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 (ሀ, ሃ, ሐ, ሓ, ኀ, ኃ, and ኻ), as well as two symbols for “s” sounds (ሰ and ሠ), two for “ts” sounds (ጸ and ፀ), and two for vowel sounds (“ah” can be አ or ዐ, or ኣ or ዓ). 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’