Why is Amharic so difficult to learn? Everyone is in agreement when it comes to describing the language as extremely hard to crack. Amharic-is-an-extremely-difficult-language. Period.
Foreigners certainly believe so – how many farenjis do you know who can say more than ሰላም ነው (selam no) and/or venture a carved up version of ጠና : ይስጥልኝ (tena ysetelegn)?!*
Ethiopians certainly believe so themselves – and sometimes rhetorically ask foreigners if ‘Amharic is not a very easy language, ’ certain as they are that they’ll be vehemently told the opposite. It sometimes seems that Ethiopians are comforted in the thought that their language is impenetrable to foreigners’ clumsy attempts to get their tongues around the difference between a straightforward ተ and an explosive ጠ.
It looks like even the American Institute of Foreign Relations brings some credence to the level of difficulty of the language, rating it in the third tier of difficulty, together with Arabic (but still, below Chinese or Thai).
But… there are many foreigners learning – and speaking! – Chinese, Arabic and even Thai (which rate higher than Amharic in difficulty). This is of course one of the logical reasons given for not learning of Amharic. It’s not a world language. ‘It’s not useful’ you sometimes hear Ethiopians saying themselves, or, paraphrasing the old Amharic proverb, ‘it wont help you cross rivers’ – the original proverb stating of course just the opposite: in some far flung place, if you don’t speak the lingo, you’ll have difficulty getting around. In others words: ‘a local language will get you across the (local) river.’
Then there is the alphabet – or more rightly said, syllabary or abugida – a frightening sight for the uninitiated with its few hundred seemingly complex different signs – but the truth is that the abugida is really quite logical and easy to learn. You can decipher it in an afternoon (Yes! That’s true!).
Then there is the matter of the grammar, with verbs positioned at the end of the sentence and adding particles at the beginning, at the end – and often in the middle as well – that completely change the meaning of the sentence. Confusing? Certainly. Impossible? Not at all.
The level of complexity of a language has never prevented it from becoming a lingua franca or being learnt – English, with all of its difficulties, is a case in point. It should never have become the world language – just, perhaps, as Amharic would not have been your first choice for an (easy) national language in Ethiopia. Amharic, like English, became an important language because it got you across local rivers, and helped you trade and make connections in far places.
But why don’t (can’t?) foreigners learn Amharic? I’d say that it has nothing to do with the complexity of the language. It’s about emotions – those of foreigners, and those of Ethiopians.
Ethiopians are quite content to see foreigners remain on the bank of the linguistic river – in need of a ferryman to cross the river in other words. Foreigners are also quite happy to acquiesce to the idea of the impossibility of the language as:
1. It gets them off the hook – they don’t have to make an effort as it is ‘anyhow impossible.’
2. They can enjoy the feeling of facing a culture shrouded in mystery that remains perpetually out of their reach.
And so it is that in Ethiopia, Ethiopians and foreigners stand on distant shores looking at each other in bewildered mutual wonderment. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we could say that foreigners and Ethiopian are – happily – divided, by their common use of a mangled English lingua Franca. Difficult Amharic? Yes, willfully so.
* This writer had to check his Leslau Amharic-English dictionary not only to see if ይስጥልኝ (tena ysetelegn) contained ‘simple’ or explosive t’s, but also to see what vocalic order they were. Oh well, after only ten years learning the language, what can one expect? Still standing on that river bank, not waving, but drowning…
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.