Language – Society’s Glue

I had not seen my childhood friend in a long time when I ran into him not long ago. Enjoying a beer together, we nostalgically chatted the whole time about our idyllic childhood, until he received a call from his colleague and started speaking Turkish.

I would not have been surprised, had he been speaking in French or Chinese or Arabic, but Turkish?

It was so strange that I could not wait until he hung up the phone to ask him how and where he learned the Middle Eastern language.

Beaming at my surprise, he joked, “If it was not for me, we would not have a double digit growth.”

He added that the Turks have a proverb about the importance of language.

“One who speaks only one language is one person, but one who speaks two languages is two people.”

“Meet the Ethiopian and Turkish people, my friend!” he said, pointing his left index finger towards himself and stretching his right hand for a handshake. We laughed out loud.

I learnt that day that he has been playing a decisive role as a field translator in one of the ongoing railway projects in the remote sites of Ethiopia. Later, I read another Arabian proverb which would remind me of a pivotal point in our history.

The proverb read, “Learn a language, and you will avoid a war”.

The seemingly innocuous error in the translation of the Italian text to Amharic that was created in the ‘hastily-signed’ Treaty of Wuchale, was a case in point, and the trigger for the historical Battle of Adwa.

The Italians proclaimed a protectorate over Ethiopia based on the Italian version of article seventeen of the Treaty of Wuchale, whereas the Amharic version claimed otherwise. As a result, Emperor Menelik II rejected their claim and officially denounced the whole treaty; hence a full-fledged war at Adwa became inevitable.

Man is a social animal, and language is the best tool to create mutual understanding and cooperation inside a society. In the twenty-first century, it is not who we are but what language we speak that can make us friends with someone or alienate us from the world at large.

Nowadays, just by having a good command of an international language, one can get many opportunities at a full scholarship, a respectable job, an exotic girlfriend or a business venture with people from all around the world. That is why it has become common practice to make students study foreign languages like English, French, Chinese or Arabic in their summer breaks.

Who would hate learning the languages of the universe, if there are any, let alone the international languages of our planet?

None, I guess. But, there is one thing that usually comes to my mind. As a society, we have the eagerness to learn foreign languages, but not other local Ethiopian languages. A young boy from the Bole district can communicate well enough with an American visitor but may find it hard to communicate with his fellow countrymen whose fluency in the Amharic language is limited.

Another case is the matter of those who are born into a society whose native language is not Amharic but have to learn to speak the language, whether they have an interest in doing so or not, since it is the working language of Ethiopia.

But most people do not want to learn many of the indigenous languages Ethiopia is proud to flout. On social media, everything is written in English and Amharic, but rarely in Oromiffa, Tigrinya or other local languages. This creates a barrier between Ethiopians; we are having a hard time communicating.

As the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once noted, “those who know nothing of others’ language know nothing of their own.”

Therefore, I would say that, by not having an interest in learning each other’s language, we are missing a huge opportunity to ease the tension, to form a strong social bond and national consensus, to solve misunderstandings and embrace our differences and share the ecstasy and agony of each other in one another’s language.

What is worth considering than this?

There is no better story than the one belonging to the famous South African comedian, Trevor Noah, to explain how mastering many local languages is helpful to surviving and thriving, even in a society where racism is the norm. In his new book, Born a Crime, Noah narrates how he used language to handle difficult situations, talking to people in their own native language, breaking the boundaries and becoming “them”, like a chameleon.

He noted, “Language, more than colour defines who you are to people … I may not look like you, but if I speak like you, I am you.”

So, why stick to just one or two languages while we can master four or five local and international languages, and challenge whoever wants to divide us?

By Tsegazeab Shishaye
Tsegazeab Shishaye ( is an electrical engineer by profession and is interested in social issues, Ethiopian history, science and issues that aim at changing the sequel.

Published on Aug 05,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 901]



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