more than one ways. As far as the Ethiopian is concerned, he was the teacher and the explorer was the student. In the mind of Western investigator, however, he is an explorer, worthy of an award, and the Ethiopian could be an informant or assistant. Whatever happened, the result is of immeasurable valuable. Ethiopia became known in the world and respected by it as a country of respectable heritage because of what these explorers and researchers published. They did not do it because of love for Ethiopia but to have a place in the prestigious world of scholarship. James Bruce did not risk his life because he loved Ethiopia or because the river Nile was in desperate need to be discovered, but because the adventurous explorer needed the fame. However, many of them fell in love with their subject, Ethiopia. Furthermore, now that Ethiopians too have joined Western scholars, adopting their system of research, it is incumbent upon them to cooperate in the field of research and to correct the errors some may have made.
Senamirmir: Given the long history of writing tradition, why are we denied to know our writers, scholars, philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, religious leaders, and others of the past? Are we doing enough to discover them?
Dr. Getatchew: As I said while answering the preceding question, the revered tradition was to teach what we learned. The teachers themselves were not the subject, but their teachings. They produced works they thought were important to preserve the Orthodox faith: the omnipotence and omnipresence of the immortal God, salvation and eternal life or eternal condemnation in the other world, the power of the saints and angels given to them by their creator. To that end, our fathers have written on Christology, and have composed lives and miracles of the saints and an enormous amount of beautiful hymns and chants to God and his saints. We do not know much about the authors themselves because they did not tell us who they were. Self-denial is part of our religion. In fact, this is Christianity in its higher form. But at least we can learn a great deal about Christianity and the history of our country from what they wrote. The lives of saints are important sources of history, and the hymns are beautiful. On the other hand, the sources suggest that explorations in medicine, creative art other than painting, and astrology were not encouraged by the Church. This was true also in the West, but the scholars in the West were in a better position to defy and challenge the Church.
Senamirmir: What was the contribution of the Zagwe dynasty to languages and literature? What was the dynasty's official language?
Dr. Getatchew: Not much, unless future discoveries prove me wrong. Some are, in fact, suspected of destroying the Orthodox literature that connected the Yikunno Amlak dynasty to Aksum. As far as manuscripts are concerned, nothing of importance has survived the Aksum and the Zague. What happened to the books written during the Aksumite Era? The credit for the growth of the Ethiopic (Ge'ez) literature as we know it today goes to the Yikuno Amlak/Solomonic dynasty which succeeded the Zague. The Zague rulers could not even preserve the territorial integrity of the country. Ethiopia during their time was not much different from the Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes, when each petty mesfin ruled a principality). Motelemy devastated Shoa when the country was under the Zague. But they were very religious people with interest in the art of building. Four of the rulers, Lalibela, Neakkuto Leab, Yitbarek and Harboy or Gebre Maryam, were priests and are among the saints of the Church. The written language was, of course, Ge'ez. But the Palace spoke Agew.
Senamirmir: How close was Ethiopia's relationship to Egypt that it affected its languages and social life?
Dr. Getatchew: Ethiopia's contact with Egypt was through the clergy. The metropolitan (the archbishop), Ethiopia's spiritual head, was a Copt (as Christian Egyptians call themselves) until the middle of the twentieth century. He came to Ethiopia with his entourage of Copts. And Ethiopian monks went to Egypt and the Holy Land. These contacts were the means of Egyptian (Coptic) influence on Ethiopia. It was limited to the literature and the spiritual leaders' thought process. The style of Ethiopian clerics in writing is highly influenced by the Copts' Christian Arabic.
Senamirmir Project, 2001