Monday, August 26, 2013

Language Profile: Oromo

In this week's language profile we're looking at Oromo, another language spoken in Ethiopia. It is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Arabic and Hausa.

Last week we looked at Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. Despite its official status, it is actually not the most spoken language in the country. That honor instead falls to Oromo, which is spoken by just over a third of the Ethiopian population.

Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.
Oromo is also spoken by smaller numbers of people in Kenya and Somalia. It is the native language of the Oromo ethnic group that resides in all three countries and comprises the largest ethnicity of Ethiopia. The language has several varieties, with some that differ so greatly that  they aren't even mutually intelligible. For this reason, some linguists believe Oromo may comprise a dialect continuum instead of one language.

Before the 1970s, the Oromo language was rarely used in publishing or heard on the radio. Luckily, the Ethiopian government promoted the use of Oromo, as well as other languages, during a government literacy program starting in the mid-1970s. For the past twenty years or so, it has also been used as the primary language of instruction in some elementary schools in various regions of Ethiopia.

In 1991, a Latin-based alphabet known as Qubee was officially adopted as the writing system of Oromo. The language has five short vowels as well as five long vowels, which are written by merely doubling the letter (such as a to aa). It also uses gemination, in which the length of consonants, again written by doubling letters, can distinguish two words from each other. The Oromo alphabet also contains five digraphs: ch, dh, ny, ph, and sh