The use of Latin Script for Afan Oromo writing is based on scientific evidence

The historical development of Written Afan Oromo and reasons for using Latin Script to Write Afan Oromo*

The Development of Written Afan Oromo  

Afan Oromo is the second widely spoken indigenous language in Africa south of the Sahara (Mekuria,1994; Mohammed,1994). Afan Oromo is widely spoken in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somali, Sudan and Tanzania (Tilahun, 1993). Besides, Afan Oromo has long history of and well developed oral tradition. Despite of this and the size of its speakers as well as its value as widely spoken language in the Horn of Africa, it remained as unwritten language for long period of time. As Tilahun (2006:113) stated “Until recently, Afan Oromo remained an oral rather than literary language.”  This is because of different factors.

Factors that Delayed the Development of Written Afan Oromo

Different interrelated factors have been forwarded by scholars for the delayed and clumsy transition of Afan Oromo from oral to written   language.  For example, Tilahun (2006) indicated that the transition was mainly delayed by Political reason. He further stated that rather than promoting the development of the language, the past governments of Ethiopia discouraged the use of Afan Oromo even from private conversations. Under the consecutive imperial as well as the dictatorial regimes of Ethiopia, writing in other natives languages of “Ethiopia” except Amharic is strictly forbidden. Supporting this, Mohammed (1994:86) stated “— it was not permissible, to write, preach, teach and   broadcast in the Oromo language in Ethiopia until the early 1970s.”

Other linguistic groups are forced to read and write in Amharic by forgetting their own. The Ethiopian governments had neglected and actively suppressed the development of Oromo literature and other groups whose native language is not Amharic. For this reason, Afan Oromo today lacks a developed literature and has less printed materials (Mekuria, 1994:  Mohammed,1994 ; Feyisa,1996).   In addition to the prohibition of learning and writing in Afan Oromo by law by the past Ethiopian rulers, Feyisa (1996) mentioned different factors that impede the development of written Afan Oromo such as lack of trained linguists in the language, lack of Afan Oromo training Academy and lack of suitable scripts. Further, Tilahun (2006) argued the factors could be subsumed under political factor.

Despite the political suppression on the development of Afan Oromo, the Oromos at home and Diaspora, and other interested individuals did not simply accept the suppression condition and look the situation as it is. Rather they made different attempts at home and abroad to overcome the condition and contribute their own share to development of written Afan Oromo (Feyisa, 1996). For example, Tilahun (1996:131) said” Since the early 1970s, Oromo nationalists and scholars have made tremendous effort to develop it as a literary language.”  In addition, before a decade or more, Afan Oromo has been written for various purpose using different scripts such as Arabic, Ethiopic as well as Roman scripts (Hayward and Mohammed, 1981).

Attempts to Write in Afan Oromo by the Oromo People

The history of written Afan Oromo was started in the first part 19th century. Religion especially Christian and Muslim and Oromo scholars played a pivotal role in the development of Afan Oromo literature and writing system. With this regard, Mekuria(1994:91) noted that “Oromo religious leaders and scholars have attempted to make Afan Oromo  a literate language. In1950s, an attempt was also made to develop an alphabet suitable to Oromo sounds.”  The next section illustrates attempts made to develop written Afan Oromo.

Feyisa(1996) and Tafari (1999) stated that the first attempt to write in Afan Oromo was made by Oromo themselves and the first script used was Arabic. This was come to existence through the expansion of religion, especially Musilm among the Oromos. Tafari(1999:113) stated that “After long period of Islamic education and Arabic literacy, the idea of using Arabic alphabet for Oromo language was raised.”  There are different to examples to support this.

Concerning the use of Arabic script to write Afan Oromo, Feyisa(1996) illustrated  that Wallo Oromo have used the Arabic Alphabet to write religious poetry in Afan Oromo. Feyisa further explained that since the beginning of 19th Century Afan Oromo was used as a correspondence among all the Oromo kings and it was language of education in five Jimma States and in Wallo.  In addition, the Muslim Oromos in Arsi, Bale and Hararghe areas used Arabic script to write Afan Oromo. The Arabic alphabet was used basically to write religious poems and praise poems for the Muslim saints. With this regard, Tafari(1999) mentioned that scholars such as Sheikh Ahmed Siraji, Sheikh Mohammad Asi Haba and Sheikh Mohammed Aliy Ta’oo used Arabic script and composed religious poem and different materials in Afan Oromo. Thus, it can be said that Arabic language and Islamic education made great contribution for the development of written Afan Oromo, at least in its early beginning. But the unsuitability of the alphabet to Oromo language is believed to limit the expansion of written Afan Oromo in 19th Century (Tafari,1999).

Attempts to Write in Afan Oromo by Foreign Scholars

In addition to the attempts of Oromo people, foreign scholars write Afan Oromo using different scripts. According to Feyisa(1996)  Bruce, a Scottish traveler, is the first European who collected a few words and develop sentence structure in Afan Orom using Latin script. After Bruce, various European scholars, who kept in touch with Oromo in Africa and Europe and working with them, were interested to study Afan Oromo and attempted to write Afan Oromo in Latin as well as Ethiopic scripts.

One of the attempts to write Afan Oromo was made by Ludwig Krapf.  He came to Ethiopia for missionary activity and latter, he was highly interested to study and write about Afan Oromo (Krapf,1840). On his way to Showa(around 1839), he met several Oromo’s and gathered some information on Afan Oromo, culture and religion(Mekuria,1994). Krapf recognized the importance of Afan Oromo for missionary purpose in Northeast Africa. For this reason,, he was interested to study Afan Oromo after he arrived at the court of the king of Showa. While at the court of’ the Shoan king, Krapf began to study Afan Oromo with the assistance of his servant. Hence, Krapf studied Afan Oromo in its natural surroundings. Then, he published a book in 1840.  In his book, Krapf specifically focused on the script that should be used to write the language and he described the situation that exists before the beginning of his writing as follows: Whereas the [Oromos] are in want of letters, the choice of Alphabet for their language depends on who first begins to write it. If the writer be a native of Abyssinia, he will no doubt choose a form of letters from his own alphabet [Ethiopic or Geez]: and many Abyssinia, in fact, on seeing me occupied with the study of [Oromo] language, endeavored to persuade me to adopt the Ethiopic character (Krapf,1940:20).

From the quotation, one can understand that Afan Oromo had no one decided script of writing and selection of the scripts depends on the first who began to write it. However, if the Abyssinia (Amhara and Tigre) starts the writing, he/she will use Ethiopic script for writing Afan Oromo. Krapf also disclosed that the Abyssinia people attempted to convince to make him use of Ethiopic Alphabet after they were aware that Krapf was interested to study Afan Oromo. This shows that the suppression on Afan Oromo was started long years ago. But Krapf(1840) reported that he did not follow the advice given to him. His Justification was that” —because the Ethiopic Characters present great difficulty to writing as well as to memory” (Krapf, 1840: 21).

Further, Feyisa(1996:22)stated that”—he [Krapf] observed a number of problems with the use of Geez script to write in Oromiffa[Afan Oromo]. Through trial and error, Krapf discovered that Geez was unsuitable for writing Oromiffa. He noted that Geez alphabet does not include some of the major phonological distinctions in Oromiffa and fails to express some particular sounds in it.”  To solve the perceived limitation of Ethiopic alphabet, Krapf used the Roman script to write Afan Oromo.

In addition to the early attempts made by the Oromo themselves and the Europeans described above, various Oromo scholars attempted to developed and adapt the script of Afan Oromo suitable for writing the language. Among these, the works of two Oromos namely Sheikh Bakri Saphalo and Onesimos Nasib, are worth mentioning. These scholars contribute their own share for and played great role in the development of written Afan Oromo. Below an attempt is made to show how they attempted to developed the writing system of Afan Oromo.

The Contribution of Onesmosi Nasib  to the Development of Afan Oromo Writing

Onesimosi translated different materials to Afan Oromo. Mekuria(1994:94) mentioned the works of  Onesimos saying “Onesimos wrote and/ or translated most of them between 1885 and 1898.  During those thirteen years, he translated seven books, two of them with Aster Ganno.  He also compiled an Oromo-Swedish Dictionary of some 6,000 words.”  However, the translation of The Bible to Afan Oromowas the most significant contribution made by Onesimos. According Mekuria(1994), his translation of the Scriptures is regarded by historians and linguists as a great intellectual feat and a remarkable accomplishment for a single individual.

Further, Feyisa(1996:22) explained the contribution of Onesmos Nasib by saying” He was a real pioneer in Oromiffa literature. His translation using the Geez alphabet with an additional glottal letter for ‘dh’ is still the standard work in the field, and without doubt he was a father of Oromiffa literature.”   He wrote Afan Oromo in Ethiopic script.

The Contribution of Sheik Bakri Sapalo to the Development of Afan Oromo Writing

According to Hayward and Mohammed (1981), Sheikk Bakri was a prolific writer. Starting from his early teaching, he began to write in Afan Oromo.  In addition to this, he invented an indigenous Oromo alphabet (Feyisa,1996). The development of the indigenous alphabet is said to have taken place during 1956, at the village of Haii. Hayward and Mohammed (1981:553) described his invention as ”It does seem highly likely that Shaykh Bakri was the first Oromo who saw clearly the problems inherent in attempting to write the Oromo language by means of orthographic systems which had been devised primarily for other languages.” He was interested to develop an indigenous alphabet in that he had strong nationalistic aspiration and felt that possessing glorious historical traditions and a uniquely democratic society, lacking a means of writing as a great problem. Feyisa(1996:22) stated that” He devised scripts an indigenous and original system of writing as part of his attempt to overcome problems of orthography in writing Oromiffa. He devised scripts which were different in forms , but followed the symbol-sounds forming patterns of Geez system.”

Having developed the alphabet, the Sheik Sapalo taught it to all his students and to others as well. Then, people began to exchange letters in the new alphabet. In addition to letters, Sheik Bakri himself employed his alphabet for writing his poems and other works, and manuscripts of these are also reported to be in existence.  It is claimed that there are still people who can use it.

After the news of the development of the scrip of Afan Oromo was spread rapidly, it encountered negative reaction from the officials of the area. Nevertheless, Sheik Bakir Sapalo continued to use his own alphabet for writing. Hence, Sheik Bakir contributed his own share in the development of Afan Oromo writing by developing unique script.

The Adoption of Latin Script, Qubee, as Formal Orthography of Afan Oromo

As described the preceding section, Afan Oromo has been written for different purposes using different scripts by various individuals.  During the previous governments, Afan Oromo was not used as a medium of instruction. However, after1970s the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) began to use it as official language in the librated areas (Tilahun, 1993).In addition, after 1991, it was proclaimed that the native languages can be used as medium of instruction as well as can be studied as a subject of a study. Thus, there is a need to develop one formal script that can be used by all speakers of the language uniformly. Around 1970s both Sabean and Latin were suggested to be the scripts of Afan Oromo.

During this time, Mengistu partially lifted the ban on the use of Afan Oromo and allowed the use of Sebean script (Tilahun,1993). However, in November 1991, five months after the downfall of Mengistu, OLF called Oromo scholars and intellectuals a general meeting. Tilahun(1993:36) described the objective  and the participants of the meeting as “The purpose of the meeting was to adopt the Latin script that OLF had been using or suggest an alternative.  Over 1000 men and women attended the historic meeting which met in the Parliament Building in Finfinnee.”  After long hours of the discussion, it was decided that the Latin script was to be adopted. There are different reasons for the adoption of Latin script. However, the major ones are linguistic, pedagogical and practical reasons.

The first was linguistic reason

On the meeting, Sebean script was suggested as an alternative. However, it was agued that its roughly 250 characters are too clumsy to adapt to Afan Oromo. Tilahun also indicated the weakness to adopt  Sabean saying” It must also be added that the Sabean syllabary not only fails to indicate vowel length and germination, but also slows down a writer’s speed since each symbol, which cannot be written cursively, must be printed.”(1993:37). Afan Oromo, excluding those sounds represented by P,V,Z, has 34 basic sounds (10 vowels and 24 consonants). Thus, for linguistic reason, it was decided that the Latin alphabet be adapted to Afan Oromo.

The second one is pedagogical reason

According to Tilahun (1993), the 37 characters (or 34+ P,V,Z) can be learned in less than a month. In fact, only 32 symbols (minus the 5 double vowels) need to be recognized. For an Oromo learning these signs and 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.

Practical reason is the third reason for the adoption of Latin script

Latin script was adapted to many languages of world. Thus, Qube Afan Oromo aligned itself with the so many countries of the world that use Latin script. For example, one practical advantage that is an Oromo child who has learned his own alphabet can learn the form of the English script in a relatively short period of time. Another practical reason is that its alphabetic writing’s adaptability to computer technology (Tilahun,1993). To sum up, the decision to adapt Latin Script as the writing alphabet of Afan Oromo was made by talking the above three main reasons into consideration. Subsequently, Afan Oromo was made the medium of instruction for elementary level and administration in Oromiya.(Mekuria,1994).  After the adoption, different textbooks and other useful reading materials began to be published by the new alphabet. In September 1993, school instruction was legally launched in Afan Oromo for the first time. Hence, the use of Latin Script for Afan Oromo writing is based on scientific evidence.

* This article is abridged from the article written to respond for political allegation based on scientific evidences.

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The aim of Advocacy for Oromia-A4O is to advocate for the people’s causes to bring about beneficial outcomes in which the people able to resolve to their issues and concerns to control over their lives. Advocacy for Oromia may provide information and advice in order to assist people to take action to resolve their own concerns. It is engaged in promoting and advancing causes of disadvantaged people to ensure that their voice is heard and responded to. The organisation also committed to assist the integration of people with refugee background in the Australian society through the provision of culturally-sensitive services.

Posted on October 5, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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