The language of the birds, የወፍ ቋንቋ (yewof kwankwa), is a codified version of Amharic which makes words, sentences and conversations unintelligible to untrained listeners – even more unintelligible some might say.
How does it work? Let’s pick a simple example. ‘thank you,’ in Amharic, is አመሰግናለሁ (amasegenalehu). You take the word, sound by sound, and interweave the syllable ፍት (fet) into it, starting after the first sound, and leaving the last one uncovered. Thus, amasegenalehu becomes afetmafetsefetgefetnafetlefethu (or, አፍትመፍትሰፍትግፍትናፍትለፍትሁ).
There are those who hold that የወፍ ቋንቋ is a futile pastime for high school girls wanting to discuss boyfriends in public and that the language, if it may be called that, is nothing but a childish prank. But they are wrong. It is more than that.
There are others who hold, without the least element of proof, that የወፍ ቋንቋ was first used at the court of Emperor Zare Jacob, who believed that by so doing conversations would not be eavesdropped upon by demons. But this seems farfetched even though we do know that the same emperor had his servants tattooed with the words ‘I renounce Satan’ on their hands and wrists and made it mandatory to bear a cross on the foreheads for all of the inhabitants of the realm.
Some philologists insist that Amharic itself is a language of the birds that came to be so widespread that it superseded the original – much simpler – language. This theory holds that the Amharic we now know was invented by a monk from Waldiba. In this theory, to say ‘thank you’ in Amharic you originally said አም (am). It is only much later that the sequence ሰግናለሁ (segenalehu) was added to confuse and lead astray eavesdroppers and foreigners – and any wayfaring demons. Time passed, more and more people came to use the complex form and the simpler language was forgotten forever – the bird of simplicity had flown the nest, so to speak, leaving us with the esoterically difficult language we now have to cope with.
But these theories seem to twist the very words they are purporting to analyze, making serious study a farce and transforming the whole of Ethiopia into a secret society dedicated to an inside joke. And who could believe that?
One could say to them: ቃላትን አታጣምሙ (kalaten atat’ammu!). Don’t twist words! Or, in the language of the birds itself: ቃፍትላፍትትፍትን አፍትታፍትጣፍትምፍትሙ (kafetlafetten atfett’fetmefetmu)!
Now, try saying that quickly!
This ፍት version is just one of the languages of the birds, and the simplest – the schoolchildren’s version, for the uninitiated. The ድ and ዘ varieties – or should we say dialects? – are much more complicated, and are only practiced by certain anchorites. Mostly when praying out loud, as they do not wish outsiders to learn of their secret heterodoxies. In these languages, not only does the added letter (or better said, fidel) become interspaced between the syllables, but also takes on the vocalic order of the preceding syllable, or fidel. A matter best left to the initiate, believe me.
Note: this post contains Amharic script. If you noticed boxes and squiggles you can install a free Amharic font from here to display the script correctly.