Afaan Oromo

Date: Sun, 26 Jun 94 10:21:09 +0000 Reply-To: Subject: Afaan Oromoo - the Oromo language and the latin alphabet

The Following paper was presented by Tilahun Gamta, Professor of Linguistic Studies at the University of Addis Ababa and author of Oromo/English dictionary, at the 1992 Oromo Studies Conference, and Published, among others, in the Journal of Oromo Studies.


The Oromo, the largest ethnic group, comprise 50%-60% or about 25 million of the population of the Ethiopian Empire State. They are "a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, perhaps, on which most other peoples in this part of Eastern Africa (the Horn of Africa) had been grafted" [1]. Their fertile country, Oromiyaa, located between 2 and 12 N and 34 and 44 East, is 600,000 square kilometers.

Afaan Oromo, a highly developed spoken language, is at the top of the list [2] of the distinct and separate 1000 or so languages used in Africa, the most polyglot of the continents. It is classified [3] as one of the Kushitic [4] languages spoken in the Ethiopian Empire, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Of the Kushitic languages spoken in the Ethiopian Empire State, Afaan Oromo, Somali, Sidama, Hadiya, and Afar-Saho are the languages with the greatest number of speakers.

Afaan Oromo had remained essentially a well-developed oral tradition until the early 1970's when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) began to use it as an official language in the liberated areas. The Front adopted the Latin script as its official alphabet, too.

The adoption of a script for Afaan Oromo had been a burning issue. In the 1970's both Sabean and Latin scripts were suggested. Until 1974 when Mengistu's ruthless regime came to power, writing Afaan Oromo in any script had been banned officially. Although Mengistu's regime lifted the ban and reluctantly allowed the use of the Sabean script, it continued to pay only lip service to the development of Afaan Oromo. For instance, the regime made the teaching of Afaan Oromo illegal at any level in its school system.

About five months after the collapse of Mengistu's regime in May 1991, the OLF convened a meeting of Oromo intellectuals on November 3, 1991. The purpose of the meeting was to adopt the Latin script the OLF had been using or suggest an alternative. Over 1000 Oromo intellectuals met in the Parliament Building at Arat Kilo, Finfinne (Addis Ababa).

After a six-hour deliberation, it was unanimously decided that the Latin script be adopted. Some of the reasons for this landmark decision - primarily linguistic, pedagogic, and practical - are as follows:


Writing [5] itself has passed through three stages of development before reaching the alphabet stage. The three stages are: iconography, logography, and syllabary, each of which is very briefly discussed below:

Iconography consists of drawings of animals or objects. The drawings are disconnected and fragmented, and they are intended to give just a static impression. Later standardized pictures were selected, arranged in a series, and were made to tell a story the same way as today's action photographs do. Iconography was common among North American Indian tribes.

Logography is the use of signs to represent words. In English, for example, whole words such as one, two, three, dollar are, respectively represented by the signs 1, 2, 3, $. The Chinese, which uses a minimum of 4000 characters, is the only language that uses the logographic writing system to date.

Syllabary is a set of characters which represent syllables. A syllable is a part of a word in which a vowel sound is heard. For example, the Oromo word "bilisummaa" has four syllables, namely, bi, Ii, su, and mmaa. In a syllabaric writing, obviously one stage behind, each sign stands for a syllable of a consonant and vowel. Fri the point of view of a linguist who wish to explicate the sounds of a language, one of the major drawbacks of syllabaric writing is that its characters do not represent the vowels and the consonants of a language separately notwithstanding the two are distinct categories.

The syllabary, used in Ethiopian Empire State today, is a very good example of a syllabaric writing. It should be clear that this syllabary is nothing but a progenitor of the script adapted for writing Geez (liturgic), Tigre, Tigrigna, and Amharic. The Sabean syllabary, too, was suggested as another alternative. However, its roughly 250 characters are too unweildly to adapt to Afaan Oromo. After failing to read The GalIa Spelling Book (written in Sabean syllabary in 1884), Cerulli eloquently expressed his frustrations in these words: " ... reading this small book is very like deciphering a secret writing, and it is evident why, for twenty- five years after its publication, its substance remained unknown..." [6]. It must ala be added that the Sabean syllabary not only fails to indicate vowel length and gemination, but also slows down a writer's speed since each symbol, which cannot be written cursively, has to be printed.

An alphabet is a set of characters used to represent the basic sounds of a language, technically known as phonemes. Languages vary "in the number of these basic sounds, from around 20 for Hawaiian and Japanese, to about 40 for English, and over 60 for several languages spoken in the Caucasus. One of the largest number of phonemes is found in the language spoken by a branch of the Southeast Asian people variously known as Hmong or Miao or Meo. The White Meo language has no fewer than 80 phonemes - 57 consonants, 15 vowels, and 8 tones" [7] - The relative height of pitch that is a phoneme of a languages. Being a phoneme, a tone distinguishes meaning.

Afaan Oromo, excluding those represented by p, v, z, has 34 basic sounds (10 vowels and 24 consonants). One possibility is to invent 34 signs corresponding to each of these 34 sounds, an impractical and unnecessary effort. Instead, it was decided that the Latin alphabet be adopted. This decision is historic because the alphabet is "the most highly developed and the most convenient system of writing... readily adaptable to almost any language" [8].

Qube Afaan Oromo, the adapted Latin alphabet, consists of 14 characters as detailed in Table 1.



These 37 characters (or 52 if the capital letters are considered important) can be learned in less than a month. In fact, only 32 symbols (minus the 5 double vowels) a,b,c,ch,d,dh, ,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,m,n,ny,o,p,ph,q,r,s,sh,t,u,v,w,x,y,z, and ?) need be recognized and memorized. For an Oromo learning these signs and the sounds they represent, the task is even much easier. It may take a non- Oromo a little longer because producing the sounds - especially those not found in his/her language - takes time.

In addition to these 32 symbols a learner of Oromo writing system will have to be taught the principles that:

I. two vowels in succession indicate that the vowel is long, e.g. bitaa (left); 2. gemination (a doubling of a consonant) is phonemic in Oromo, e.g. damee (branch), dammee (sweet potato); 3. h is not geminated; 4. the same word can have two or more forms depending on its context, e.g. nama kadhu (ask people) namaa kadhu (ask for people); 5. when it occurs word finally, the single "a" is pronounced schwa (inverted e) whereas it is pronounced (delta) elsewhere; and that 6. understandably, instead of diacritic signs, the combined Latin letters ch,dh,ny,ph, and sh are used so as to align them with typewriter characters.

The learner needs to have only this much information at early stage of his/her lesson. After such a simple, uncomplicated explanation, the learners are asked to read passages written in Afaan Oromo.


Uummata Oromoo/Ormaan hinsaamsiu Dache Oromiyaa/alagaa hindhiichisu Aadaa abbaa kooti/diinaan hinbookessu Nama bishaan dhabe/?annan hinobaasu Afaan koo baleesse/lammii ko hinboossisu Garaa dhaan bitamee/uummata ko hincabsiisu Saba abbaa gadaa/garbicha hintaasisu Sirna demokraasi/Of jalaa hinballeessu Utuun lubbuun jiruu/Oromoo hintamsaasu

(Kumsaa Buraayyuu)


The Latin alphabet was adapted to many languages such as the following:

Germanic languages - English, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch; Romance languages - Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian; Slavonic languages - Polish, Czech, Croatian, Sloven; Finno-Ugrian languages - Finnish, Hungarian; Baltic languages - Lithuanian, Lettish; Quoc-ngu - Vietnamese; and it was adapted to Somali, Swahili, and others.

Qube Afaan Oromo also aligned itself with so many countries that use the Latin script. One obvious advantage of this is that an Oromo child who has learned his own alphabet can learn, say, the form of the English script in a relatively short period of time. Another practical reason is the adaptability to computer technology which gives alphabetic writing "an edge over even the simplest of syllabic writing" [10].

The purpose of this paper is not to rate writing systems. Any script can serve the specific language for which it is designed and used. No one can deny the fact that writing "can never be considered an exact counterpart of the spoken language." [11] In the present Oromo writing system, one letter corresponds to one sound. But, unless accompanied by a well-planned reading instruction, even such a relatively refined alphabet can be almost valueless. As stated, the Sabean syllabary may be very good for the purpose of writing the Semitic languages such as Tigre, and Tigrigna. Definitely, it is not so good for writing Afaan Oromo, a Kushitic language.

It is hoped that this paper has acquainted those who are genuinely interested in the development of Afaan Oromo with of the major reasons for adopting the Latin Alphabet. The decision was made after taking linguistic, pedagogic, and practical factors into account. In other words:

Global functional considerations suggest putting the Latin Alphabet at the top of the list. If familiarity with a script and emotional attachment are taken into consideration, it is likely that all conventional orthography would be ranked first by the people who use them [12].

The struggle the Oromos have made for self-determination has started to pay off. They have adopted the Latin alphabet to Afaan Oromo without fear of incrimination. It is now high time they started writing and producing useful reading materials for Oromiyaa schools and the public, again without fear of an autocrat who used to have an absolute power to censor and censure. Our people have a highly developed oral tradition which, the writer believes, has contributed to the sharpening of their powers of memorizing. In addition, they need to acquire a taste for reading and writing.


1. Bates, Darrell. The Abyssinian Difficulty, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979; p.7 2. Afaan Oromo, Hausa, and Arabic are the top 3 of the 30 languages in Africa with over million native speakers. 3. Joseph Greenberg has classified Afro-Asiatic (also called Hamito-Semitic) languages into five branches:

3.1 Kushitic - e.g. Afaan Orono, Somali,... 3.2 Semitic - e.g. Arabic, Amharic 3.3 Berber languages in Northern Africa - e.g. Kabyle of Algeria, Tuareg of the Sahara. 3.4 The Ancient Egyptian and its daughter language Coptic, now extinct. 3.5 Chadic, spoken in Chad, Cameroon, and Northern Nigeria, although Hausa is used throughout much of Western Africa.

4 Kush or Cush is one of the descendants of Ham, Sheme's brother, according to the Biblical account in Genesis. 5 Just exactly who invented writing, when, and where it was invented is not clear. However, it is generally agreed that "all exiisting alphabets as well as those no longer used, derived from one original alphabet, the north semitic, which probably originated about the 18th Century B.C. in the region of Palestine and Syria". (Americana, p. 561. See note 8 for other details.) 6 Cerulli, Enricho. The Folk-Literature of the GalIa of Southern Abyssinia. Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Harvard University, 1922, p.l5

7 Defrancis, John. Visible Speech: The Diverse Openess of writing Systems, Honolulu: Howaii Press, 1989, p. 9 8 "Writing", Encyclopedia Americana (Vol. 29), Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1990. 9 Double counts has to be avoided. The components of the combined letters ch, dh, ny, ph, and sh are already counted once. 10 Defrancis, p. 268. 11 Gelb, Ignace. A Study of Writing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 15. 12 Defrancis, p. 268.