Alphabetic nuance

In learning Ehtiopian Amharic, I’ve been puzzled and confused by the host of redundant alphabet characters. Many of the consonants have exactly the same phonetic sound and I cannot discern any reason why sometimes one is used and not another. None of the language sources I have explain how they are used either. Sure, they say WHY there are redundant characters in the collection of 268 – they are remnants left-over from different peoples and dialects dating back to the time before Christ. As Ge’ez script developed, many of these minor variations were combined and codified, but some of the duplicates remained. OK. Great. Whatever. But that still doesn’t tell me anything about how they should be used or read.

That is why, a few days ago, I was delighted to find then this passage in the memoir Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, by Ethiopain expatriate Nega Mezlekia.

Once Memerae [teacher] was completely satisfied that we could identify each of the characters, he taught us why certain of the letters repeated themselves. There were sixty-three such characters. For instance, there were six characters representing Ha, two for Se, four for …

Because it was rude to associate a king with something so intimate as a kiss, the ki in king would be different than the ki in kiss. As the sun was a symbol of power and eternity, the su in sun would be different from the su in sugar, which was a perishable item. And as power was something for the gods and kings, the po in power… We spent the rest of the year learning to identify celestial and imperial features, and to distinguish their spelling from that of everyday things. No individual would be accorded a learned status who lacked the ability to recognize such subtle differences.


Well it’s clear that I’m a hecka long way from being “accorded a learned status”. Fortunately these subtleties are not so detectable in spoken conversations.

Realizing this got me thinking though how this is another very subtle way that Amharic uses different tools to achieve a variance of meaning. In English we have a gigantic vocabulary, but many of these African languages have to make due with only a fifth or a tenth as many words. How do they still have a rich literary tradition? Through tricks like this. In English we use the same 26 characters for everything. Poets sometimes try to play with capital letter placement and line breaks to provide a shade of meaning, but that only goes so far. Here though, you actually have phonetic characters that carry their own baggage, be it celestial or earthly, beautiful or plain, common or rare. The skilled writer can use these to great effect – if his audience knows their history and convention. It’s another great feature that doesn’t translate well at all.