To begin with less controversial fact, today’s Amhara is not exactly what it is referred in old historical scripts of the country (Ethiopia). It has mostly been used to refer to the Christians, and also, to mean ‘good people’. It is also used seldom to mean Amharic speaking people. But, all of these are when the Amharic speaking people use it; for example, Oromos used to say ‘Sidama’ to refer to the Amhara. There are many people who still use the phrase ‘Afaan Sidama’ to say ‘Afaan Amhara’. EPRDF’s ethnic federalism definded Amhara as the people who are residing in Northern Shoa, Gojjam, Gondar, Wollo, and also people currently residing in other regions whose parents are originally from these places.
To know how Amharic language evolved would help us learn how the people, who are currently considered as ‘Amhara’, have reached here. Even though it is second largest “ethnic group” (population wise), Amharic is most spoken in Ethiopia. Yet, it is not oldest langauge in the country. Legend has it that it was in Shoa, in the 13th Century, that the language was first born. Others say it was first spoken by ‘Amahara Sayint’ people as early as seventh century. Either way, the language is younger than Cushitic languages that include Afaan Oromo and Somali and also than most Omotic and Nilo-Saharan languages.
How does it grow larger and faster? Who are the people who are speaking it now? There are many possible answers for the first question. One of the possible and not controversial answers is that its adoption by the ruling elites has contributed to its quick growth. For the second question, we can certainly speak about the fact that the first people who started to speak Amharic used to have other languages as well. So, we can deduct a conclusion that may not please people who define ethnicity based on only language. This is because the birth and expansion of Amharic language proves the fore fathers of the current Amharic language speakers will happen to have another ethnicity according to language-based definition of ethnicity.
Scholars say Amharic is a child of Ge’ez, currently dying Semitic language; but, also say its syntax has similarity with Cushitic languages such as Afaan Oromo. The likes of Donald Levin suspect, while trying to explain how the Semitic language could have Cushitic syntax, ‘Amharic maybe created when the Oromo try to speak Ge’ez’. It maybe true. Bahru Zewdie has also written that ‘Amharic has more words derived from the Cushitic Afaan Oromo instead of its presumed parent language Ge’ez’.
Amharic language became official language of Ethiopia’s rulers since the 19th century, during the reign of Emperor Theodros II. Before that, Ge’ez used to be the official language of the rulers even to have their stories recorded. The adaptation of Amharic language as an official language of state has advantantaged the language’s expansion. In the Imperial Ethiopia, the central source of legitimacy was Orthodox Christianity. Added to that, to speak Amharic language became a necessity as Amharic was promoted to be the official language.
So, people – whatever their ethnic background is – have to be Christians and speak Amharic to have the maximum chance of taking over leadership. (The exceptions won’t count here. In the Yejju era (also called as ‘Era of the Princes’) Afaan Oromo is said to have become language of the palace; and before that, Gondar royalities had adopted Catholic Christianity. Both lived short. During Emperor Menelik II’s reign, King of Jimma, Abba Jifar, could keep his faith of Islam and submitted to the King of Kings. But, no similar diversity has ever been experienced before and after.)
But, since Orthodox Christianity is the main factor to seek royality (and also maybe because the current Tigray region is where the state was founded), Tigrians have shares in leadership regardless of their language difference. This makes Christianization a factor of eligibility to rule. To communicate effectively with the central ruling elite, it also needs one Amharanize oneself. Thus Amharanization often involved both Orthodox Christianization as well as Amharic language skills. Accordingly, people of any ethnic background Amharanize themselves as they get close to the ruling elites’ inner circle.
Amhara people speak of their birth place (saying I’m Gojjamé, Gondarré, Showayé or Wolloyé) when they are asked about their identity; other ethnic groups such as Oromo and Somali speak of their tribal family roots (AKA gossa) or that they are Oromo or Somali to tell their identity. This is an implication that the Amhara do not have direct familial (tribal) line but mixed background.
Now, there is a society (or, an ethnic group) that is identified as Amhara. And, this Amhara have a common psychological make up that keep them together. This common psychological make up is usually pride. The source of this pride is the long standing narration of heroism and leadership opportunity they had. They do have strong sense of ownership to the state. They make proud of the fact that they had central role in forming the Ethiopian state. And, therefore, they don’t like critics of the way Ethiopia is formed. They hate anyone who hates the Imperial rulers and dislike who doesn’t like the state.
The Amhara Privilege
Because Amharic is official for at least the past 200 years, the Amhara are advantaged by getting the ultimate chance to determine (participate in determining) the fate of the country. Currently, in this ethnically federalized republic, Amharic is spoken in almost every corner of the country. Amharic speaking people are privileged to easily communicate in all towns existed in Ethiopia better than any other language speakers. In fact, many Amharas reject this privilege as non existent only because all Amharic speaking people are not Amharas.
The Amhara Challenge
As privileged as Amharas are in the past historical events and its legacies, they are also victims of its short falls. All Amhara people were not members to the royal members. Many were just ordinary people who tilled the land of the the lords. However, the revolution of 1974 which has thrown away the Imperial system has also came up with a narration that blames the Amhara for almost everything. Amhara became the antagonist of the new narration. Given the history of the people, Amhara people are most dispersed of all. They have communities in every other ethnically categorized new regiones. They are often victims of displacement and are viewed as settlers. The history they make pride made them victims in a contrary interpretation.
The Amhara Psychology – the pride in the way the republic was founded and in the role they had to – kept many of Amharas rejecting the Amhara nationalism in an ethnonationalist federation. But, the Amhara challenge made it a necessity to forge a nationalism. In addition, Ethiopian nationalism claims of the Amhara is criticized to be a camouflage to keep the interests of the ethnic group. However, the challenge is the way the ethnic group is created. It has no straight familial (tribal) line which can make members associated with and protective of. So, it needs different approach to convince the Amhara take its part in the federal members competitio and limit affairs in regional issues when necessary.
Amhara people are said to be extremely individualist than collectivist which ethnonationals need to survive. Newly growing Amhara nationalists so far failed to define the social psychology, history and demands of Amhara people. There is no single book so far published with the title ‘History of Amhara’. And no pragmatic Amhara nationalism is formulated so far. This has posed a challenge in identifying the very way Amahara nationalism, without destroying the social tendency of individualism, should be established to keep the benefits of the people while helping it live with others in harmony.