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The Oromo people constitute the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, where the Oromia region contains a third of Ethiopia's land area and population. The Oromo language, also known as Afaan Oromo, is spoken as a first language by 87% of Oromia's 27 million people. In other regions of Ethiopia, 1.4 million people consider it their mother tongue, meaning native Oromo speakers total about 25 million in Ethiopia. About 500,000 more live in Kenya and Somalia. Many others (as yet unquantified) speak it as a second language. It is the most spoken language in the Cushitic family, which also includes Somali, Sidamo, and Afar.
A Little History
Cushitic peoples were present on the central Ethiopian plateau as early as 5000 B.C. They spread to settle most of North-East Africa before the arrival of Semitic speakers around 1000 B.C. As Cushitic groups migrated south and east, five linguistic groups were formed: Northern (e.g., Beja), Central (e.g., Agaw), lower Eastern (e.g., Oromo, Somali, Saho, Afar, Konso), highland Eastern (e.g., Kambatta, Haddiya, Walayitta), and Southern (in present-day Tanzania). Other than this, little is known about the origins of the Oromo people. There is little written record of the Oromo people until they came into conflict with southern-expanding Abyssinia in the 16th Century. Oromia existed as several independent kingdoms and nations until the Abyssinian conquest of the 1880s, at which point Oromia became part of the Ethiopian Empire. Many of the previous Oromo kingdoms became provinces of Ethiopia, such as Jimma, Illubabor, Wellega, Shewa, Arsi, Bale, and Hararge. These areas had developed distinct dialects of Oromo which are still present.
The main dialects of Oromo are Wellega (spoken in the West Wellega, East Wellega, Illubabor, and Jima zones), Tulama (in the North, West, and East Shewa zones), Wello (in Northern Shewa and Southern Amhara), Arsi (in the Arsi and Bale zones), Harar (in the West and East Harerge Zones), and Borena (in the southern-most zone by the same name). This classification scheme is general, as there is no official division of Oromo dialects, and many dialects go by multiple names (Wellega is also called Mecha). Additionally, more isolated dialects are spoken by small Oromo communities that remain in eastern Amhara and sourthern Tigray. The major differences in dialects are in the form of pronouns, certain verb conjugations, and colloquial lexicon.
This book was compiled in the Illubabor Zone, and is therefore biased toward the Wellega dialect. Certain features of Wellega Oromo include:
- The Wellega dialect predominantly uses “koo” to mean 'my, mine', whereas other dialects use “kiyya” and in some cases “tiyya” for the feminine (Wellega possessive pronouns do not distinguish by gender).
- 'She' in Wellega Oromo is “isheen”, while other regions in Oromo would use “isiin”, “ishiin”, or “iseen”.
- 'We' in Wellega Oromo is most often “nuti”, while other dialects prefer “nu'i”, “nuhi”, or “nu”.
- The use of “dha” to mean 'is/am/are' is much more common in Wellega Oromo than in eastern dialects. In Harar Oromo, for example, it is only used for emphasis.
- Where Wellega Oromo would use an apostrophe between vowels in a word, other dialects may use an h, w, or y. Thus, “ta'e” may in some places be spelled (and pronounced as) “tahe”, “haasa'uu” as “haasawuu”, and “waa'ee” as “waayee”.
- The suffixes for present-future tense verbs in the 2nd person plural and 3rd person plural are -tu and -u, respectively, while the eastern dialects use -tan(i) and -an(i).
Other dialectal differences are noted in the text. The dialects also differ by the use of Amharic and Somali loan words, with the Wello being the most mixed of the Oromo dialects with Amharic. Larger towns will also show a considerable amount of Amharic influence. An effort has been made to keep this text “pure” Oromo, though the reader should keep in mind that some Oromo words have been mostly supplanted by their Amharic equivalents. The major examples include: “ishi” instead of “tole” for 'alright/OK', “bakkaa” for 'enough', “gwadenya” for 'friend', “gobez” for 'smart/clever', and “ayzo” for 'be strong/take heart'.
There has been some debate on the mutual intelligibility of Oromo dialects, with many sources claiming that not all dialects can be understood by all Oromo speakers. However, when Tilahun Gamta reflected on writing his Oromo-English dictionary, he recalled:
I visited Arsi, Bale, Gamu Goofaa, Goojjam, Harar, Kafaa, Shaggar, Sidaamo, Wallaggaa, and Wallo. I did not have to visit Ilu Abbaa Booraa, my birthplace. Due to my own reasons, I could not go to Tigray to interview Raayyaa, Azabo, and Waajiraat Oromos, either. However, I stayed in Waldiyaa, Wallo, overnight, where I had an opportunity to chat with an elderly Raayyaa Oromo. Despite a minor difference in our pronunciation, kaleesha/kaleessa (yesterday), for instance, we could understand each other very easily. After he told me, with a clear expression of concern on his handsome face, that the younger generation must be taught Afaan Oromo and be urged to use it, he said nagaatti (good bye) and left. In addition, when I was attending a conference in Nairobi in 1972, I had the opportunity to gauge the situation in Kenya where about half a million Oromos live. After these visits, I concluded that the pronunciation used by Oromos in both Oromiyaa and Kenya is almost identical at the lexical level. The then rampant and alarming rumor that there were wide regional variations in Afaan Oromo, I became convinced, was baseless.
A Newly Literary Language
Oromo was traditionally an oral language only, and has only had an official writing system for two decades. Books published on Oromo in the 19th and 20th centuries used a mixture of Ge'ez (Amharic) script and the authors' own transliteration schemes. During the Derg regime (1974-1991) Oromo was written predominantly in Ge'ez script, though the script lacked important consonant and vowel sounds. The development of written Oromo was further hampered by the Ethiopian Empire's “Amharization” policy which began in 1942 and continued until 1991. This suite of policies made it difficult for any language other than Amharic to be used in schools, printed, or broadcast. Anthropologist Paul Baxter observed in 1967:
Oromo was denied any official status and it was not permissible to publish, preach, teach, or broadcast in any Oromo dialect. In court or before an official an Oromo had to speak Amharic or use an interpreter. Even a case between two Oromo, before an Oromo-speaking magistrate had to be heard in Amharic. I sat through a mission church service at which the preacher and all the congregation were Oromo by at which the sermon, as well as the service, was given in Amharic, which few of the congregation understood at all, and then translated into Oromo. The farce had to be played out in case a Juda informed the district … [who would have] fined or imprisoned the preacher.
The lack of opportunities to read and write Oromo delayed the spread of Oromo literature and literacy. Tilahun Gamta (2000), writing of his experiences in the 1980s, further noted:
… All Oromos educated in Ethiopian schools know at least two other languages besides their own. They can read and write the other two or more languages except, for the most part, their own first language.
The Oromos are not illiterates in their own first language by choice. For over one hundred years, the Abyssinians spared no expense to prevent Afaan Oromo from becoming a written language and from being used in schools, in courts, and anywhere near the bureaucracies that have always existed as exclusive clubs to serve the interests of members. They banned both the production and the introduction of any Oromo literature in/into the Empire. They even burned the Bible for being written in Afaan Oromo. Ironically, the fact that the translator of the Bible, Abbaa Gammachiis, used the Amharic syllabary, which Abyssinians consider sacred, did not save him from cruel harassment and witch-hunts. They hunted down Shaykh Bakri Saplo, who died mysteriously in exile, because he tried to invent an alphabet for writing Afaan Oromo. It is my view that if such harsh measures had not been applied, no Oromo would have chosen to remain illiterate in his/her own mother tongue.
In 1991, after the overthrow of the Derg, an alphabet using Latin characters known as qubee was officially adopted for written Oromo. Soon after, Oromo was allowed to be used as the medium of instruction in elementary schools throughout Oromia and in print and broadcast media. The adoption of a single writing system allowed a certain amount of standardization of the language, and more texts were written in Oromo between 1991 and 1997 than had been in the previous 100 years. However, spelling of certain words still varies by dialect and personal preference. The Oromo words used in this text match the spelling used by Hinsene Mekuria in his English-Oromo-Amharic Dictionary (2010).
- CSA 2007 National Statistics, Table 3.2
- Demie, Feyissa (1998). "The Origin of the Oromo: A Reconstruction of the Theory of the Cushitic Roots". Journal of Oromo Studies 5 (1&2): 155-172.
- Hassen, Mohammed (1994). "Some Aspects of Oromo History That Have Been Misunderstood". Journal of Oromo Studies 1 (2): 77-90.
- Ali, Mohammed; Andrzej Zaborski (1990). Handbook of the Oromo Language. Poland: Polska Akademia Nauk.
- Gamta, Tilahun (2000). "The Politicization of My Oromo-English Dictionary: The Writer's Reflections". Journal of Oromo Studies 7 (1&2): 1-2.
- Hassen, Mohammed (2000). "A Short History of Oromo Colonial Experience: Part Two". Journal of Oromo Studies 7 (1&2): 117.
- Gamta, Tilahun (2000). "The Politicization of My Oromo-English Dictionary: The Writer's Reflections". Journal of Oromo Studies 7 (1&2): 6.
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