Spreading Amharic language in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has more than 80 languages, but Amharic is the working language of the federal government. Millions of people – particularly those originally from Gojjam, Gondar, Western Wallo and Shawa as well as many people living in towns all over Ethiopia – have Amharic as their first language and millions more as their second language.
People who want to visit or work in Ethiopia will boost their enjoyment and their success if they can speak and read Amharic language, which we hope to achieve in our Learn Amharic beginners’ course in London starting this week.
Most Amharic speakers either initially identified themselves with their region such as a “Gondare” or – if they were part of the ruling elite – as “Ethiopians”. For this reason, Amharic was more to do with social groups, such as nobility, soldiers, settlers and clerics. It became the language of educated people who lived in towns and thus became closely intertwined with Ethiopian national identity.
Amharic had been known as the “language of the king” from the time at the end of the 13th century when King Yakuno Amlak (reign 1270-1285) overthrew the Zagwe dynasty. It took over from Ge’ez as the court language, but Ge’ez remained the language of literature, writing and liturgical uses and Amharic was used for oral communication.
The language spread further in the time of Zara Yakob (reign 1434-1468) when soldiers spread it south and to other regions as they collected taxes. By the first half of the 17th century a traveler could use it across the Ethiopian empire.
Amharic also began to replace Ge’ez for writing in the middle of the 19th century as Tewodros II (1855-68) and Menelik II (1889-1913) ordered their chronicles to be written in Amharic. As Menelik built the borders of modern Ethiopia he made the language widely used across the country. Printing, which nearly always used Amharic, began in the time of Tewodros II and government printing activities were soon followed by the first Ethiopian newspaper (1908) and the Berhanana Salam (“light and peace”) printing press began in 1923. Education outside the churches also helped spread Amharic. The first schools at the beginning of the 20th century used French, English and Italian but soon Amharic became the language for primary schools and English the first foreign language in secondary schools and higher education.
This led to more efforts to standardize Amharic, including for scientific and other terms. The formerly-titled Ethiopian Academy for the Development of Language (Amharic) was established in 1942 and eventually standardized 12,500 scientific terms.
Haile Selassie I (1930-1974) declared Amharic the official language in 1955 to demonstrate the unity of Ethiopians as a nation. He disregarded other languages, where this was feasible.
The Derg (1974-1991) started to recognize language rights of other Ethiopians, although Amharic remained the official language and the means of instruction in primary schools, which doubled in number between 1974 and 1984. Amharic was also useful for communicating between ethnic groups, but 15 languages were used for adult literacy campaigns during the 1980s. Good Amharic was still needed for all government jobs and was driven by urbanization, growing transport links, trade and commerce.
Taken from “The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook” edited by Stefan Weninger in 2011 and published by Walter de Greyter, Berlin.