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Language and National Development: A tribute in Honour of Haile Fida’s Contribution to the Development of Oromo Orthography August 1, 2013

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Haile FidaHirmatadubbii afaanoromo

Dr Haile Fida Kuma has made an outstanding contribution to the development of Oromo national orthography. He was one of the pioneers who attempted to shade fresh on the history of the Oromo, the right of the Oromo people to speak, read and write in Afaan Oromo. He initiated Oromo studies in Europe and has made a major contribution both to our knowledge of Afaan Oromo grammar and to the discussion on how the language should be written 1968-1974. His first research paper was published in 1972, on Tatek, theoretical Journal of Ethiopian Studies in Europe entitled ‘Languages in Ethiopia: Latin or Geez for writing Afaan Oromo.’ He further published in 1973 Oromo Grammar book entitled ‘ Hirmaata Dubbi Afaan Oromo’: Haile Fida, et al. (1973). Hirmaata Dubbi Afaan Oromo, Paris and a literature book :‘Barra Birran Barie, paris,’ using his adopted 35 Latin Qubee alphabet. The books were as a result of his long-time study of the Oromo language and problems of Oromo orthography. In this groundbreaking Afaan Oromo grammar book, he adopted the Latin alphabet to the phonology of the Oromo language by modifying some of the shapes of the letters and adding subscript diacritics. He made distinctions between short and long vowels letters by using single vowels letters (i, e, a, o,u) for the former and double (ii, aa, oo, uu) ones for the latter. He presented the finding of his research to the conference of Ethiopian Student Union in Europe in 1972 and this brought a debate on language issues within the Ethiopian and Oromo students movement abroad (see, Dr. Fayisa Demie. 1996. Historical Challenges in the Development of the Oromo language and Some Agendas for Future Research, Journal of Oromo Studies, Vol.3, no.1 &2, pp. 18-27. Oromia Quarterly. Fayisa Demie. 1999. The Father of Qubee Afaan Oromo: A tribute in Honour of Haile Fida’s Contributions to the development of Oromo Orthography, Oromia Quarterly, Vol.. II, no.3. Pp. 1-5.) His knowledge on Oromo language was so encyclopaedic and his contribution to the Oromo studies in Europe was so well known at the time and his contribution was greatly acknowledge by the Oromians who know him very closely. Oromo national Organisations have started to use Qubee Afaan Oromo from 1970s. Oromo national Convention in 1991 endorsed the use of Qubee all over Oromia. Dr. Haile was assassinated by the Dergue Ethiopian regime before seeing this remarkable achievement in the use of Qubee in Oromia which is the greatest milestone in the history of the Oromo people. Dr. Haile Fida completed his initial primary education at Arjo primary school and junior garde 7-8 at then Haile Selassie I Secondary school in Naqamtee followed with secondary education at General Wingate school in Finfinnee and undergraduate at Finfinnee University (Science Faculty, Geology Department). Haile was an outstanding student while he was in General Wingate secondary school and the university. He completed his secondary education with 10A’s and 2B’s and his Undergraduate University with distinction with GPA 4. After graduation from the Department of Geology he was employed as a graduate assistant and became a lecturer in the same department. He left to France to pursue a postgraduate studies. Haile studied MA in sociology and social anthropology and PhD in philosophy at the Le Palais De L’ Academie Paris. While he was in Europe he was an active member of the Ethiopia students Union in Europe and an Honorary secretary of the French Socialist Party. Dr. Haile was married to Mme Marie and survived with two children.

Haile belonged to a group of generation of Oromo nationalist who embarked on arduous struggle to liberate the Oromo nation from Ethiopian oppression in two different strategies . The first Oromo group were convinced the Oromo question is a colonial question and argued the solution to the Oromo question is the liberation of Oromia from Ethiopian Colonialism. Indeed to show the Oromo identity as a colonial people deprived their right to govern themselves democratically and oppressed by Amhara/ Tigrai colonial settlers, they have put forward historical evidence which support the Oromo case. The second group, in which Haile belonged, argued the Oromo question is a national and it is possible to solve the problem through the democratisation of the Ethiopian state. As part of their struggle against national oppression this group of Oromos have attempted to take forward the national question high in the agenda of the Ethiopian student movement and other Ethiopian organisations that were mushroomed since the Ethiopian revolution in 1974. The first members of this generation were born in the early 1940’s and the youngest in the early and mid 1950’s. It was a generation of Oromo activists who came together to struggle against national oppression. Most of them killed while struggling for the Oromo cause or while attempting to change Ethiopia. Indeed Haile was one of the victims who died while attempting to change the environment of national oppression in Ethiopia. He was killed by Ethiopians while struggling against national oppression and for the right of the Oromo people to speak and write in their language. His early death robs Oromia an enthusiastic, hardworking and committed Oromo professional. The inspiration he provided throughout his life continues to influence Oromo scholars and new generations in the field of Oromo studies.

Confession documents under the notorious Derg Military Dictatorial regime interrogation of Haile Fida Kuma confessional-document-of-dr-haile-fida-kuma

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1. liam - August 24, 2013

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2. OromianEconomist - January 11, 2015
3. OromianEconomist - June 4, 2017

The Following paper was presented by Tilahun Gamta, Professor of Linguistic Studies at the University of Addis Ababa and author of Oromo/English dictionary, at the 1992 Oromo Studies Conference, and Published, among others, in the Journal of Oromo Studies.


The Oromo, the largest ethnic group, comprise 50%-60% or about 25 million of the population of the Ethiopian Empire State. They are “a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, perhaps, on which most other peoples in this part of Eastern Africa (the Horn of Africa) had been grafted” [1]. Their fertile country, Oromiyaa, located between 2 and 12 N and 34 and 44 East, is 600,000 square kilometers.

Afaan Oromo, a highly developed spoken language, is at the top of the list [2] of the distinct and separate 1000 or so languages used in Africa, the most polyglot of the continents. It is classified [3] as one of the Kushitic [4] languages spoken in the Ethiopian Empire, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Of the Kushitic languages spoken in the Ethiopian Empire State, Afaan Oromo, Somali, Sidama, Hadiya, and Afar-Saho are the languages with the greatest number of speakers.

Afaan Oromo had remained essentially a well-developed oral tradition until the early 1970’s when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) began to use it as an official language in the liberated areas. The Front adopted the Latin script as its official alphabet, too.

The adoption of a script for Afaan Oromo had been a burning issue. In the 1970’s both Sabean and Latin scripts were suggested. Until 1974 when Mengistu’s ruthless regime came to power, writing Afaan Oromo in any script had been banned officially. Although Mengistu’s regime lifted the ban and reluctantly allowed the use of the Sabean script, it continued to pay only lip service to the development of Afaan Oromo. For instance, the regime made the teaching of Afaan Oromo illegal at any level in its school system.

About five months after the collapse of Mengistu’s regime in May 1991, the OLF convened a meeting of Oromo intellectuals on November 3, 1991. The purpose of the meeting was to adopt the Latin script the OLF had been using or suggest an alternative. Over 1000 Oromo intellectuals met in the Parliament Building at Arat Kilo, Finfinne (Addis Ababa).

After a six-hour deliberation, it was unanimously decided that the Latin script be adopted. Some of the reasons for this landmark decision – primarily linguistic, pedagogic, and practical – are as follows:


Writing [5] itself has passed through three stages of development before reaching the alphabet stage. The three stages are: iconography, logography, and syllabary, each of which is very briefly discussed below:

Iconography consists of drawings of animals or objects. The drawings are disconnected and fragmented, and they are intended to give just a static impression. Later standardized pictures were selected, arranged in a series, and were made to tell a story the same way as today’s action photographs do. Iconography was common among North American Indian tribes.

Logography is the use of signs to represent words. In English, for example, whole words such as one, two, three, dollar are, respectively represented by the signs 1, 2, 3, $. The Chinese, which uses a minimum of 4000 characters, is the only language that uses the logographic writing system to date.

Syllabary is a set of characters which represent syllables. A syllable is a part of a word in which a vowel sound is heard. For example, the Oromo word “bilisummaa” has four syllables, namely, bi, Ii, su, and mmaa. In a syllabaric writing, obviously one stage behind, each sign stands for a syllable of a consonant and vowel. Fri the point of view of a linguist who wish to explicate the sounds of a language, one of the major drawbacks of syllabaric writing is that its characters do not represent the vowels and the consonants of a language separately notwithstanding the two are distinct categories.

The syllabary, used in Ethiopian Empire State today, is a very good example of a syllabaric writing. It should be clear that this syllabary is nothing but a progenitor of the script adapted for writing Geez (liturgic), Tigre, Tigrigna, and Amharic. The Sabean syllabary, too, was suggested as another alternative. However, its roughly 250 characters are too unweildly to adapt to Afaan Oromo. After failing to read The GalIa Spelling Book (written in Sabean syllabary in 1884), Cerulli eloquently expressed his frustrations in these words: ” … reading this small book is very like deciphering a secret writing, and it is evident why, for twenty- five years after its publication, its substance remained unknown…” [6]. It must ala be added that the Sabean syllabary not only fails to indicate vowel length and gemination, but also slows down a writer’s speed since each symbol, which cannot be written cursively, has to be printed.

An alphabet is a set of characters used to represent the basic sounds of a language, technically known as phonemes. Languages vary “in the number of these basic sounds, from around 20 for Hawaiian and Japanese, to about 40 for English, and over 60 for several languages spoken in the Caucasus. One of the largest number of phonemes is found in the language spoken by a branch of the Southeast Asian people variously known as Hmong or Miao or Meo. The White Meo language has no fewer than 80 phonemes – 57 consonants, 15 vowels, and 8 tones” [7] – The relative height of pitch that is a phoneme of a languages. Being a phoneme, a tone distinguishes meaning.

Afaan Oromo, excluding those represented by p, v, z, has 34 basic sounds (10 vowels and 24 consonants). One possibility is to invent 34 signs corresponding to each of these 34 sounds, an impractical and unnecessary effort. Instead, it was decided that the Latin alphabet be adopted. This decision is historic because the alphabet is “the most highly developed and the most convenient system of writing… readily adaptable to almost any language” [8].

Qube Afaan Oromo, the adapted Latin alphabet, consists of 14 characters as detailed in Table 1.



These 37 characters (or 52 if the capital letters are considered important) can be learned in less than a month. In fact, only 32 symbols (minus the 5 double vowels) a,b,c,ch,d,dh, ,e,f,g,h,i,j,k,l,m,n,ny,o,p,ph,q,r,s,sh,t,u,v,w,x,y,z, and ?) need be recognized and memorized. For an Oromo learning these signs and the sounds they represent, the task is even much easier. It may take a non- Oromo a little longer because producing the sounds – especially those not found in his/her language – takes time.

In addition to these 32 symbols a learner of Oromo writing system will have to be taught the principles that:

I. two vowels in succession indicate that the vowel is long, e.g. bitaa (left); 2. gemination (a doubling of a consonant) is phonemic in Oromo, e.g. damee (branch), dammee (sweet potato); 3. h is not geminated; 4. the same word can have two or more forms depending on its context, e.g. nama kadhu (ask people) namaa kadhu (ask for people); 5. when it occurs word finally, the single “a” is pronounced schwa (inverted e) whereas it is pronounced (delta) elsewhere; and that 6. understandably, instead of diacritic signs, the combined Latin letters ch,dh,ny,ph, and sh are used so as to align them with typewriter characters.

The learner needs to have only this much information at early stage of his/her lesson. After such a simple, uncomplicated explanation, the learners are asked to read passages written in Afaan Oromo.


Uummata Oromoo/Ormaan hinsaamsiu Dache Oromiyaa/alagaa hindhiichisu Aadaa abbaa kooti/diinaan hinbookessu Nama bishaan dhabe/?annan hinobaasu Afaan koo baleesse/lammii ko hinboossisu Garaa dhaan bitamee/uummata ko hincabsiisu Saba abbaa gadaa/garbicha hintaasisu Sirna demokraasi/Of jalaa hinballeessu Utuun lubbuun jiruu/Oromoo hintamsaasu

(Kumsaa Buraayyuu)


The Latin alphabet was adapted to many languages such as the following:

Germanic languages – English, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch; Romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian; Slavonic languages – Polish, Czech, Croatian, Sloven; Finno-Ugrian languages – Finnish, Hungarian; Baltic languages – Lithuanian, Lettish; Quoc-ngu – Vietnamese; and it was adapted to Somali, Swahili, and others.

Qube Afaan Oromo also aligned itself with so many countries that use the Latin script. One obvious advantage of this is that an Oromo child who has learned his own alphabet can learn, say, the form of the English script in a relatively short period of time. Another practical reason is the adaptability to computer technology which gives alphabetic writing “an edge over even the simplest of syllabic writing” [10].

The purpose of this paper is not to rate writing systems. Any script can serve the specific language for which it is designed and used. No one can deny the fact that writing “can never be considered an exact counterpart of the spoken language.” [11] In the present Oromo writing system, one letter corresponds to one sound. But, unless accompanied by a well-planned reading instruction, even such a relatively refined alphabet can be almost valueless. As stated, the Sabean syllabary may be very good for the purpose of writing the Semitic languages such as Tigre, and Tigrigna. Definitely, it is not so good for writing Afaan Oromo, a Kushitic language.

It is hoped that this paper has acquainted those who are genuinely interested in the development of Afaan Oromo with of the major reasons for adopting the Latin Alphabet. The decision was made after taking linguistic, pedagogic, and practical factors into account. In other words:

Global functional considerations suggest putting the Latin Alphabet at the top of the list. If familiarity with a script and emotional attachment are taken into consideration, it is likely that all conventional orthography would be ranked first by the people who use them [12].

The struggle the Oromos have made for self-determination has started to pay off. They have adopted the Latin alphabet to Afaan Oromo without fear of incrimination. It is now high time they started writing and producing useful reading materials for Oromiyaa schools and the public, again without fear of an autocrat who used to have an absolute power to censor and censure. Our people have a highly developed oral tradition which, the writer believes, has contributed to the sharpening of their powers of memorizing. In addition, they need to acquire a taste for reading and writing.


1. Bates, Darrell. The Abyssinian Difficulty, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979; p.7 2. Afaan Oromo, Hausa, and Arabic are the top 3 of the 30 languages in Africa with over million native speakers. 3. Joseph Greenberg has classified Afro-Asiatic (also called Hamito-Semitic) languages into five branches:

3.1 Kushitic – e.g. Afaan Orono, Somali,… 3.2 Semitic – e.g. Arabic, Amharic 3.3 Berber languages in Northern Africa – e.g. Kabyle of Algeria, Tuareg of the Sahara. 3.4 The Ancient Egyptian and its daughter language Coptic, now extinct. 3.5 Chadic, spoken in Chad, Cameroon, and Northern Nigeria, although Hausa is used throughout much of Western Africa.

4 Kush or Cush is one of the descendants of Ham, Sheme’s brother, according to the Biblical account in Genesis. 5 Just exactly who invented writing, when, and where it was invented is not clear. However, it is generally agreed that “all exiisting alphabets as well as those no longer used, derived from one original alphabet, the north semitic, which probably originated about the 18th Century B.C. in the region of Palestine and Syria”. (Americana, p. 561. See note 8 for other details.) 6 Cerulli, Enricho. The Folk-Literature of the GalIa of Southern Abyssinia. Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Harvard University, 1922, p.l5

7 Defrancis, John. Visible Speech: The Diverse Openess of writing Systems, Honolulu: Howaii Press, 1989, p. 9 8 “Writing”, Encyclopedia Americana (Vol. 29), Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1990. 9 Double counts has to be avoided. The components of the combined letters ch, dh, ny, ph, and sh are already counted once. 10 Defrancis, p. 268. 11 Gelb, Ignace. A Study of Writing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 15. 12 Defrancis, p. 268.

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