“Amharic is thick and sweet; it takes its time rolling off my tongue.”
American-born writer Hannah Giorgis wrote in her July column in the Guardian about the beauty of Amharic language, as students of Amharic language can find out for themselves.
“The first language I learned to speak, under the careful instruction of my doting grandmother, was Amharic. Ethiopia’s official tongue (the second most commonly spoken Semitic language after Arabic) connected me to her then and still runs like a live wire through my extended family’s conversations. We are thousands of miles apart, separated by oceans and passports. But when we call each other, it is Amharic that carries our love across the sea.”
“..sometimes I still dream in Amharic. When my feelings are deepest and most difficult to diagram, they take on Amharic’s vivid imagery.”
But she writes in English: “the words I know best are in English. The grammar I can most readily bend to my will is that which I learned in American schools, under the perfunctory instruction of teachers insistent on making my immigrant-daughter tongue fall in line. The classical literary canon I consumed as a child – and the books topping recommendation lists even now – are those of white authors for whom English is always statement, never question… I can no longer read or write in Amharic – the alphabet hanging over my bed is more decorative than didactic.”
She told of her visit to Ethiopia in January 2015, after 10 years, and how her cousin Kidus said he enjoyed her writing, but added he did not understand everything. “The gentle accusation hung thick in the air: you write in English; your articles are not for me. For the artist in diaspora, choosing what language to create in is fraught. Indeed, I never know what language to use when explaining myself. English is easiest; I swim in it every day. But English is not the language in which I love.”
She quotes the poem from Pérez Firmat’s book Bilingual Blues, published in 1995:
“The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else”
What is your experience of Amharic language? Have you listened to the fast and ready wit of the azmari singers, or the country and eastern longing of tizita music and its lost memories, have you laughed at the Amharic stand-up comedians or wept with the heroine of an Amharic movie?
Amharic is one of Africa’s liveliest languages today, and we encourage our students of Amharic in London to learn as much as possible.
Buy Firmat’s poetry book here Bilingual Blues (Poems, 1981-1994)
Hannah Giorgis is a Guardian US contributing opinion writer and an organizer working to end violence against girls and women. Follow her on Twitter: @ethiopienne