Who is Aleka (Sir) Desta Tekle Wold



This interview excerpt is copied from senamirmir.com. It profiles the biography of an untold Ethiopian scholar Desta Tekle. 

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ow many people do recognize the name Aleka Desta Tekle Wold? How many people do know him intimately? How many people do know his work or his contribution to Ethiopian languages? These questions are not targeted only to the ordinary people who have less chance of knowing him, but also to those learned ones who have ample opportunity, but for one reason or another he remains “unknown” to them. The unfortunate truth is the answers to these and similar questions may not be a pleasing one; not much has been said or written about his life and his work. It seems when we use his work, we put a stone wall between his work and the man himself shielding ourselves and when we are done, we remove the wall, put the work and the man together and lock them behind a bookshelf. No remorse or guilt. Great men like him have come and gone leaving their ageless work, by will, with out putting a name or a face on their work. Partly, it is because of them today we walk upright with thick pride in spite of a devastating natural crisis and human misery.

Born from a humble family and schooled at church-monastery, Aleka DTW lived a modest life and died with humility. His achievement defies any logic, his work confronts the contemporary one sided view that suggests everything by the “West”, his single mindedness challenges the learned ones whose hopes hinged by some kind of institution or state which rendered them incapacitated, his quality of work shines in the face of several contemporary print works that leave much desire to be wanted. This great man was an institution by himself; born as one, raised as one, learned as one, worked as one, and died as one. He was the exception in his time!

leka DTW signifies a paradox; in one hand, we pride ourselves by what we are, by our history, languages, writing system, and script; on the other hand, it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that we know little or none about the many great men who were behind those knowledge, inventions, and creativities. A paradox that is going to elude us for sometimes to come. It isn’t an atomic problem by itself, but a sign of all sort of profound problems lay in front of us.

Seeking to know and asking questions is not only an academic exercise; it is one way of looking at ourselves inwardly and examine our past with open mind and accept the consequences. Should we choose otherwise, then someone else will do it for us and certainly we will not be very happy.

Annually, the number of books published by Ethiopians is painfully very small. There are different views why that is. It is a troublesome proposal to ponder, let alone to suggest that there are only very few Ethiopian authors based on the dismal number of books published annually. There must be numerous works out there covered with dust and rusting under the tables that are vying for attention. Maybe one can take comfort and inspiration from Aleka DTW life and people like him.

his piece features a series of interviews with guests who are directly or indirectly related to him or his work. Senamirmir is proud to present you first Ato Girma Getahun, a historian, a linguist, and a writer who published his book in 2003 under the title “Advanced Amharic Lexicon: A supplement to Concise Amharic-English Dictionary“.

Senamirmir: Thank you so much for accepting Senamirmir’s invitation for this interview. Can you introduce yourself briefly?

  • KG = Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis
  • KWK = Aleka Kidane Wold Kifle
  • DTW = Aleka Desta Tekle Wold
  • KBT = Kissate Birehan Tessema
  • AYMQ = Addis Yamarènya Mezgebe Qalat


Ato Girma Getahun:  Thank you for inviting me. The pleasure is all mine. My name is Girma Getahun. I live in the United Kingdom, where I went to university. I was born in Addis Ababa, in the area known as Ras Hailu Méda, where the Abebe Bikila stadium now stands. My earliest alma mater was Medhanéalem School on the Arbenyoch Road.

Senamirmir: Have you ever attended Kasse-Gedam-Oriented Schools? If you have, in what way that experience has affected you?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For children old/fortunate enough to go to school in the 1950s and 1960s, was there any other starting point except going to the local qés tèmrt bét? So like all other kids I went to one, and then to another. I was a precautious child, and the qés tèmrt bét was a big shock to me. I still remember a room crammed with little kids, shouting the syllabary at the top of our voice, lest the indiscriminating  (alenga or artchummé) of the  (memmèré) falls upon our ears. Normally a kid with advanced literacy level point to the printed characters of the fidel with  (a sebez or sènt’èr), and two or three others sitting beside him/her repeat the sound of the characters after them swaying their heads forward and backward rhythmically. Because kids of varied levels of literacy study side by side the din of noise was incredible.

I stayed with the first qés tèmrt bét only for a week or so. One day I came home with patches of my skin off from the thighs where Memmèré X pinched me repeatedly. My father was furious. He took me to another qés tèmrt bét (but not before he reproached the priest thoroughly). In the second qés tèmrt bét where the  (yenéta) was addressed as  (Sèbuh, a Gèèz term to mean ‘he who is praised or exalted’), I had a relatively easy time. I realized the only way out of such schools was to learn how to read as soon as possible. So, I made the effort to master the alphabet quickly. As soon as I began to read the short passage in Gèèz which begins with ‘epistle of the Apostle John, son of Zebdee’ (printed in the middle of the fidel gebeta), my father decided to send me to a modern school, thus sparing me from a long stay in the traditional school. Normally a completion of the initial qés schooling includes a repeated reading of Wengél (St John’s Gospel) and Dawit (the Psalms) in Gèèz.

In short, a dirt floor, overcrowded and poorly lighted/ventilated room, cruel and mostly undeserved corporal punishment are some of my indelible memories of qés tèmrt bét.

Senamirmir: What is your research or work interest?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Broadly speaking Ethiopian history (especially of the 18 and 19 centuries), and Amharic language and literature. More specifically, I am interested in the unpublished manuscripts of Aleqa Tekle-Iyesus Waqjèra on Ethiopian history and the genealogy of the notables of Gojjam. Amharic lexicography, etymology and orthography also form a big chunk of my obsession.

Senamirmir: How did you develop an interest for writing and languages?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Interest in reading is perhaps the main reason. A desire to express opinion and concerns is another. The 1974 revolution and my political awakening, along with tens of thousands of Ethiopian youth of the period, was definitely a catalyst for becoming active member of literary circles which were being formed within qebelé youth associations. Clandestine pamphlets of the EPRP (notably Democracia and Abéyot, recorded or printed protest poetry) and published materials (such as Teramaj Mezgebe-Qalatand the monthly magazine Goh) kindled my interest in Amharic language and literature. Mekuriya Tegeny, (a brilliant friend who was brutally beaten to death by murder squads of the Derg in 1977) was instrumental in encouraging me to write sometimes in collaboration with him.

Senamirmir: Who is your inspiration?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For poetry Yohannès AdmasuYoftahé NèguséTesegayé Gebre-Medhèn (who sadly passed away on 25 February 2006); for devotion to the development of Amharic language and literature, the aleqas Kidane-Weld Kèflé and Desta Tekle-Weld.

Senamirmir: If you have written or published books or planning to do one in the future, can you tell us about it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  An edition and translation of select chapters of Aleqa Teklé’s chronicle is awaiting publication. The chronicle is a rich source of historical accounts, especially on stories of the Gojjam aristocracy. Historians, linguists and other writers and academics, such as Tekle-Tsadéq Mekuriya, Alemayehu Moges, Prof. Taddese Tamrat, Roger Cowley and Reidulf K Molvaer used the manuscript extensively. The first two did so without proper/due acknowledgement to the author (at least until the 1980s). It is only proper the entire or greater parts of author’s work should be published in his own name.

I have also a plan to publish an edition and translation of the genealogical document by the same author. The second document, albeit less known, is even more original and invaluable to academics.

A spin off from work on such projects was a compilation of Amharic-English dictionary which was published in Germany (Advanced Amharic Lexicon: A Supplement to Concise Amharic-English Dictionaries, Lit Verlag, Munster, 2003). It is designed as a supplement to the popular concise dictionaries of Dr Amsalu Aklilu and Prof. Wolf Leslau.

Senamirmir: Who was Aleqa Tekle-Iyesus Waqjèra? If you can introduce him to us briefly? You used the term “translation”; he must have written his work with Ge`ez.

Ato Girma Getahun:  Aleqa Tekle-Iyesus (1868-1936) was born in Albasa, Kutay, in northeastern Wellega, to parents Waqjira and Gelené. He was taken captive at the age of six in a raid by Dejjazmach Elémtu Goshu, the uncle of King Tekle-Haymanot (1875). His captor-cum-guardian brought him up with church education having sent him first to his own father confessor, and later on to the monastic school at Dima Giyorgis. It was when his guardian had him baptized that his original name, Negero, was changed toTekle-Iyesus. Tekle-Iyesus, Oromo by birth, grew up with strongGojjamé identity and devoting a huge part of his life to record its regional history and its ancestral traditions. His artistic talent earned him fame and royal patronage. Admired for his illuminations of manuscripts, for church murals and for engravings to the court and churches/monasteries of Gojjam, and created as Aleqa with the benefice of the church of Zebéch Iyesus, he was at the height of his fortune in the last decade of the 19 century. But his fortune declined after the death of King Tekele-Haymanot, and his later years were by and large devoted to writing the chronicle, a work whose significance as source material gained him posthumous recognition outside Gojjam. He lost his sight toward the end of his life, and died at a very anxious time months after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, but before the disastrous battle of Maichew in May 1936.

Aelqa Teklé’s writings are in Amharic. The translation in the preceding response refers to an English version made from collated texts of manuscripts copied from the Amharic original. It was carried out as part of a thesis for a DPhil submitted to Oxford University in 1991.

Senamirmir: Many people may not be aware of about your bookAdvanced Amharic Lexicon –> mentioned above, can you tell us more in what way it is different from other dictionaries and if readers wish to obtain the book, where can they get it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The lexicon is a supplement not a complete dictionary. It complements the popular concise Amharic-English dictionaries by providing additional definitions to words wholly or partially ignored by the latter. The supplement being no less in size than the dictionaries it complements, this perhaps constitute one unique feature. A second unique feature may be its ‘eclectic-ness’.

Its system of word entries and orthography adheres to KWK-DTWconvention, only digressing from it: (a) to follow the ha-le-ha-me alphabetic order; (b) to group together homophone letters of the Amharic alphabet; and (c) to give precedence to etymological spelling than to pronunciation based spelling. These digressions were made first of all for ease and convenience of the average user, secondly for the sake of clarity of meaning, and thirdly to indicate the emphasis on some geminated terms, especially of derived stems.

The entries and subentries are also furnished with extensive contextual examples from published and unpublished sources. The examples together with transliteration and contextual translations is another notable feature.

I believe these and similar other features perhaps add up to give the lexicon its peculiarities.

Senamirmir: You have written a piece titled Amharic Orthography and Homonyms; a compelling work for the continued need of the three “ha” , two “se” , two “a” , and two “tse” . Can you tell us more about the work and what has been the reaction to it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The discussion paper you referred to and which you have kindly posted on this website tries to draw attention to a neglected concern in the debate for and against alphabet reform. This concern is to do with homophone characters of the alphabet, more specifically with the failure of the debate to address an issue of their phonemic significance, i.e., their crucial role as bearers of the meaning of words. The reformists have been either unaware of the issue or seem to be unconcerned by it, assuming that this role of the ‘redundant’ homophone characters is negligible. Those who oppose reforms also seem to ignore them instead of articulating their importance in support of arguments against reduction of the characters in proposed alphabet reforms.

The paper challenges this assumption and gives a list of Amharic homonyms in which the use of one or another homophone character changes the meaning of a given word. The list is not comprehensive; yet it was large enough to highlight the significant phonemic roles of homophone characters.

The paper also tries to raise public awareness that consistent usage of homophone characters based on etymology is helpful not only to enhance the clarity of meaning but also (a) in validating Amharic’s affinity with Ethio-Semitic and non-Ethio-Semitic languages; and (b) in establishing standard orthography.

The paper did not manage to elicit any critical or complementary feedback. I sent hard and electronic copies to few interested parties (mainly to friends and editors of Amharic newspapers and magazines). It has also been posted on this website since 2004. If I remember correctly by the time the paper was distributed the language department or centre of the AAU had already taken a unilateral decision to adopt a minimal alphabet for Amharic script. Hence no response may be expected from that institution. To be fair the paper is not published in academic journal to reach many concerned academics and other people both at home and overseas. Only such paper could perhaps expect scholarly response, if at all.

Senamirmir: Do you have any working relationship with higher institutions back home in your interest area? If not, why do you think that is?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not have any working relationship with higher educational institution in Ethiopia. There is no one definite reasons. After the Derg’s Red Terror campaign (1977-78), few were lucky enough to survive it and reach the safety of western countries. For them the chance to return home in the foreseeable future seemed remote at the time. For a long time such an outlook may have worked as a deterrent, at a subconscious level, from cultivating relationships with academics back home. Tentative attempts to establish correspondence may have also proven frustrating for academics on both sides. The dramatic change of government in the early 90s failed to dispel the perception. In fact by firing scores of highly experienced academics the new government reinforced the view that it is equally intolerant of dissenting opinions even within the confines of a university campus. For me a personal decision to pursue academic interest unaffiliated to tertiary institutions is perhaps a major reason.

Senamirmir: Are you involved in computer software development related to Ethiopic? If you are, tell us about it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Not at all. My knowledge of computers hardly goes beyond basic skill to use a word processor.

Senamirmir: You are involved in a project called HaHu Books. What is the purpose of this project and its future?

Ato Girma Getahun:  HaHu Books was a publishing initiative a friend and I started to address the lack of good quality reading/teaching materials for Amharic speaking children born/being raised overseas. One project of the initiative was publishing Bukaya, a children/family magazine the first issue of which came out in December 1999. Since the first issue fifteen other issues of the magazine came out until March 2004: the first 12 as a series of volume 1 and the last four as a series of volume 2. To achieve its professed aim of providing entertaining and culturally informed reading materials to children and families in the diaspora, Bukaya carried in its issues folk-tales, nursery rhymes, myths and legends, and a variety of word games. In the last five issues it also carried reviews of books published for or about Ethiopian children. The contents were designed for children and parents to spend quality time together. Another unique feature was that all its texts were prepared to introduce users to KWK-DTW orthographic convention.

The publication of Bukaya is now suspended for lack of sufficient interest from the diaspora communities, and for lack of resources as well as entrepreneurship on our part.

HaHu Books also launched a website http://www.hahubooks.co.uk to introduce Bukaya and other planned products to a wider audience. Again lack of interest, technical constraints and the suspension of Bukaya stalled its updating since 2004. We hope to revive Bukaya and the website in near future.

The desperate need for quality reading materials for children in Ethiopia and the diaspora is apparent. Unfortunately the awareness of these needs by parents, educators and community oriented investors is very low. Many Ethiopian writers and artists do not give sufficient importance to writing stories or to doing illustrations for children’s books. These and many other interrelated problems makes small isolated initiatives like our HaHu Books a frustrating experience. But such projects must have a thriving future if our children are not to lose their language, culture and Ethiopian identity.

What is required is the pooling of resources for long term investment by concerned parties to raise awareness on the issue and to produce/promote books and magazines for children. There are signs of increasing awareness among parents. So all is not doom and gloom.

Senamirmir: Are you involved in a standardization activities related to Ethiopic? For instance, there is a draft proposal as we speak now by World Wide Web Consortium on Ethiopic list order. Furthermore, the Unicode 4.1 standard, it now includes what it calls “Ethiopic Supplement” and “Ethiopic Extended” It was a contribution of individuals who were interested in the area. However that is, a large number of linguists with a wealthy of knowledge haven’t participated and Unicode is not to be blamed for that, but it shows that we are not even in charge of this kind of effort. What is your view?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Standardization in Ethiopic requires I would have thought, prior knowledge of other standards such as ASCII, ANSI, Unicode, a background in ICT, expertise in linguistics, or a good command of the languages concerned.

Aware of the existence of organizations such as ECoSA (the Ethiopian Computer Standards Association), ESTC (the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission), QSAE (Quality and Standards Authority of Ethiopia) and the experts in ELRC (the Ethiopian Language Research Centre of the AAU), I was under the impressions that these bodies were qualified and active participants of the standardization effort. As an outsider by contrast, I never considered myself qualified to make a meaningful contribution.

Presently a project is being carried out by the ELRC on behalf of EICTDA (the Ethiopian ICT Development Agency). The project is to establish standardized Amharic, Oromifa and Tigrinya glossaries for ICT terms. Proposals of terms have been posted at this link: http://www.aau.edu.et/ictglossary/index.php and alternative suggestions to the proposed terms are invited from the public. Similar consultation with experts had taken place, I had assumed, prior to the Unicode standardization of Ethiopic.

From the point of view of end user the development of Unicode standard for Ethiopic and the supplements being included have been of immense significance. For tens of thousands of users it means the end of dependence on a variety of expensive non-standard Ethiopic fonts which caused frustration owing to their limitations. Of course, had their been a concerted and articulated effort by all stake holders say in the 1980s or early 1990s, perhaps Ethiopic standardization could have been achieved sooner in a way which suited Ethiopia’s interest better.

The importance of the additions to the basic Ethiopic set is apparent. With increasing extended sets all Ethiopian languages can have Ethiopic-based scripts. However, it makes me wonder whether the principle underlying such adaptations is sound. My layman instinct would have me choose to approach the provision of script to a non-written language by adopting the original set of the alphabet to represent, as far as possible, all the sounds of a non-written language. For instance,

  • instead of creating new characters to represent Sebat Bét Guragé labiovelars (sounds such as mwé, absent in Amharic/Gèèz) it could have been easier to adopt a combination of characters from the basic set (for example); or
  • instead of using the entire fidel characters for languages which were non-written hitherto it could have been possible to adopt a script based only on the lét’a fidel, the original consonants, an idea Prof. Getachew Haile proposed for Amharic a long time ago (Dialogue, Vol.1 No.2, 1968, pp.61-66).


Senamirmir: What activities do you enjoy the most besides your work?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Communing with ancestors in museums, archeological sites and historic buildings; going out for walks preferably in the countryside or along scenic routes.

Senamirmir: Finally your favorite quotation on any subject?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For pertinence to one of the underlying messages of this interview, a shrewd observation of Dr Johnson, the compiler of the first English dictionary, comes to mind. Affirming the self-sufficiency of his native tongue, against the prevalent attitudes of his learned peers, he said:

“To make the way to learning either less short or less smooth, is certainly absurd; yet this is the apparent effect of the prejudice which seems to prevail among us in favour of foreign authors, and of the contempt of our native literature, which this excursive curiosity must necessarily produce. Every man is more speedily instructed by his own language than by any other; before we search the rest of the world for teachers, let us try whether we may not spare our trouble by finding them at home.” —(Dr Samuel Johnson, Idler, No.91, 1760)

He said it long before English became the dominant global language of science and technology, of the Arts and commerce. The remark, which was made well over 240 years ago, could be said today to the attitude of our compatriots towards their native languages.

Senamirmir: Do you know Aleka DTW in person? What was he like?

Ato Girma Getahun:  No; not in person. I was introduced to Aleqa Desta Tekle-Weld through his famous dictionary, whose comprehensiveness, consistent orthography and a wealth of additional anecdotal information impresses me to this day.

Senamirmir: Can you briefly share with us about his up-bringing; where and how he was educated; if he ever attended any modern school?

      Ato Girma Getahun: From the few autobiographical accounts it appears he had only a traditional church-based education. He began his studies at Gosh Wèha Giyorgis, the parish church of his nativity in Wegèdda, northern Shewa. He then studiedGeez and Qèné at Debre-Libanos (the monastery founded by Abune Tekle-Haymanot in the 13 century), and Zéma at the Trinity Church in Addis Ababa. His mastery of Amharic and Geez, along with considerable knowledge in the scriptures, doctrinal literature and religious poetry must have made him a formidable scholar in the traditional system of education. Blaténgéta Hèruy and Aleqa Kidane-Weld Kèflé were so impressed by his mastery of Geez and qèné they offered him jobs straight away. This suggests his attainment of extraordinary depth and range of knowledge as allowed by traditional church education. We know also he has at least some working knowledge of colloquial Tigrinya, Arabic and Oromifa which he may have learnt later in life. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he had modern education by attending evening class/extension programs, or by studying correspondence courses.

Yet, lack of modern education did not seem to deter him from benefiting from the lexical works of distinguished lexicographers and linguists such as August Dillmann and Ignazio Guidi and others such as Isenberg, D’Abbadie and Baeteman when he compiled his dictionary or when he edited Aleqa Kidane-Weld Kiflé’s Geez-Amharic dictionary.

Senamirmir: He lost his father when he was 7 years of age; more importantly, he was raised almost with out parenthood which seems to be normal with kids who are rendered in Kasse-Gedam-Oriented Schools. What was his feelings and reflection in this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  This is very hard to say. In the absence of introspective diaries, autobiographical notes or narrative records, any attempt to answer this question will be exercise in pure conjecture. However members of his family or colleagues may have some records, anecdotes or memorized remarks which can throw light on the subject.

Senamirmir: Who were the people who influenced his life? How much do we know about them?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Again the paucity of recorded sources makes this question very difficult to answer with acceptable degree of certainty. There is however a hint in a recorded interview kindly posted by Ato Welé that his master at the Debre-Libanos monastic school had a lasting influence on his formative years. He attributes his knowledge of Geez and familiarity with religious and other manuscripts to this teacher. Unfortunately, we know nothing of this master, except that he was a native of Menz; that he was educated from a young age at the Debre-Libanos monastery; that he remained there to become a knowledgeable monk and popular teacher; and that he had great access to monastic manuscripts. We don’t even know his name.

KWK was perhaps the other most influential person in his life. In all probability it was whilst working with KWK for 16 years that he was exposed to the works of western scholars of Ethiopian languages, and with it to the importance of the concepts of etymology through knowledge of local and foreign Semitic languages. KWKhad lived in Palestine for 30 years. There he studied Arabic and Hebrew, and was the acolyte and student of Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis (KG). These had provided him with ample opportunities to have a good understanding of philology, etymology and lexicography not only for their relevance to biblical translation and interpretations, but also for two other important missions in his life: establishing standard orthography and compiling lexicons for Gèèz and Amharic. These tasks being the main preoccupation for the rest of his lifeKWK must have been very keen to impart his knowledge to DTW, the highly receptive and disciplined acolyte and torch-bearer.

Last but not least were his patrons, Blatta Ashèné Kidane-Maryam and his wife Weyzero Belaynesh GobenaDTW was ever so grateful for the couple for the kindness and protection they accorded him. Unlike the previous two however the influence of the couple appear to be more of a personal/emotional (than of intellectual) nature.

Senamirmir: What did he do for living?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For most part of his life he worked as editor and proof reader of religious b ooks for printing presses, Bèrhan ènna Selam,Artistic (both in Addis Ababa) and Alazar (Dire Dawa). His longest service was his last employer, Artistic PP where his major works were published.

Senamirmir: Did he ever travel outside of Ethiopia?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not think so.

Senamirmir: Besides his work, what did he enjoy the most?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I have no idea.

Senamirmir: How many languages did he speak? If he has spoken other than Geez and Amharic, where did he learn them?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I believe he had some working knowledge ofTigrinyaArabic and Oromifa. For Arabic and Oromifa perhaps his long residence in Dire Dawa/Harar provided ample opportunities.

Senamirmir: What was his view of Emperor Haile Selassie I?

Ato Girma Getahun:  His works hint on admiration for the emperor. In the early period of his rule (as regent and then emperor) HSI was one of the most enlightened minds in the country, not just a modernizing monarch. It was his initial commission and patronage which started off serious work on the compilation of KWK’s dictionary. Many other religious texts and secular works were published under his patronage. For this and other reasons DTWmust have shared the admiration which many young progressive people had for HSI before the Italian invasion.

One must note also that DTW was one of only few Ethiopian winners of the prestigious Haile Sellassie I Prize, a fitting reward for a recognition of his monumental dictionary and other works. He must have felt grateful to the emperor for the recognition as well as the financial reward which must have helped during his retirement.

Senamirmir: Was he a lonely man? How was his relationship with fellow country men?

Ato Girma Getahun:  My impression is that modern scholars and authors, especially linguists, did not engage him both on personal and academic levels. His dictionary is cited in bibliographies but I am not sure if there is a body of literature which attempt to provide a critical appraisal on his monumental work or on the rest of his literary outputs. This exhibits in my view scholarly disinterest in him as a person, and in his works which are regarded as products of traditional church education. The low esteem accorded to Amharic language and orthography in the modern education system also made his efforts to sound like lonely voices heard in the wilderness. His works lament this disinterest. From these one gets the impression that he was a disappointed and lonely man, despite being the winner of the prestigious HSI prize. However all the above is a personal impression which may be far from the truth.

In relation to this it is also interesting to note the remarks of his wife to R.K Molvaer: Talking of her husband just a few days before his death, she said, “he had no friends; his books have been his only friends” (Black Lions, 1997, p. 160-161).

Senamirmir: How was he affected by the 1974 revolution?

Ato Girma Getahun:  When the revolution began in February 1974, DTWwas 72 years old. I could only imagine that he was retired then. In terms of loss of job, property or any other material benefit, the revolution may not have affected him a great deal, if at all. Yet, the revolution affected people in so many ways than just material possessions. The radicalization of politics, the indiscriminate attack on the values of the old social order, the disestablishment of the monarchy and the church, and last but not least the massacres of the youth by the Derg during the reign of terror may have been to him the cause of a great deal of sadness, worries and fear.

Senamirmir: If we can start from the term “Aleka” appellation, can you describe what it means; how it is designated?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Addis Yamarènya Mezgebe Qalat (AYMQ, p. 736) provides three definitions of the term: (a) the eldest (of siblings); (b) chief (of a tribe, clan, etc.); and (c) any senior officer, master, commander or a person in position of leadership. In the last sense, especially in the context of ecclesiastical ranking, aleqa is a title given to a ‘vicar’ or administrator of a church, or to one who excels in scholarly achievements on a religious subject. Within the church, the title is perhaps given by a bishop or some other senior cleric in recognition of administrative service or scholarly achievements.

Senamirmir: Can you discuss about Aleka DTW‘s work both his published and unpublished work?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not have a complete list of his published works. By far the most significant published work is his dictionary cited above. Earlier published works include  (3 booklets, the last published in 1935), and the edition of Aleqa Kidane-Weld Kiflé’s dictionary (published 1955/6). DTW’s edition of , another work of KWK, was posthumously published by the Frobenius Institut (1986).

His editions of religious texts for the Artistic Printing Press includes (together with),  and .

As for unpublished manuscripts I have no idea. He had plans to compile Amharic dictionaries of flora and fauna, and of place and personal names (AYMQ p.7). Whether he had actually worked on such projects is hard to say.

Senamirmir: Share with us your view on his Amharic dictionary which was published 1970; the lexicons collection, order and sequencing, accuracy, readability, quality of typesetting and printing.

Ato Girma Getahun:  The first thing that comes to mind in the assessment of AYMQ is degree of comprehensiveness. Over 1200 pages of the dictionary were packed with lexicon of the language including its archaic terms, idiomatic expressions and other utterances, gleaned from published and unpublished sources, oral literature folk songs and day-to-day conversations. Compared to nearly 1400 pages of KBT the length of AYMQ may not seem all that remarkable, especially considering the fact that it came out 11 years after KBT. However, page for page comparison is misleading, since it overlooks important considerations such as whether pages were filled with concise entries and definitions, and whether entries of derived stems were limited to the essentials, and so on.

This brings us to quality of definitions ofAYMQ. The dictionary provides concise and precise definitions to the extent traditional church education could allow. Any assessment of the quality of definition which ignores the limitations of educational background of the lexicographer, or the non-existence of a substantial body of indigenous lexicographic works, or the limitations of the language for scientific discourse would be highly biased and anachronistic. The only monolingual Amharic dictionary which came out before AYMQ was the impressive KBT. Compared to the latter,AYMQ has already made tremendous improvement in providing more precise and concise definitions.

Precise definitions are partly a result of a profound understanding of the origins of words and their variation of forms in interrelated languages. AYMQis furnished with etymological information which provide incite into original meanings and special nuances of the words peculiar to Amharic.

A fourth quality of the dictionary is its consistent orthography, itself a testimony for the author’s discipline and depth of understanding of Amharic etymology.

Finally a radical and one might add linguistically sound, system of word entries. The system which is based on consonantal alphabetic orderswas long adopted by European linguists and lexicographers; but Ethiopian compilers of Amharic glossaries or dictionaries, with the exception of KG andKWK, used other methods such as syllabic order, or groupings of rhyming words, two/three/four-letter words and so on. By adopting the consonantal order, following KG/KWKDTW not only showed his understanding of the non-syllabic nature of the Ethiopic writing system, but also the radicalism to go against ill-informed or misconceived tradition.

In fact it is this radical tendency which may explain why the dictionary could not become a well-thumbed reference work by traditional and modern scholars and the public at large. DTW believed following KG/KWK, in the antiquity or permittivity of the a-be-ge-de alphabetic order. The jury is out on this claim. Nonetheless he was determined to ‘reintroduce’ and popularize the a-be-ge-de alphabetic order against the established and widely used ha-hu-hi-ha syllabic order. This preference was unfortunate as its radical departure from the conventional system hampered its accessibility. The alphabetic order being unfamiliar to many potential users, it made searching for words a frustrating experience. Only those determined to take a moment to learn the alphabetic order and consonantal arrangement of word entries could benefit from its otherwise unmatched resourcefulness.

The quality of printing and binding of the dictionary, as indeed those of KWKand KBT, is impressive. Compared to many current shoddy cost-cutting publications, AYMQ looked like a product of a golden age.

Senamirmir: The depth of his relationship with Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé can be measured by his work in that he edited and published the magnificent Geez-Amharic dictionary by Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé, but do we know if he had collaborated with other scholars?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Not that I know of.

Senamirmir: In his time, was he close to Addis Ababa University (AAU), the highest educational institution in the land at the time, in any matter? Does the university use his work for courses?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Frequent citation of definitions from AYMQindicates that the lexicon was a standard reference material at the university. However, the etymological orthography DTW strictly observed followingKG/KWK was completely ignored along with the a-be-ge-de alphabetic order. Reform minded scholars, teachers and authors both inside and outside the AAU were predominantly inclined to ideas of simplification of the alphabet. Many seemed to have no time to considerations of etymology; to the relevance of ‘redundant’ letters of the alphabet to other Semitic languages of Ethiopia; or to the relationships of Amharic with these and other languages of the Middle East. Given that the ha-le-ha-me alphabetic order was a ‘convention’ used for centuries many did not see a need to change it either.

Senamirmir: For a moment if we may digress a bit; the idea of reforming or simplifying the Ethiopic alphabet has persisted to this day. Certainly, nothing is wrong with the underlying intention, but most efforts gone dry or simply ignored as if the supposedly problem is not vital or chronic. Now, from your experience, do you believe the alphabet system embodies an impediment for learning by any degree? What benchmark do those folks use even to suggest a reform?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The debate on whether we should reform the alphabet continued for at least three-quarters of a century without any satisfactory conclusion. It is far from being concluded at present. In my opinion The debate was doomed in part for the following reasons:

  1. It treated Amharic in isolation, as if the alphabet only matters to Amharic and not to any other Ethiopian languages; (for instance all discussions of reducing homophone characters to one excluded considerations of the needs of Tigrinya, Geez and other languages of Ethiopia, as if the loss of ‘hameru ha’, ‘haylu ha’ or ‘aynu a’ do not matter to these languages).
  2. As explained in my response above (see Q.6C of Part I) the debate had ignored the etymological and phonemic significance of homophone characters.
  3. The assumption underlying the main argument for reform, namely that the alleged cumbersomeness or multitudinous of the alphabet hinders the spread of literacy and learning, has not been substantiated, as far as I know, by empirical studies.
  4. All proposals of reform have excluded a pragmatic approach to accommodate the needs and wishes of major stake holders. One such approach could have been a formal recognition and streamlining of the de facto systems already in place. As in Chinese and Japanese two or three standardized systems can be adopted: one or two simplified systems for non-formal or semi-formal writings (personal letters, messages, Internet usage, etc.) and a formal one based on the complete alphabet and a standard orthography based on etymology (religious and state documents, legal papers, etc.). Whereas such an approach could have paved the way to reach consensus for the achievement of orthographic standard(s); the approach of the reformers have always been to introduce one simplified system by fiat, thereby causing stiff resistance from traditionalists.

It always amazes me to hear the claim that the size of the Amharic alphabet is a hindrance to literacy and learning, especially from modern scholars who know too well that the complications and sheer size of the Chinese writing system did not hinder the achievement of fully literate societies in most of the far eastern countries which use scripts essentially based on it. Yet, the alleged complexities of the Amharic system could not even come close to be compared to the Chinese system.

No, the hindrance to literacy in Ethiopia is not posed by the large number of ‘syllables’ and by the irregularity of their vowel markers. The obstacles lies elsewhere: in poverty, disease, underdevelopment, lack of socio-economic stability and in the absence of good governance.

Senamirmir: Now back where we left off, he was responsible for completing and publishing the Geez-Amharic dictionary, which he credited to Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé and Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis; a demonstration of monumental intellectual integrity and the highest order loyalty to the truth. How common is this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Until the introduction of modern education and the printing presses in Ethiopia, the traditional system of church education was almost exclusively based on oral studies. In the system the teachings of masters were memorized and transmitted to new generations with proper accreditations. As a testimony for the existence of such a tradition one can mention Mel’ake Bèrehan Admasu Jemberé’s  in which over 1600 religious poems were recorded as transmitted from generation to generation with accreditation to their composers. Another example may be the work of Negadras Gebre-Hèywet Baykedany (1924) which was posthumously published by his friend Pawlos Menameno. In this respect DTW’s intellectual integrity is remarkable, but not exceptional.

Senamirmir: What do we know about Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis who was an influence on Aleka Kidane-Weld Kèflé?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis (1825-1908) was one of the great scholars of the traditional school in the 19 century. He was a native of Ankober, knowledgeable in the scriptures and other religious and secular literature. Fleeing from religious persecution he lived in Massawa,Rome and Palestine for many years. In Massawa he compiled a vocabulary which served as the basis for KWK’s lexicon. In Rome he helped Ignazio Guidi compile his dictionary (Vocabulario Amarico-Italiano, Roma, 1901). Exposure to foreign languages, especially to Arabic, Hebrew and Latin, and collaboration with Guidi must have provided ample opportunities to familiarize himself with concepts of modern linguistics and lexicography. KGentrusted the completion of his work to KWK who lived with him for ten years as his acolyte and student.

Senamirmir: In his “Amharic-English Dictionary“, Thomas Leiper Kane gives credit to Aleka DTW and KBT saying that if it was not for their dictionaries, his work would have been “a little more than an updating of the available Amharic-foreign language dictionaries”. And yet he states the two authors were “without linguistic training”. Would you like to comment on this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Kane’s view is neither unique nor groundless. Many modern scholars on Amharic language and literature would share his view. Both KBT and DTW had no modern education. They had no training in modern linguistics and lexicography. However this belies the fact that DTWwas much more knowledgeable in etymology and lexicographical methodology than many modern Ethiopian lexicographers who benefited from advanced education in languages and literature. DTW was familiar with the dictionaries of renowned linguists, and learnt from their methodologies. With the exception of the alphabetic order, the system of word entries of his dictionary (as in deed that of KWK) follow their arrangements. Compare his dictionary with Amarènya Mezgebe Qalat (AMQ, Addis Ababa, 2001), a dictionary recently published by ELRC of the AAU to see the superiority of the system of his word entries.

Senamirmir: When Aleka DTW published KWK‘s dictionary with Artistic Printers, it was with no charge to him and his own dictionary was printed by Artistic also with low budget. No government or institutional backing for his work in anything what so ever; it was just him and him alone. Is there any explanation how he did it? Why our generation failed miserable to follow his exemplary independency.

Ato Girma Getahun:  I am not sure if it was independence which was utmost in his mind when he did it alone. Given the choice he would have preferred to work in collaboration with like-minded scholars who share both the work and financial burdens. In the absence of publishing firms, even today, writers have to do everything on their own: from editing and proofreading, printing, and distributing the self-published works.

What is exemplary is his fantastic devotion to his purpose and his dogged and relentless determination to achieve them. He persevered in a discouraging environment, even when he felt he was fighting a battle already lost.

In any given age, only few would devote their life to some lost, marginalized or unpopular cause, as these demand huge personal sacrifice together with disinterest in material and financial gains. Times have also changed; a highly monetized global economy appears to leave little room for ascetic lifestyle in order to pursue one’s idealism or lost causes.

Senamirmir: It appears that there are only few people who know AlekaDTW and his work and the prospect for better development in the near future is not promising. What seems to be the problem?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Ethiopia’s quest for modernization has unresolved inherent problems. One such problem is to do with the attitudes of the educated and political class who persist in trying to adopt foreign systems of ideas and values without a thorough understanding of their own. A product of western-oriented modern education system, they tend to ignore or denigrate local tradition, ancestral wisdom and customary practices. As a rule they pay little attention to preserving what is valuable in their own society before trying to introduce an alien system lock, stock and barrel. One reason for this attitude could be unwillingness to pay attention to details, since this requires effort, patience and discipline. A blanket reform is easier to advocate than one which is discriminating. For instance instead of learning why homophonic letters of the alphabet exist and what important roles they played in Ethiopian languages, it is easier to advocate the rejection of those considered redundant for Amharic script in isolation. Similarly, it is easier to stick to familiar dictionaries with familiar yet unsatisfactory system of word entries than use those which adopt unfamiliar but satisfactory system. DTW challenges established wisdom; as such it may not become popular with the educated and political class who resent a work which reminds them of their inconsistent spelling, and so on.

Senamirmir: No Amharic dictionary has been published after KBT andYAMQ with the level of collection and quality exhibited in them. Is this because we don’t need Amharic dictionary anymore or are there other explanations?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Yes, we need Amharic dictionaries which cater for beginners, advanced learners and professionals. We need dictionaries with newer editions to keep up with the development in the language and literature. Yet, the only monolingual Amharic dictionary published sinceAYMQ is AQM mentioned above. The latter is a product of a collective effort, and it was supposed to benefit from being a successor to KBT and AYMQ, as well as from decades of research and development in vocabulary and literary outputs. Despite all these advantages, however, the work is neither richer in vocabulary or meanings, nor is it informative in etymology, proverbs/sayings, idiomatic expressions and orthography. It is poorer in its organizational methodology for word entries, having adopted syllabic-based rather than consonant-based alphabetic order.

Several other monolingual and bilingual dictionaries have been published over the decades since AYMQ. However, these were by and large specialist dictionaries for neologisms in politics, philosophy, science and technology.

A revised and updated edition of AYMQ is long over due. In my opinion such an edition should adopt the ha-le-he-me alphabetic order whilst retaining the consonant-based word entries. With a revision of definitions to correct errors and include modern nuances and with inclusion of popular neologisms since the 1970s AYMQ can become an indispensable reference material for years to come. This undertaking however requires a dedicated team with a financial backing.

Senamirmir: As an author, what has been the most difficult challenge for you?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I can hardly consider myself as an author. Yet, from limited experience in efforts to promote children’s literature and Amharic orthography, the absence of established and well-resourced publishing firms is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing authors. Their absence is a manifestation of a more fundamental problem: the low level of material and intellectual culture in the country. Novices and well-known authors face the daunting tasks of financing the writing, printing and distribution of their own books. With no editors, proof readers and literary critics ensuring the quality and merits of a manuscript and with no guarantee to sell even a few thousand copies of the published work authors have to labour in a risky and discouraging environment.

Senamirmir: Senamirmir asked this question in the past, it is here again. Why there are only few books published by Ethiopian authors?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The answer to Q.2 should also serve here. Less than half of the population of the country is literate (including the semi-literate). Of these a very small percentage can afford to buy books for leisure reading and for self improvement. Few authors can manage to live on proceeds from the sell of their books, if at all. The overwhelming majority of cities and towns do not have public libraries, many elementary and secondary schools function without them. Is it any wonder that few books get published in the country? In fact the few books published by authors nowadays are printed in small print runs than at the time of the Derg, the only exceptions perhaps being political works such as the self-exonerating and sensational interviews of Mengistu Hailemariam, a butcher of the Ethiopian youth of the 1970s.

Senamirmir: Lack of effort in educating the public, the inadequate marketing and distribution system, and financial strain appear to be part of the problem for Ethiopian writers. Do you agree with this view?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Poverty is the prime cause of the low level of material and intellectual culture. For millions of people on the margins of survival literacy is a luxury they cannot afford. The literacy campaign of the Derg, lauded internationally, was short lived; the high rate of elementary schools enrollment achieved by the current regimes is also undermined by high rate dropouts. Such efforts by the state and communities are hampered by abject poverty. Also no amount of marketing strategy, succeed without the financial empowerment of the poor.

This is not to deny the advantages of raising the awareness of the literate/educated public by drawing attention to their own poverty of reading culture, and to their lack of understanding of the disabling environment within which Ethiopian authors and literary figures operate.

Senamirmir: Can you give us a summary of what the challenges are for today’s authors?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Writing creative literature suitable for children/young adults; mutual support to fill the void created by the absence of publishing firms; diversifying the genre of creative literature; working for the establishment of a standard orthography are some of the challenges facing today’s authors.

Senamirmir: Do we have your word now, when your book–the translation from Aleqa Teklé’s Chronicle is published, you will comeback and share about it with Senamirmir community?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Yes, gladly. It would be madness to refuse a generous promotional offer!

Senamirmir: What is something unique we should have, but haven’t learned from Aleka Desta Tekle-Weld?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Three things come to mind: orthography based on etymology; critical love/respect for indigenous languages and body of knowledge; and the preservation/promotion of them with reforms which are informed by linguistic science and a greater understanding of other Semitic languages.

Senamirmir: Spanning about two decade between 1955 and 1970, four major dictionaries were published; all of them by Ethiopian scholars who were educated by Kasse-Gedame-Orineted schools. It is safe to say that there hasn’t been a similar work with that magnitude by anyone else since then. What do you make of this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Assuming that these dictionaries are KBTAYMQ,Yamarènya Sène Qalat (YSQ) by Tefera Werq Armèdé’s (1954/5), and Amarénya beAmarènya Mezgebe Qalat (AAMQ)by Liqe Mezemèran Moges Uqube Giyorgis (1967/8), the compiler of YSQ was educated in modern schools and university. He probably also served as minister of education in HSI reign, though I could not confirm this from verifiable sources at the moment. Moreover YSQ and AAMQ are smaller works with limited vocabulary and basic definitions. Another work which is even smaller than the latter two, but which should be mentioned in connection to the period is yeAmarènya Metsèhéte-Qalat (Part 1) by Mesfèn Lèssanu (1959/60).

Admittedly no publication of comparable size and comprehensiveness to that of KBT and AYMQ have been published since the 1970s. But it is not safe to claim no dictionaries of the smaller types have been published since 1970s. For example Addis yeAmarènya Mezgebe Qalat by Efrém Aseffa Weredewerq (1999/2000) and AMQ mentioned above were published in the last decade. The latter is especially notable since it provides definitions for some 25,000 carefully chosen main and subentries. Its provision of definitions, etc. also follow modern lexicographic techniques. A syllabic system of word entries, the dropping of homophone letters of the alphabet, and the deliberate omission of well established neologisms make it a disappointing work though.

Senamirmir: The four dictionaries the question refers to are 1)Mäshäfä Säwasew Wä-gess Wä-mezgebä Qâlât Häddis (MSGMK) byKWK 2)Mezgebä Qâlât; Tigrigna—Amharic (MKTA) by AbaYOHANNES GABRA EGZIABHER; 855pp, [1949Eth, 1957Gr], 3)KBT, 4)AYMQ.

Ato Girma Getahun:  A clarity in the original question could have avoided the misunderstanding here. Either stating the four dictionaries or inserting a descriptive phrase such as ‘monolingual and bilingual dictionaries’ could have been helpful. As it stood the assumption of monolingual Amharic dictionaries was unavoidable both by interviewees and readers.

Now, in comparison to the two monolingual dictionaries (KBT and AYMQ) and the two bilingual dictionaries (KWK and MQTA) no lexicon has been published that match them in quality or comprehensiveness. The only one that come close and deserve mentioning is the aforementioned AMQ. However, for its main deficiencies and limitations pointed out above AMQ cannot deserve to be in ‘premier league’ along with the four.

Senamirmir: Most of linguistic books, related to Ethiopian languages and published in the last 15 years, were by scholars from countries other than Ethiopia. Can you comment on this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I am not sure about the veracity of the statement which formed the basis of the question. Even if we ignore dissertations, senior student essays, articles published in journals and proceedings, it is still doubtful if more books published in the last 15 years were produced by foreign scholars than by Ethiopians.

Publication is also partly a function of having access to resources. I believe scholars from developed countries always fare better in this respect. The resources made available to them by institutions and funding bodies are immeasurably better than those made available to Ethiopian scholars at home or abroad.

Senamirmir: Aleka DTW writes “I have in mind that I will publish another dictionary with lexicon collection that includes animals, plants, and regions and people names with their definitions”. It appears that this plan wasn’t materialized to the end in his lifetime, but are you aware of any work to fulfill his dream?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not know any substantial monolingual Amharic glossary, let alone specialist dictionaries of plants and animals. Nor do I know if there is a project to make DTW’s wish a realty. In complete absence of any ground work to allow compilation of such dictionaries, the task was too ambitious even for the indomitable DTW to undertake in the 1970s. Taxonomy of Ethiopian floral and faunal resources, and a development of Amharic technical terms were/are requirements if dictionaries are to provide reliable definitions or scientific descriptions to Amharic names of plants and animals. Leaving other considerations aside, developments in these respects were lacking in the lifetime of DTW.

Notable developments in the last two decades include the publications of A Glossary of Ethiopian Plant Names by Wolde Michael Kelecha(4th ed., 1987); Science and Technology Dictionary by Academy of Ethiopian Languages (1996); The Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea (8 vols. 1989-2003?); and small booklets on fauna, such as Ethiopia’s Endemic Birds (1980).

With such resources it is now possible to compile specialist Amharic dictionaries of flora (and to a less extent of fauna) which may serve as basis for subsequent compilations of more comprehensive dictionaries.

Senamirmir: In summary, how do you put the legacy of Aleka Desta Tekle-Weld?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Thanks to DTW, and his predecessors, KG andKWK, a good foundation has been laid for two cornerstones of Amharic language: an impressive lexicon and orthography based on etymology. These legacies can serve as bases for future edition of dictionaries and standardization of spelling of Amharic, rather like the service rendered by Samuel Johnson’s dictionary to English lexicon and orthography.

Senamirmir: Finally, thank you so much; it was an honor to have you at Senamirmir.

Ato Girma Getahun:  Thank you

Source: Senamirmir