By Mike Baynham, TLANG Co-Investigator, University of Leeds
A visit to a World Universities Network meeting on Multilingualism in Cape Town, provided the opportunity to stop off in Ethiopia on the way back at the invitation of Abayneh Haile Mengesha, a Leeds graduate now working at the British Council in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is a paradise for the study of multilingualism, the widely spoken national language Amharic, is complemented by regional languages such as Tigrinya, the language of Tigray in the North as well as Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia is engaged in long time stand off and conflict. To the South another significant language is Oromo. A confirmed language glutton I was determined to have a go at Amharic while there and armed myself with a useful little Lonely Planet phrase and grammar book. My language learning started on the Ethiopian Airlines flight from London to Addis when I noticed a phrase at the end of the announcement in Amharic which sounded like “Merkam Berrera”. I took this in context to mean something like “Have a pleasant flight”. I fossicked around in my phrase book and eventually I found that it was actually “Meulkam beureura” and did indeed mean “Pleasant Flight”. Yesss!!! An unexpected delay at Bole Airport in Addis gave me time to look around and made me realize that bilingual advertising is a perfect way to get into the Amharic writing system which is syllabic. So the first successful reading I achieved was Qudus Gorgis Birra (St George Beer) closely followed by Raya Birra (Raya Beer). The consequence of this was that for my first few days in Ethiopia I could order a beer and nothing else. Would I starve? Descend into an alcoholic haze? Fortunately the kindness and English language skills of my Ethiopian hosts meant I was well fed and eventually learnt the word for water (wuha), thus keeping me off the beer. I soon also learnt the important Amharic word for coffee (buna) and was able to opt for it when asked “buna shay” coffee or tea after meals.
Another essential was “eshi” English equivalent OK, but used for greetings and farewells as well as providing feed back in interactions. A kind of all purpose interactional smoother. I learnt to say “Chi grellem” (no problem) when things went wrong. The distinctive Ethiopian greeting between men is a hug involving an enthusiastic bumping together of a shoulder, to be repeated up to three times depending on the degree of affection. Men greet women with three kisses on the cheek. My Ethiopian friends were enthusiastic language teachers and kept teaching me such phrases which I recorded on my iPhone note facility. By the end of the week I was constructing simple sentences such as “Terrara motat beutam yewudallal” I love to climb mountains.
Yes, we climbed mountains! The third day after I arrived in Addis we flew to Mekelle, a regional city in northern Tigray and thence to spend a few days in Gheralta, to climb up into the mountains and visit the rock churches. As we drove deeper and deeper into the fabulous landscapes of Tigray another phrase was added: “Mias gerrem nō” (that’s amazing) also “ygerrmal” meaning much the same thing. My amazement was so constant it became my favourite phrase, harking back to the far off sixties where everything was also “amazing” though for different reasons. My friends smiled. Another essential phrase I learnt was “qes bƏ qes” ( little by little) the first half of a popular proverb “qes bƏ qes inqulal begru yihedal” (Little by little the egg will get up on its legs and walk). Qes bƏ qes became our watchword as we scaled the dizzying heights of the Gheralta mountains and edged along ledges qes bi qes with drops of thousands of feet to the valley below, in order to visit a rock church. The ecclesiastical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is Ge’ez. From it both Amharinya and Tigrinya are descended. Here Kidei, the young priest, guardian of one of the churches we visited shows us one of the ancient Ge’ez texts in his church.
Here in Tigray, although the national language Amharinya is spoken widely, particularly in towns and cities, Tigrinya dominates. So I learnt to say food was delicious using Tigrinya “tu’um” rather than Amharinya “afdal” and to say thank you as “yekan’ele”. Tigray is an area that has seen in very recent memory terrible bloodshed during the civil war. The local market town Hawzien was the site of one of the worst atrocities, when it was bombed on market day by government planes, killing thousands of innocent people. Back in Mekelle we visited the martyrs memorial to the struggle for autonomy of Tigray. In the museum of the struggle all the signage is in Tigrinya and Inglizinya (English). I took the purpose of this consistent translanguaging to be telling the world as well as fellow Tigrayans about the struggle. Looking at the photos on display which ranged from the 70s to the 90s I again noticed translanguaging Tigrinya/English, the English seemed to be linking the struggle in Tigray with international struggles. This led me to reflect on the fact that when we talk about globalization these days we are in effect talking almost exclusively about the global circulation of capital, not the circulation of solidarity in the struggle against oppression. Something has visibly changed. Am I wrong here? Put me right if I am.
Another piece of history and curious translanguaging is a Russian military map of Ethiopia, overwritten in handwritten Tigrinya, a plan to break a sizeable group of Tigrayan activist prisoners out of prison in Mekelle. The name Mekelle is printed in the Kyrillic alphabet, next to it, boldly handwritten in Tigrinya.
Walking through the streets of Addis Ababa and Mekelle there is an enormous amount of bilingual street signage.
Great for the apprentice reader of Amharinya and Tigrinya, but also evidence of the current global dominance of English. Interestingly in a book lent to me by Abayneh about the history in photographs of the city of Addis from the early twentieth century till now, I noticed virtually no English in the bilingual signage evident in the 1920s and 1930s. It was all French, indexing I suppose the cultural and economic dominance of France in relations with Ethiopia at that time.
As well as Amharinya, I was determined to learn a few basic moves in shoulder dancing, a characteristic dancing style of Ethiopia. My chance came in after dinner dancing at a restaurant in Mekelle. My friends were generous though I thought I looked like a chicken trying to flap its wings. Video available on demand.
So I left Ethiopia with regret, shoulder bumping and hugging the security guard outside my hotel with whom I had made friends, muttering a farewell “eshi”, weaving through the complex Addis traffic to the airport, past instantly readable signs for beer, the smell of coffee everywhere, promising to be back soon. So much to see, so much to learn. Qes bƏ qes.