Literary networks in the Horn of Africa

Oromo and Amharic intellectual histories

Authored by: Sara Marzagora , Ayele Kebede

Routledge Handbook of African Literature

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN:
eBook ISBN: 9781315229546
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315229546-29

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Abstract

In his 1971 study on Four African Literatures, Albert Gérard states that ‘no imaginative literature seems to have been produced in any of the non-Amharic vernaculars of Ethiopia’ so that ‘the phrase Amharic literature can legitimately be used nowadays as a synonym for Ethiopian literature’ (1971, 272). This remark reflects a broader bias in Ethiopian literary scholarship. Ethiopia has over 80 languages, some of them spoken by millions of people, but scholars throughout the twentieth century have largely privileged the study of Geez and Amharic traditions. 1 These two languages were considered ‘the virtually exclusive carriers of Ethiopian civilization, literature and intellectual prestige’, in the now infamous words of Edward Ullendorff (1960: 116). Other language-traditions, one may deduce from Ullendorff’s statement, were not as prestigious, aesthetically accomplished or even ‘civilised’. The scholarly dismissal of non-Amharic literatures had strong political reverberations. For the majority of the twentieth century, successive Ethiopian rulers attempted to impose Amharic as the only national language. By belittling the literary heritage of non-Amharic traditions, scholars like Gérard lent support and legitimacy to the Ethiopian state’s linguistic centralism. Some of the prime targets of the state’s policy of Amharisation were Oromo-speaking people, whose literature, as a result, was systematically marginalised. Literary scholarship has been, from this point of view, firmly on the side of the state.

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