The Will to Misunderstand Qubee, Afaan Oromoo
By Abbaa Gaarre, May, 2017
A number of articles concerning the use of the Latin alphabet (Qubee) to write Oromiffa have been circulating especially in Habesha web forums quite for a while. Although discussing Oromo matters in Ethiopianist circles without involving Oromos is an affront to the Oromo people, I desisted from commenting them, knowing that such forums do not entertain non- ethiopianist views. In addition, the articles were not framed to arouse genuine discussion but only to put through the respective author’s conclusions or dictates as to which script should be used for Oromiffa.
I am tempted to write this piece after reading Baysa Waqwaya’s response to some of these articles titled, “የቁቤ ጉዳይ የማይቸግር ለቸገራቸዉ “አፍቃረ-ኢትዮጵያውያን” and the response he got from Teferra Dinberu and lately from Mooloogeta Wudu. The main focus of arguments for or against adopting the Latin alphabet for Oromiffa must have been a linguistic analysis and technical pros and cons. Instead, almost all of the articles criticising the use of Qubee focus on side issues, non-issues and other unrelated (historical/political) matters to make their vacuous arguments look plausible. Without going into the details of the other articles, I would like to concentrate on Dinberu’s latest piece, since, in my opinion, his article represents the theme of all the other Ethiopianist writers. Later, I would try to elucidate why Fidel is not suited to transcribing Afaan Oromo.
The main thesis of Dinberu’s piece is: “የላቲን ፊደል መጠቀሙ ሕዝቦቻችንን በቀላሉ አንዳይግባቡያደርጋል“, i.e. using different scripts for the languages in Ethiopia hinders understanding between the peoples. Following this logic, Mr. Dinberu would understand Chinese if it is just written using the Ge’ez Fidel, but he fails to read Oromiffa simply because it is written using Latin alphabets. Latin alphabet is not completely foreign to people in Ethiopia who have at least completed their elementary education. As far as I know, English is taught in schools starting at grade 3 (using the Latin alphabet!), and the language of instruction in higher education is English (although some of the instructors speak only broken English laced with Amharic that creates problems for expatriate students and students from non-Amharic speaking areas).
Knowing the language (and also culture and psychology) of people outside one’s own cultural domain is what brings understanding among peoples, but not the script used to write their language(s). Is this fact lost on intellectuals like Dinberu and co., or are they intentionally concocting empty rhetoric to confuse the people they intend to inform? After all, the literate few had monopoly on information in Ethiopia, and they used this monopoly to hold the uneducated masses hostages of their opinion making. Is the unwarranted propaganda war against Qubee of Dinberu et al. on this line of thinking?
In the same writing, Dinberu laments that Oromo children do not get jobs because they cannot communicate in Amharic. In his twisted reasoning, he actually tries to blame the victims for their predicaments. What he describes here as difficulty in getting jobs is a classic case where language is used as an instrument of discrimination, oppression and subjugation. For Dinberu, making Amharic the only official language of a supposedly federated country of various peoples and languages is an incontestable divine ruling. On the other hand, that Oromiffa, the official language of a federal state that is the economic backbone of the country and with the largest number of speakers, is not considered as a federal working language, does not bother Dinberu and co. Instead, he and his likes cry for the one language – one people – one culture policies of bygone brutal political systems.
Forgetting what he wrote a few lines earlier, and covering up the oppressive language policies of present and past Ethiopian despots, he bemoans that language is a non-discriminatory instrument of communication, “ቋንቋ ዘር፤ ሃይማኖትና የፖሊቲካ ልዩነትን ተከትሎ የማይወረስ አድልዎን (discrimination) የማያውቅ የመግባቢያ መሣሪያ ነው።”. Is it lost on Dinberu that not language per se, but how a language is used in state policy is what results in political discrimination, cultural oppression and economic alienation? The Oromo and other subjugated peoples are struggling against such repressive and discriminatory language policies. But Habesha intellectuals try to portray such a struggle as hate campaigns against the Amharic language. Professor Getachew Haile laments in one of his recent articles: “ለአማርኛ ባህል ቢደብቁት የማይደበቅ፥ እንደ እሳት የሚያቃጥል ጥላቻ አለ።”. Through distorting the just quest of the Oromo people, these intellectuals try to veil their hidden agenda – the return to their brute political and cultural domination dismantled a quarter century ago. Otherwise, the Oromos’ use of a fitting script to write their own language could not have been such a highly politicized issue in Habesha circles for so long.
Mr. Dinberu shows his boundless cynicism in such words as: “ኦሮሞኛ ቋንቋ ላለፉት ፫፻ ዓመታት በነፃ ሲስፋፋ የቆየበትን ዕድል አሁን ደግሞ በብሔር/ብሔረሰብ ድንበር ሲከለል እድገቱን ይገድበዋል እንጂ ስለማያሳድገው የዋህ ወንድሞቻችንና እህቶቻችን ኦሮሞዎች ሲጉዱ እኛም ወንድሞቻቸውና እህቶቻቸው ጉዳቱ ስለሚሰማን እንዳለየን ማለፍ እይገባንም።” He presents the failed attempts by Abyssinian regimes from Minilik to Derg to destroy the Oromo language and culture as if Oromo literature was developing in strides, while depicting the struggle of current Oromo generation to bring back Oromiffa from oblivion as a hindrance to the development of Afaan Oromo. In addition, he calls Oromos learning in Oromiffa “የዋህ” and Wudu calls them “ጅሎቹ የጥላቻ አራማጆች” – meaning fools that have been lured into learning Qubee. When the humanist Oromo welcome everyone and treat them as their children, the belligerent ones like Dinberu call the Oromo, “የዋህ”, “ሞኝ”, “እረኛ” – imbeciles, fools, herders, etc.. When the Oromo rightly question why they are being pushed around in their own homes and homesteads, the same groups start howling “አክራሪ”, “ዘረኛ”, “ጠባብ”, “ጎጠኛ” – “extremists!”, “racists!”, “narrow nationalists!”, “regionalist!”, etc, etc. How much can the Oromo take and for how long?? How many Oromos went to Gurage country and erected a kiosk? How many got a farmland in Gojjam or a plot of land to erect a hut in Gondar, or how many are working as government employees in Maqalle? Habesha hypocrisy is nauseating!
Instead of criticizing TPLF’s misguided policies, Mr. Dinberu and co. recommend that Oromos drop learning in their mother tongue and adopt Amharic instead – a dream of diehard colonialists that will never materialize. This is like for a physician to prescribe suicide as the best remedy for his patient who caught some viral infection. For a child, learning in his/her mother tongue is a basic human right, and basic rights are neither revocable nor negotiable.
The so called federal structure, had it been truly federal and democratic, must have been open to all its constituencies, and its working language must have given equal opportunity to all its citizens. If Ethiopia is to treat its entire people as equal citizens, a federal language that favours only a certain sector of the society is not acceptable. Either a foreign language that treats all equally, say English, shall be used, or all the official languages in the regional states shall be made federal languages. However, TPLF’s political agenda from the outset is not democratizing Ethiopia, but the colonization of other peoples in the empire as is anchored in its founding manifesto. TPLF saw the majority Oromo as the greatest obstacle to this grand scheme and set out to destroy them as a people. For the last 25+ years, the TPLF followed a policy of systematic murder and plunder in Oromia that is now overflowing onto other regions. Although the Oromo people and the OLF have been the main targets of TPLF’s fascism from the beginning, bigoted Habesha intellectuals still blame in part the Oromo and the OLF for crimes the TPLF perpetrated and is still perpetrating in Oromia and elsewhere.
Back to the issue of Qubee: If people like Dinberu, Professors G. Haile and H. Larebo are so concerned that using different scripts for the different languages in the country endangers Ethiopian unity, then why not adopt the Latin alphabet for Amharic (and Tigrinya) instead of Fidel as Baysa suggested and as some Habesha intellectuals also recommended? There are precedents. The proud Vietnamese had their own script, but to keep pace with modern technological developments, they adopted the Latin script instead. The Turks were the bearers of Islamic civilization for a number of centuries and used the Arabic script to write Turkish. But at the turn of the last century, they found out that Arabic script is inadequate for their language and reverted to the Latin alphabet as well. So instead of pushing Oromiffa to use a totally unfit script (see below why), why not adopt Qubee for all languages in Ethiopia if using one script can be a cure to Ethiopia’s chronic ills?
Most of the articles debate about history and politics that have little to do with adopting Qubee, but none of them go into the technical limitations of Ge’ez in writing Oromiffa. For example, Leuleqal Akalu, in his Amharic article explicitly begs for political (rather than technical) debate, reasoning that: “ለኦሮምኛ መጻፊያ የላቲን ፊደል የግእዝን ፊደል ተክቶ እንዲሰራበት መሆን የለበትም። ምክንያቱም የኦሮሞ ተወላጅ ምሁራን የኦሮሞ ሕዝብ ቋንቋውም ሆነ ሕዝቡ ኩሻዊ መሆኑን በሰፊው ጽፈዋል“, i.e. Oromiffa should be written using Ge’ez, because the language and the people are Cushitic! But he did not explain why being Cushitic demands using Ge’ez (a supposedly Semitic script) for writing. Other scholars, Professors Fikre Tolossa and Haile Larebo among them, outside of their field of competence, have “certified” Ge’ez to be well suited to Oromiffa. Prof. Larebo, in his interview on ESAT reasons that Ge’ez Fidel is suited to any language in the world, because it has a symbol for every syllable. I am not a linguist to know how many sound tones or syllables the world languages have in total, but surely no one in his right mind would say 250, the approximate number of symbols in Fidel. Fidel does not even have a symbol for the Oromo/Cushitic ‘Dh’ (as in ‘dhadha’ or dhidheessa’) or the Latin ‘V’ as in Visa. Anyway, Larebo’s reasoning is like saying that Roman numbers (and also the Habesha numerals) are superior to the Arabic numerals commonly used today, because the former practically sets a unique symbol for every number, whereas the later uses only 10 literals or digits. Roman or Habesha numerals could be adequate for people who need to count only up to 44, but I did not expect that Larebo belongs to that category. How would Larebo imagine algebra, geometry, calculus and the other sciences and engineering using Roman numerals?? Or is knowledge for Larebo only reciting what has been written on Biranna?
Why Ge’ez is unsuitable to write Oromiffa
Most if not all of those that adamantly argue saying Ge’ez must be used for Oromiffa are either non-speakers of the language or people who have never written a sentence in Oromiffa. My arguments below are not to convince people who are immune to logic or who have shut their minds to rational thinking, but for people who genuinely question why Qubee was adopted for Afaan Oromo.
Let’s begin with an example. Excluding the pejorative term some Nafxenyas and their puppets still use to designate the Oromo, 3 different terms (camel, travel provisions, return journey) would be transcribed as “ጋላ” using Ge’ez Fidel. In the sentence: “ጋላ እሳት ጋላ ፌአቴ ጋላ ካኤ“, since all the 3 words are nouns, “ጋላ” at each position can have any one of the 3 meanings even repetitively. Seen mathematically, this would result in 3x3x3 = 27 possible sentences. Worse still, the term “ካኤ” can represent 2 verbs (started/stood up or put down), compounding the problem further. All the possible combinations may not make sense, but the reader is forced to reread the sentence multiple times to reduce from 54 sentences to fewer logical alternatives. That still leaves the reader with huge uncertainty as to the intended message the writer wanted to leave behind.
The above sentence is not some freak combination. The Oromo language is full of word doublets, triplets and even quartets that would have a single transcription in Fidel. As a non-linguist, I myself could list more than 120 such word pairings out of memory. Worse still, verbs and their conjugations pose another category of problems. Pronominal and tense forms of many verbs are differentiated only through intonation of the endings. For example “ኛቴ”, could stand for ‘nyaate’ (he ate, በላ), ‘nyaatte’ (she ate, በላች), as well as for the indicative forms nyaatee/nyaattee (upon eating …, በልቶ/በልታ), etc. That goes also for other forms of the same verb, e.g. nyaatan/nyaattan (they/you (pl.) ate, በሉ/በላችሁ). Such difficulties run through all conjugated forms of many verbs, especially of those verbs whose stem ends with ‘t’, ‘d’ or ‘x’, like “hate”, ‘fide’, ‘fixe’, etc. Since the verb alone can carry the sense of the sentence in Oromiffa (as in Amharic), reading a complex sentence written using Ge’ez becomes a burdensome detective work rather than a reading pleasure. Large texts become totally unreadable, and it is therefore, impossible to write a story, let alone develop Oromiffa literature using Fidel.
This alone is a K.O. criterion and no other justifications are needed for rejecting Fidel. But let’s see the other arguments of the proponents of Ge’ez for Oromiffa. The aspect some people cite against Qubee is the resulting length of words. Let’s take the same example Dinberu used to argue against the excessive word length when transcribed using alphabet. Taking his extreme example, “ተማሪ” uses 3 symbols as compared to 8 of “tamaarii” (although the right Oromiffa word is ‘bartuu’ or ‘barataa’). Because of the different symbol sizes, the transcription in alphabet is not more than 1½ times as long as the word in Fidel. So, texts written using the Latin alphabet may maximally be 50% longer than it would be if Fidel is used. But, seen seriously, what is the use of a page of gibberish as compared to a page or two of clear text?
There is also another side to this argument that the proponents of Fidel want to gloss over. In the era of computers, information is exchanged mostly in electronic form, rather than in print. Qubee uses basic ASCII characters, which require only one byte to represent each in computer memory, whereas Fidel lies in the 4-byte extended codepage like that of the Chinese and other symbols. Therefore, the word ‘tamaarii’ actually requires 8 bytes of memory whereas its Fidel equivalent consumes 12 bytes or 50% more memory space.
Another, more practical advantage of using Qubee is the fact that no new software or hardware is required to compose a text in Afaan Oromo. One can jump onto any computer and type his message, since every modern computer has the ASCII character code as its basis.
I won’t say much about the idea of modifying Fidel to suit Oromiffa as some groups entertain, because that amounts to trying to reinvent the wheel. Even if that ever becomes a necessity, we would rather continue from where Sheh Bakiri Saphalo has stopped.
The motor to modern day quick technological advancements is modularization and finding simple but versatile components for products in industry and commerce. The role of such technical components in revolutionizing industrial products could be likened to the simplicity and versatility of the (Latin) alphabets and Arabic numerals that revolutionized our ideal (soft) world. To buy a gadget, no one asks as to whose idea lies behind its invention as far as the gadget fulfills the desired function. Similarly, who invented an alphabet or numerals will not be a decision criteria to choose a suitable script for our language.
One can find a technical solution to a political problem. I have never heard of a political solution to a technical problem, however. (Of course one can shoot and bomb, but that is not a rational solution except, may be, for Nafxanyas). Failing to grasp this simple fact, some Ethiopianist elites are still beating the political dead horse. Please dismount and move on! As is amply demonstrated above, what type of characters to use to write Afaan Oromo, is a technical problem. The Oromo have found the best technical solution – Qubee. No amount of political haranguing can produce anything as valuable.
The proponents of Ge’ez may continue uttering bla bla (or bala bala as Germans put it) with the sentence” ባላ ቶኮቱ ባላ ባላ ቀቡ ባቴ ካራ ካራ ካራት ባቴ ባላ እራ ቡተ”, but Oromos give it a meaning using qubee; “Ballaa tokkotu, baallaa baala qabu baattee, karaa karraa karaatti baatee, balaa irra buute!”
Since I am immune to insults, please don’t try!