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The jussive tense is used to issue commands or suggestions, such as ‘let me help you’, or ‘shall we go?’. The 2nd per. jussive is better known as the imperative.


This jussive root of an Amharic verb is derived from the following rules.

  1. Drop the initial or change the initial to , just like in the other roots.
  2. Drop the final “t” () if applicable, except for the stubborn-t verbs listed in the rules for the present root.
  3. For verbs treated as passive in the past, add the “tä” () prefix as in the past root.
  4. If the last consonant is 1st order, change to 6th order.
  5. If the second to last consonant is 7th order, change to 2nd order. If it is 5th order change to 3rd order.


Jussive Conjugations
Positive Negative
Prefix Suffix Prefix Suffix
እኔ (lï) አል (al)
እኛ እን (ïnï) አን (an)
አንተ አት (at)
አንቺ 1 (i) አት (at) (i)
እርስዎ (yï) (u) አይ (ay) (u)
እናንተ (u) አት (at) (u)
እሱ (yï) አይ (ay)
ችሷ (tï) አት (at)
1 If last consonant in root can palatalize, palatalize it as 3rd order. For both positive and negative cases for 2nd per. fm.

The last consonant in root is palatalized for the 2nd per. fm. just as it is in the present tense. The imperative ‘go’ said to a male is “hid”, said to a female is “hiji”, said to a group is “hidu”, and said politely is “yïhidu”. ‘Let’s go’ in “ïnïhid”, ‘let me go’ is is “lïhid”, and ‘let him go’ is “yïhid”.


To form the jussive in Oromo, simply add the appropriate prefix and suffix to the verb root as follows.

Positive Negative
prefix suffix prefix suffix
ani   u (dhu) hin in
nuyi/nuti haa (i)nu hin in
ati i (dhu) hin in
isin a (dha) hin ina
inni haa u (dhu) hin in
isheen haa (i)tu hin in
isan haa u (dhu) hin in

So to say ‘go’ to a man or woman it’s “deemi”, to plural or polite you it’s “deema”, ‘shall I go?’ is “deemu?”, ‘let him go’ is “haa deemu”, and ‘don’t go’ is “hin deemin”.

It’s been a good week of interviews now that my counterpart is back. Sometimes my counterpart would introduce in Oromo, sometimes in Amharic, and I could never really figure out how he decided which one to use. In any case, ideally I’ll get to the point within in the next two years that I can meet with people without a translator, but I’m still very much a beginner in both of these languages. So to continue with my investigation of verbs, let’s look at the gerundive.

By a gerundive (not to be confused with a gerund), a mean a finite verb form that denotes a completed action that is still relevant. Common uses are in the present perfect (e.g., “ I have returned”), past perfect (e.g., “The moment I had returned, the lights went out”), or sequential actions (e.g., “I returned and found myself in the dark”, or “Having returned, I found myself in the dark”). The use of the gerundive differs slightly between Amharic and Oromo.


The Amharic gerundive root is used in the present perfect, past perfect, and past sequential actions. My rules for deriving the gerundive root from the infinitive are as follows:

  1. Drop the initial or change the initial to , just like in the other roots.
  2. If the first character is 6th order, change it to 1st order.
  3. If the 2nd to last character is 1st OR 4th order, change to 6th order.
  4. For verbs treated as passive in the past, add the “tä” () prefix as in the past root.

Note that, unlike other roots, the gerundive root does not drop the final “t” of the infinitive, though this “t” is dropped in the negative conjugations. Relevant suffixes for the gerundive root are below.

Conjugations using the Gerundive
Gerund Suffix Pres. Perf. Suffix Neg. Suffix
እኔ1 (last con. palat.) - አለሁ (no palat. in the neg.)
እኔ (no palat.) ኢያለሁ እኩም
እኛ አል እንም
አንተ እክም
አንቺ አል እሽም
እርስዎ አል ኡም
እናንተ አችሁ አል አችሁም (Note: አችሁ + አል → አችኋል)
እሱ አል (Note: + አል → ዋል)
ችሷ አት ችም
1 If last consonant is palatalizable, palatalize it as 1st order. Else add . Only applies in the positive 1st per. sg.

Note that conjugation can be a little tricky in the positive 1st per. sg. where gerundive roots end in palatilizable consonant. In this case, the consonant is simply palatalized with no suffix added. Also palatiliable gerundive roots will drop a double consonant (like in a present root) for all positive conjugations except the 1st per. sg. (where it is palatalized). No palatalization or dropping of consonants is done in the negative conjugations.

Positive Negative
Suffix Prefix Suffix
Present Perfect gerund affix+PP suffix al Neg. suffix
Past Perfect gerund affix näbär al Neg. suffix näbär

So ‘he has gone’ is “hedoal”, ‘he has not gone’ is “alhedïm”, ‘he had gone’ is “hedo näbär”, and ‘he had not gone’ is “alhedïm näbär”.

The gerundive also used for sequential actions in the past. ‘He went to the store and bought a pen’ (or, ‘Having gone to the store, he bought a pen’), is “suK hedo ïskripto gäza”.


In Afaan Oromo, the gerundive is used only for past sequential actions. It is formed by adding a “naan” to the verb root for the first verb. ‘He received the money and left’ is “inni qarshii arganaan bode” (literally, ‘he, money having received, left’).

For present and past perfect tenses, Oromo uses the verbs jiruu and ta’uu, respectively. For present perfect, the verb is taken in the simple past and followed by the conjugated jiruu in the simple present. However, often the past suffix of the verb and the jiruu verb are merged to make a single suffix that is added to the verb root to form the present perfect.

Present Perfect
Past suffix (chuu verbs) jiruu conjugation Present Perfect Suffix
ani e (dhe) jira (dh)eera
nuyi/nuti ne jirra neera
ati te jirta teettu
isin tan jirtu taniittu
inni e (te) jira (t)eera
isheen te jirti teeti
isan an (tan) jiru (t)aniiru

Thus one could say “deeme jira” or “deemeera” to mean ‘he has gone’.

For the past perfect, the verb is taken in the past, though with an elongated vowel sound in the past suffix, with the conjugated form of ta’uu (root=”tur”) in the past.

Past Perfect
long vowel past suffix (chuu verbs) ta’uu conjugation
ani ee (dhee) ture
nuyi/nuti nee turre
ati tee turte
isin tani turtan
inni ee (tee) ture
isheen tee turte
isan ani (tani) turan

So ‘he had gone’ is “deemee ture” in Oromo.


The past root is the 3rd per. male past form of the verb. Some dictionaries list it as the only form of the verb, or will list it with the infinitive. All conjugations in the past tense are straightforward from the past root. However, many dictionaries only list the infinitive, so I’ve compiled some rules for deriving the past root from the infinitive.

  1. Drop the initial “mä” () or change the intial “ma” () to “a” (). This is the same first step in deriving all roots.
  2. Drop the final “t” () if applicable, except for the stubborn-t verbs listed in the rules for the present root.
  3. Intransitive verbs are often treated as passive in the past. For example, mäzänanat is ‘to relax’, but in the past they say “I was relaxed” (“täzinanahu”) rather than “I relaxed”. For passive verbs, a “tä” () is attached as a prefix. I have to admit, I’m not clear when this rule applies just looking at the verb. It makes sense for verbs such as: agree, argue, line up, come back, speak, stand, sit, sleep, and walk, verbs that are typically intransitive. But the verbs for borrow, carry, enjoy, learn, meet, rent, and receive, verbs which usually have a subject and object, also have this “tä” added to the root.
  4. For non-passive verbs, change all 6th order consonants except the last consonant to 1st order.

To conjugate a verb in the past tense, simply attach the appropriate prefix (none for positive) and suffix to the past root.

Simple Past Conjugations
Positive Negative
Prefix Suffix Prefix Suffix
እኔ (1st sg.)1 (hu) አል (al) ሁም (hum)
እኛ (1st plu.) (n) አል (al) ንም (nïm)
አንተ (2nd m.) (h) አል (al) ህም (hïm)
አንቺ (2nd fm.) (sh) አል (al) ሽም (shïm)
እርስዎ (2nd pol.) (u) አል (al) ኡም (um)
እናንተ (2nd plu.) ችሁ (ächu) አል (al) ችሁም (ächum)
እሱ (3rd m.)2 (ä) አል (al) (äm)
ችሷ (3rd fm.) (äch) አል (al) ችም (ächïm)
1 Often, the “h” sound in the suffix for 1st sg. and 2nd m. is pronounced “k” if preceded by a 6th order consonant.
2 Vowels are sorted from weakest to strongest as ï < ä < all other vowels. When two vowels are combined, the weaker one is dropped.

The past root is also used for present and past continuous tenses. For these እያ (ïya) is attached as a prefix to the past root and then the appropriate conjugation of ‘to be’ follows: ነው (näw) for present positive, ኣይደለም (aydäläm) for present negative, ነበር (näbär) for past positive, and አልነበረም (alnäbäräm) for past negative.

The past root is also prefixed with “yä” to form adjectives. For example, tämarä is ‘he learned’, while “yätämarä” is ‘learned, educated’. This adjective can be applied to a male or female. To pluralize, add a “u” as the a suffix (“yätämaru säwoch”=”educated people’).


To change present suffixes into past suffix in Oromo, change each “a” and “i” to “e” and each “u” to “an”, so that the suffixes are as follows:

Simple Past
Positive Suffix Negative Suffix
regular chuu double con. regular/chuu double con.
ani (1st sg.) e dhe e ne ine
nuyi/nuti (1st plu.) ne ne ine ne ine
ati (2nd sg.) te te ite ne ine
isin (2nd pol./plu.) tan tan itan ne ine
inni (3rd m.) e te e ne ine
isheen (3rd fm.) te te ite ne ine
isan (3rd pol./plu.) an tan an ne ine

The word “hin” goes before a negative verb just as it did in the present tense. Note that the negative past tense does not differentiate person or number, as it is conjugated the same for all. The same morphology rules apply as in the present, so that “jirre” (not “jirne”) is ‘we were present’.

The present continuous is formed by taking the participle (root+”aa” for regular verbs, root+”chaa” for chuu verbs) and adding the appropriately conjugated form of jiruu in the present tense. So “ati maal hojachaa jirta?” is ‘what are you doing?’. The past continuous is the participle plus the conjugated form of ta’uu (root=”tur”) in the past tense. So “ati maal hojachaa turte?” is ‘what were you doing?’

Like in Amharic, adjectives can be formed from the 3rd per. male past form of the verb. “Kan” is added before the verb for the singular, “kunnen” for the plural. ‘To learn’ is “barachuu”, ‘he learned’ is “barate”, and ‘learned, educated’ is “kan barate” (sg.) or “kunnen barate” (plu.).

I’ve been thinking a lot about verbs lately. Mostly because my counterpart has been MIA these past two weeks, and it’s hard to get much done work wise until I can meet with him to figure some stuff out. But also I feel the main weakness of language training during PST was a lack of grammar instruction. Rules were learned piecemeal and often not made explicit. I was left with a jumble of tables but no real sense of pattern or structure. I’ve also had trouble finding any of this information online or in books. Fortunately, recently one of the Group 3 folks put together a very nice collection of verb conjugations for 200 verbs in Amharic. So I’ve spent the last few days going through these, trying to make some sense out of the chaos. I’ve come up with my own list of rules, and I’m hoping these are fairly consistent with verbs other than the 200 I have. I’ve broken these into four parts: present-future, past, gerundive, and jussive. I’ll compare each part to the analogous process for Oromo so you can see the differences.

I’ll start with the present-future tense. Neither Amharic nor Oromo have purely future tenses. To say ‘I <verb>’ is the same as ‘I will <verb>’, and are only differentiated through context.


When most Amharic books say “verb root”, they are usually talking about what I would call the “past root”, that is the 3rd person male past form of the verb. Many dictionaries will list this form as the translation of a verb. Other will list verbs as infinitive [past root]. The English-Oromo-Amharic dictionary I have list all verbs by infinitive only, sinse that’s what makes the most sense for Oromo. But there are, as I see it, four roots to every Amharic verb, each can be fairly well predicted from the infinitive but not from each other. The set of rules for obtaining a root from the infinitive is different for each root, though they tend to be similar. Here, I’ll cover the present root, which is used for all present-future tense verb conjugations. As a brief recap, by ‘order’ I’m referring to the vowel that follows a consonant, where the 1st through 7th order vowels are ä, u, i, a, e, ï, and o, respectively.

To derive the present root from the infinitive:

  1. Infinitives will begin with either a “ma” or “mä”. For “mä” verbs, drop the “mä”. For “ma” verbs, drop the m only so that the root will begin with “a”.
  2. If the last letter is “t”, dropped the “t”. There are some exceptions to this rule, what I call the “stubborn t verbs”. There were five of these in the 200 verbs I looked through: “mäkfät” (‘to open’), “mač’awät” (‘to play’), “mämat” (‘to die’), “mädäsät” (‘to enjoy’), and “mämäsrät” (‘to form’). All five kept their final t’s through all conjugations in all tenses.
  3. For non-t verbs (verbs that don’t end in “t”) longer than two syllables, all 6th order consonants before the 2nd to last change to 1st order. There are a few exceptions to this, but this is the general tendency.
  4. For non-t verbs longer than two syllables, if the 2nd to last consonant is 1st order, it changes to 6th order.
  5. For non-t verbs, all 2nd order consonants change to 7th order.
  6. For non-t verbs, if the last two consonants are the same, the 2nd one is dropped.
  7. For t-verbs (those that end in t), all 6th order consonants change to 1st order.

They seem like pretty weird rules, but I was surprised how accurate I was able to conjugate verbs in the present-future tense starting only with the infinitive. In language class, we were always just given the present root, but no dictionary will list this, making it hard to learn new verbs. It’s a relief just to have SOME set of rules, to know that there is some amount of rhyme and reason to this language.

To conjugate a verb in the present-future tense, simply add a prefix and suffix to the present root as follows. Conjugations for the 3rd person polite and 3rd person plural are the same as 2nd person polite (እርስዎ), so I will not list them.

Present-Future Conjugations
Positive Negative
Prefix Suffix Prefix Suffix
እኔ (1st sg.) (ï) አለሁ (alähu) አል (al) (m)
እኛ (1st plu.) እን (ïn) አለን (alän) አን (an) (m)
አንተ (2nd m.) (tï) አለህ (aläh) አት (at) (m)
አንቺ (2nd fm.)1 (tï) አለሽ (aläsh) አት (at) (m)
እርስዎ (2nd pol.) (yï) አሉ (alu) አይ (ay) ኡም (um)
እናንተ (2nd plu.) (tï) አላችሁ (alachu) አት (at) ኡም (um)
እሱ (3rd m.) (yï) አል (al) አይ (ay) (m)
ችሷ (3rd fm.) (tï) አለች (aläch) አት (at) (m)
1 last consonant in root palatalizes, if applicable, for both positive and negative cases for 2nd per. fm.

The palatalizing consonants are:

original palatalized
(T) (tch)
(d) (j)
(t) (ch)
(s) (sh)
(z) (ž)
(ts) (tch)
(n) (ñ)
(l) (y)


In contrast, every Oromo verb has one root that is easily derived from the infinitive. Each verb falls into one of four categories: what I call “regular verbs” where the last four letters of the infinitive are vowel-consonant-u-u (e.g., rafuu, ‘to sleep’), “chuu” verbs where the last four letters are chuu (e.g., nyaachuu, ‘to eat’), “double-consonant verbs” where the last four letters are consonant-consonant-u-u (e.g.,arguu), and “irregular verbs” where the infinitive usually ends with a vowel-’-u-u (e.g., qaana’uu, du’uu). Roots are derived by removing the uu from the infinitive for regular and double-consonant verbs, the chuu from chuu verbs, and the last three letters from vowel-ending verbs. Vowel-ending verbs tend to be irregular in the 2nd per., 1st per. plu., and 3rd per. fm., but they are not common. To conjugate in the present-future sense, simply add the appropriate suffix to the verb root. For the positive:

Positive Suffix irregular examples
regular chuu double con. denda’uu bela’uu
ani (1st sg.) a dha a denda’a bela’a
nuyi/nuti (1st plu.) na na ina dendeenya belofna
ati (2nd sg.) ta ta ita dendeessa belofta
isin (2nd pol./plu.) tu tu itu dendeessu beloftu
inni (3rd m.) a ta a denda’a bela’a
isheen (3rd fm.) ti ti iti dendeessi belofti
isan (3rd pol./plu.) u tu u denda’u bela’u

Certain morphology rules will apply when adding a “t” or “n” to a verb root that ends in certain consonants. These are applied regardless of tense, person, or number.

original morphed
bt bd
gt gd
dt dd
xt xx
qt qx
tn/xn/dn/dhn nn
dht tt
st ft
sn fn
rn rr
ln ll

The the 1st per. plu. of jiruu is jirra, not jirna, for example.

Resources on the Web

There’s not a lot out there if you’re trying to learn Amharic on your own. There’s even less for Oromo. But, if you’re willing to put up with courier font and handwritten script and have plenty of bandwidth, there are quite a few older sources that can be helpful.


Some of the older ones include Blumhardt’s “Outlines of Amharic” (1867), Armbruster’s three volume set “Initia Amharica” (1908-1920), and Isenberg’s “Grammar of the Amharic Language” (1842). The explanations can be a bit dense, and the focus is more on theory than on teaching conversational Amharic, but these make for some interesting reads. Also, the fidel script is very good. Oddly, all the stuff from the 1960′s and 70′s uses handwritten script. I’m not sure how technology got worse over 120 years.

If you’re looking for something from the last century, your best bet is the FSI Amharic course from 1964 (there’s a newer one commercially available, but the 1964 is free online). This course includes 60 lesson units complete with mp3 audio (courtesy of Indiana University), a reader, and glossary. I also recommend Leslau’s “An Amharic Reference Grammar” from 1969. It uses typed phonetic Amharic with handwritten script, which is better than his “An English-Amharic dictionary of everyday usage” which only uses a barely (sometimes not even) legible handwritten fidel, but can be helpful when you can read it. The University of Utah also put out a “Fundamentals of Amharic” for the Peace Corps in 1967. It’s a three volume, 9 unit teacher’s manual for spoken Amharic that uses phonetic type exclusively.

Afaan Oromo

There are a few website that give introductory information on Oromo, namely [learn Oromo] and [Oromo Dictionary] have some good stuff. There’s a 50 page booklet from the Peace Corps put out in 1975 called “Oromo for Beginners” and focuses on the Western Ethiopian dialect. The only book for download (though not legally) I can find is Ali’s “Handbook of the Oromo Language” (1990), which is for Harar Oromo (Harar is a region in which Peace Corps Volunteers are not allowed), though it’s helpful for getting the basic grammar and vocabulary of Oromo in general.


Blumhardt, “Outlines of Amharic” (1867):

Armbruster, “Initia Amharica” (1908-1920): Vol. 1: Vol. 2: Vol. 3:

Isenberg, “Grammar of the Amharic Language” (1842):

FSI Amharic course: Text (two volumes): mp3 audio:

Leslau, “An Amharic Reference Grammar” (1969):

Leslau, “An English-Amharic dictionary of everyday usage”: Part 1: Part 2:

Barton, “Fundamentals of Amharic” (1967): Vol. 1: Vol. 2: Vol. 3:

Learn Oromo”:

Oromo dictionary:

Leta, “Oromo for Beginners” (1975):

Ali, “Handbook of the Oromo Langauge” (1990): pirated copy. If you want it, try a search for “Handbook Oromo rapidshare” (without quotes).

There’s a good source of Amharic-English.English-Amharic dictionaries scanned in at the Good Amharic Books website. They also have some children’s books telling Bible stories and some other books in Amharic.

The Defense Language Institute (DLI) has some phrase manuals with mp3s on their website. A lot of it is military oriented but there’s only some basic/helpful phrases as well.



When studying two languages, it’s natural to compare and contrast the two. Some lessons from one may apply also to the other, while other aspects may be completely different. Since I’m learning Oromo after Amharic, my inclination is to see where Oromo is easier and where things get tricky in comparison to Amharic. I’ll share here my initial thoughts.

What stands out the most in learning Amharic is the difficulty of verb conjugations. It’s not always simple to find the root from the infinitive (or the infinitive from the root) or the gerundive root from either of these. To modify a noun by person and tense, usually a prefix and suffix are added to the root. Additionally, any object pronouns are inserted as infixes. So ‘to give’ is “mäsTät” (መስጠት), ‘I give’ is “ïsäTalo” (እሰጣለሁ), and ‘I will not (or do not) give to you’ is “alsäTïhïm” (to a man)/ “alsäTïshïm” (to a woman) (አልሰጥህም/ኣልሰጥሽም). ‘To like’ is “mäwdäd” (መውደድ), ‘you (a male) like’ is “tïwädaläh” (ትወዳለህ), and ‘you (a male) like it’ is “tïwädäwaläh” (ትወደዋለህ). They pack a lot into a word, and the main difficulty of Amharic is unpacking the pieces to figure out what one word means. So it was a relief to find that Oromo verbs follow some very simple patterns. All infinitives end in “uu”, and the root is formed by removing the “uu” (or the “chuu” for those that end in “chuu”). Aside from a few irregular verbs, creating simple present and simple past in the positive or negative is straightforward. ‘To like’ is “jaalachuu”, ‘you (male or female…nice) like’ is “jaalata”, and ‘you like it’ is “isa jaalata”, as object pronouns go before the verb.

Another difference is pronunciation and spelling. See the previous post for more on this. I’ll just add here that are only five vowel sounds in Oromo plus the diphthongs, and pronounciation in unambigious from spelling. In Amharic, the first and sixth orders can be pronounced different ways, and there is no indication from the spelling which syllables are stressed. The Latin alphabet used by Oromo admittedly makes for easier reading, though it’s not as chic as the fidel script.

It’s not all rainbows and butterflies in the world of Oromo linguistics, however. Word order can be tricky, for instance. While both Amharic and Oromo use subject-object-verb order (as opposed to the subject-verb-object order most indo-european languages use), Oromo mixes things up a little more by putting adjectives after nouns and using postpositions far more often than prepositions. So to say ‘your blue pen is in my room’ would be re-ordered to ‘pen blue your room my in is’ in Oromo, or “biirii dooqee kee kutaa koo keessa jira”. It’s a new way of thinking and of structuring my thoughts, and it definitely trips me up quite a bit.

Oromo is also far more contextual than Amharic. Given that there are fewer ways of conjugating a verb in Oromo, the subject of the sentence is not always clear. Often in conversations, subjects are mentioned in the opening sentences and then never mentioned again, not even by pronoun. So if you overhear someone say “hin nyaane”, they could mean ‘he didn’t eat’, ‘she didn’t eat’, ‘I didn’t eat’, ‘you didn’t eat’, ‘we didn’t eat’, or ‘they didn’t eat’.

Finally, I’ll mention dialects. As the national language, Amharic has a “standard” based on the dialect spoken in Addis Ababa, much like the midwest accent is the American standard and London English is the standard in Britain. Standard Amharic is what is heard on the television, published in newspapers and magazines, and is generally considered “correct” Amharic. Oromo has never developed such a standard and exists currently as a dialect continuum. You’ll hear the Wellegga dialect in western Ethiopia, Borana Oromo in the south, and Harar Oromo in the east. In between there are Tulama, Arsi, Gujji, and Raya. All together, Oromo is spoken by more than 40% of Ethiopians. Additionally, Orma, Munyo, and Waata dialects are spoken in northern Kenya. This means looking up a word in Oromo usually gives you several results, whereas an English word typically has only one or two Amharic translations. I don’t yet have a sense of how interchangeable Oromo words are from different dialects. ‘Friend’ can be “saahiba”, “fira”, “michuu”, or “iriyaa” in Oromo. Amharic just has “gwadänya”. Conjugations can also differ. A book I have on Harar Oromo translates ‘they go’ as “deemani”, while I know most Oromo speakers would say “deemu”.

A Note on Spelling

As English speakers (or Spanish speakers or pretty much any Indo-European speaker), we have the idea that there is exactly one correct way to spell any given word. In America it’s ‘color’ while in Britain it’s ‘colour’, but wherever you are, there’s one correct way. I often ask people here in Ethiopia how a certain word is spelled in Amharic or Oromiffa. Their usual response to this question is to just say the word slowly rather than write it down. When I write a word down two different ways and ask which is correct, I usually get “you are right!” It’s a hard habit to break, this desire to spell things correctly, but in both languages, if it is written as it sounds, it is written correctly.

All languages have a fair share of words that sound the same (or very similar), and one obstacle of language learning is distinguishing homonyms in both speech and writing. Afaan Oromo tends to distinguish words through spelling by doubling consonants or vowels. For example, lafa is ‘ground’ and laafaa is ‘soft’, soda is ‘fear’ while soddaa means ‘in-law’, rafuu is ‘to sleep’ but raafuu is ‘cabbage’, and dhufuu is “to come” while dhuufuu is “fart”. While the double letter means you put a stress on that sound, it’s hard to distinguish these at conversational speed. But at least there is some spelling difference. Things can get confusing when the same word can be spelled slightly differently with no change in meaning. I’ve seen afaan spelled afan, nagaatti (‘take care’) spelled nagattii, baayee (‘very’) spelled bayee or ba’ee, and Oromia can be spelled Oromiya. Spelling is far from standardized in Afaan Oromo, and it can be difficult to distinguish two spellings as different words or simply different spellings of the same word.

Spelling is also a liberal practice in Amharic, though this is often done by exchanging letters that have the same sound. There are, in fact, seven ways to make a “ha” sound (, , , , , , and ), as well as two symbols for “s” sounds ( and ), two for “ts” sounds ( and ), and two for vowel sounds (“ah” can be or , or or ). In ancient Ge’ez these symbols had different meanings, but in modern Amharic they are completely interchangeable. But since Amharic uses fidel script rather than Latin letters, one cannot show stress through spelling in the way that Afaan Oromo does. And so algäbam (‘I will not enter’) and algäbbam (‘he did not enter’) are pronounced slightly differently, they are both spelled አልገባም. Similarly, አባይ can be pronounced as abay (‘liar’) or abbay (‘Nile’). መፈለግ when written can mean ‘to want’ (mäfälläg) or ‘to be wanted’ (mäffäläg), አለ can be ‘he said’ (alä) or ‘he/it is present’ (allä), ተነሳ can be ‘stand up’ (tänäsa) or ‘he stood up’ (tänässa), and ‘free’ is pronounced nätsa while ‘it became clear’ is nätssa though both are spelled ነጻ. Also consonant + “wa” sounds have their own order (the 8th order), though the “wa” may be spelled out, so that እሷ and እሰዋ have the same pronunciation and meaning (“iswa”, ‘she’).

For my purposes here, I’ll try to be as consistent as possible. I think I’ll keep Amharic in phonetics so 1) people can read it without learning fidel, and 2) I don’t have to keep switching back and forth between fonts. I offer a brief pronunciation guide for Amharic vowels:

ä – can be pronounced “uh” as in ‘what’, or as a short “e” as in ‘debt’

u – as in ‘moon’ or ‘oops’

i – like the letter E, as in ‘we‘ or ‘tea

a – an “ah” sound as in ‘water’ or ‘hot’

e – an “ey” sound as in ‘grey‘ or ‘hey

ï – the tricky sixth order. Often, it is not pronounced, so I’ll write it out only when it is. Sometimes a short “i” sound as in ‘hit’, sometimes (usually after “s” or “w”) makes a “eu” sound as in ‘book’ or ‘hood’. “Sïkwar” and “wïsha” are pronounced almost like “sookwar” and “woosha”, whereas “lïk” is pronounced ‘lick’

o – long O, and in ‘no‘, ‘ode’, or ‘window’

ay – like the letter I, as in ‘why‘ or ‘high

aw – as in ‘cow‘ or ‘out’

It Begins

When I first arrived in my town, I had only studied Amharic during PST. As I walked around, sat in on meetings, overheard conversations at restaurants, I could pick out Amharic words here and there. My natural assumption was that Amharic was the main language here since I heard it everywhere, and that if I was going to be able to pick up more than a few random words I would need to get much better at Amharic. So I studied. I got to the point that I could go shopping and get around town, greet people and make simple conversation. But I still couldn’t understand a lot of what people were saying to each other, and the assumption was always that this was due to my poor Amharic. And my Amharic is indeed poor.

But many farmers outside of my town speak mainly Oromiffa, so I had an intensive week of Afaan Oromo lessons and began preparing questions for the local farmers. Then my walks around town got a little more interesting. I walk up to a suk (Amharic for ‘store’) and ask if the balasuk (‘store keeper’, literally ‘store husband’) in my best Oromiffa if he has any cooking oil. He say “eeyee” (‘yes’) and without thinking I asking what kinds he has in Amharic. I immediately realized I switched languages, and I’m expecting a laugh from the balasuk. But without batting an eye he says “tokko bitcha” (tokko meaning ‘one’ in afaan oromo, bitcha meaning ‘only’ in Amharic). I can’t tell if he’s making fun of me. I keep walking. I hear things like “bättam garrii” or “baayee tiru” (both mean ‘very good’ if you put the languages together). I began to see that a lot (though certainly not all) of what I wasn’t understanding before was actually Oromiffa. It wasn’t that some people were speaking Amharic and some were speaking Oromiffa. Everyone was speaking both. Together. At the same time.

For most PCVs in non-English speaking countries, the task of learning a new language can seem daunting. Learning two languages in not uncommon and can seem downright impossible. But learning two languages mixed together, not able to stay in a state-of-mind that is one or the other, as if they were one super language. That’s just unfair. How would you teach a man from China Spanglish? A few other PCVs in bilingual communities have chosen one language or the other, stating the rationale “I’d rather be good at one language than bad at two”. But both languages are such a part of the community here, I hear them both in every office and shay bet (‘tea house’), and I can’t imagine being successful here knowing only half of what people are saying. And so I dive in. I’m trying to spend at least an hour everyday on each language, but you’d be surprised (unless your a PCV or RPCV) at how much time it takes to just stay alive and relatively clean and healthy out here. But I have goals, and I think so far I’m doing okay.

I’ve already started to realize to possibilities of Afaan Amariña. Much of what’s difficult in Amharic (verb conjugations, in-fixes that go right in the middle of a word rather than good ol’ fasioned prefixes or suffixes) are relatively easy in Oromiffa. Conversly, Oromiffa has some strange sounds (an implosive ‘dha’), a hard to manage numbering system (201 is literally ‘hundred two and one’), and no pattern at all for pluralizing nouns. I can pick and choose what I like about each language, use Amharic nouns and prepositions with Oromiffa verbs and object markers, and people seem to understand me just fine, as if what I was speaking was an actual language. But I guess it is a language, it’s their language much like Spanglish is the language of many in southern California. What I thought would be a terrible burden seems instead to be a wonderful opportunity. I’m much more excited about learning Afaan Amariña than I ever was about Amharic or Oromiffa. I think this is going to be fun.

For a while now I’ve been thinking of starting a blog. As a Peace Corps volunteer, it seems like the thing to do. It’s not always easy to Skype or call friends and family back home due to the time difference, people rarely being online at the same time, or the phone charges for calls between the US and Ethiopia. So a blog seems like an easy way to check in with the world, let people know I’m alive and okay and what I’ve been up to.

There’s only one problem: my life here is not at all interesting. Current Peace Corps Ethiopia blogs are listed at, and you will not learn anything about Peace Corps life in Ethiopia from me that you couldn’t get from these already existing blogs. I have my good days and bad, frustrations and successes, but when I write them down they all seem pretty trivial.

But there’s one thing that stands out as making my life different here than for many (though not all) PCVs. While those in the north (and larger cities elsewhere in Ethiopia) are speaking Amharic (amariña), and those in the in the small towns of Oromia are speaking Oromiffa (afaan oromoo), the people in my town speak what I can best describe as “Afaan Amariña”. It is, apparently, common in the mid-sized towns of Oromia that neither the local language nor the national language dominates, but the two exist together, intermingling until they become one. The phenomenon fascinated me enough to start writing about it and about my journey of learning the Spanglish of Ethiopia, and I share these writings with no expectations of them being useful or interesting to anyone, only in the hopes that they will be.


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