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Reference Grammar of Amharic.

By WOLF LESLAU. Wiesbaden: OTTO HARRASSOWITZ, 1995. Pp. xlv + 1044. DM 228.

This thorough and detailed grammar of Amharic, representing over thirty years of research, supplants all previous such works and so represents a significant event in the modern history of Amharic. It is yet another significant event in the career of Wolf Leslau (now in his ninety-first year), doyen of Ethiopian studies.

Amharic is an important world language of perhaps fifteen million speakers, somewhat fewer in Africa than Arabic, Swahili, Hausa, and Oromo. It is the second most populous Semitic language, after Arabic, and the lingua franca and constitutionally recognized national language of Ethiopia. Besides its status as an important national language and lingua franca of the Horn of Africa as well as Ethiopia, Amharic deserves attention as the most studied and best attested of the Ethiopian Semitic languages and, as such, is the best representative of this historically and typologically interesting group. With the appearance of this grammar, modern Amharic is perhaps now as accessible to comparative study as its much more famous cousins, modern Arabic and Hebrew, and perhaps more accessible than any other African language, including Swahili, for which I doubt there exists a grammar as thorough as this one.

The traditional territory of the Amharas is the mountainous north-central part of Ethiopia consisting of the regions of Begemder (Gondar region); western Wello, Gojjam, and Menz. Today, however, perhaps the majority of town and city-dwelling Ethiopians, except in largely Tigrinya-speaking Tigre province, are at least second-language speakers of Amharic. Despite the recent independence of Eritrea, one still often hears Amharic regularly in the streets of Asmara, and the influence of Amharic extends into the Ethiopian border regions of Somalia, Sudan, and Kenya. (Recently in Chicago I had a passable conversation in Amharic with a taxi driver from Somalia who had visited Ethiopia only once.) Except in the core Amhara areas of Shoa, Gojjam, and Begemder, Amharic speakers in Ethiopia are often bilingual, and probably most have another Ethiopian language as their native language.

There are recognizable regional varieties or dialects of Amharic: of Shoa, Begcinder, Gojjam, and Menz-Wello, but the differences among them are minor, mainly concerning pronunciation. Not just the political capital, Addis Ababa is nowadays the focus of Ethiopian economic and social life, and its Amharic has become the prestige variety.

There are Amharic manuscripts from the fourteenth century, and publication in Amharic has increased steadily since the beginning of this century. There was a flourishing of Amharic creative writing in the immediate post-revolutionary period after 1975, and Amharic publications today include writings of all sorts: poetry, newspapers, literary and news magazines, drama, novels, history, textbooks, etc. Another product of the revolution was widespread emigration of Ethiopians; Amharic language magazines are now published in the U.S. and Europe to serve these flourishing Ethiopian populations.

In Ethiopia, Amharic has spread considerably into territory earlier populated by speakers of other languages - in ancient times the southern Agaw language of north-central Ethiopia, and since the nineteenth century, languages of the south such as Cushitic Sidamo and Omotic Kafa. As a result, Amharic has acquired considerable lexical and grammatical similarity with these other Afroasiatic languages, but shows surprisingly little of the grammatical regularization and thorough paradigm leveling often associated with extensive use as a second language - though, as in other Ethiopian Semitic languages, some Semitic features are leveled, including broken plurals and gender distinction in the plural verb.

Nor has considerable word-borrowing led to grammar change. Amharic has efficient word-derivational resources of its own, but can borrow words from Ge ez with almost no need for nativization, a practice nowadays favored by purists for the satisfaction of needs for technical, political, or other new vocabulary. Borrowings from Italian during the 1936-41 Italian occupation did not at all penetrate the basic vocabulary, nor do words from English, the principal source of borrowed words nowadays, perhaps because the root-and-pattern morphological type makes the adaptation of Indo-european words somewhat problematic. (E.g.: derived by Amharic suffix, sara at-ennat 'unemployment'; an English loan: sosalist 'socialist'; and constructed from GeCez words, sara abyot 'counter-revolutionary'.)

A national language academy was established in Ethiopia in 1972, with the purpose largely of standardizing the language and, especially, of guiding the expansion of Amharic technical and scientific vocabulary, but after the revolution of 1975 the resources of the central government were directed more widely, toward publication, broadcasting, and education in as many as fifteen relatively populous Ethiopian languages. A massive nationwide literacy campaign from 1979 greatly, if superficially, increased literacy throughout Ethiopia, but benefits spread over fifteen languages probably still accrued mainly to Amharic, as the Ethiopian language in which motivated readers could best find materials to sustain and expand literacy.

It is doubtful if the pervasive spread of Amharic has significantly slowed in Ethiopia, and the availability now of Lestau's grammar, in the European language best known by Ethiopians - particularly its availability as a model for similar works in Amharic - may now play a significant direct role in appreciation and standardization of the language, and thus indirectly in its further promotion.

Leslau's Reference Grammar of Amharic is easily now the most complete, thorough, and up-to-date grammar of Amharic, far surpassing all previous works in its treatment of almost all grammatical aspects of the language. At 1044 pages, this is not surprising. The grammar itself is preceded by a brief introduction, with acknowledgments and a very complete bibliography of over three hundred items. Appended are lengthy indexes and twenty-eight tables that present the Amharic wilting system and compare pronoun and verb paradigms (though paradigms are presented where these are introduced in the grammar).

Each section of the grammar is numbered and clearly labeled in a very thorough organizational scheme, and these numbers and labels also appear at the top of each page. Margins are generous but not excessive, page and print-size are adequate, and, while no doubt expensive, the high-quality binding permits the book to open at any page and lie flat. The thorough English index (61 pp.) makes the book a rich and ready resource for linguists doing comparative work, and the index of Amharic grammatical morphemes (31 pp.) will be particularly useful for those who read and translate Amharic, extending another indispensable resource already supplied by Leslau, namely, his Amharic-English Context Dictionary (1973).

Leslau mentions (p. xxi) that this work differs from previous grammars of Amharic in "the application of a different methodology, and in a much more detailed description of the phonology, morphology and syntax. Moreover, nearly every grammatical feature is illustrated by sentences referring to incidents of everyday life." The different methodology seems to be the expansion of coverage from traditional topics, mainly arising from the perspective of Semitic comparative grammar, to those which have a place, in their own right, in Amharic grammar. In addition to expected topics like assimilation, expression of the superlative, and word order, one finds, for example, a page and a half on "insertion of n, r," dealing with Amharic words differing in this way from Ge ez cognates; more than a page on metathesis, words in which Amharic has reversed the order of phones of the presumed Semitic original form (Leslau must have been making notes on these for years); fifteen pages on nominalizing suffixes (Leslau has followed the extensive work on Amharic nominalization of Olga Kapeliuk, e.g., Kapeliuk 1988); and an entire final chapter of ten pages on interjections. Information about dialectal differences is occasionaily supplied, usually as footnotes. The thorough treatment of phonology, including how the writing system variably presents some of these intricacies, is another improvement over previous grammars.

There is appropriately extensive coverage of areas in which Amharic has particularly copious resources, such as derived verbal morphology, noun clauses, the syntax of noun and adjective clause (especially so-called cleft and pseudo-cleft sentences), and idiom formation with the verbs alii 'say' and adarraga 'do'. Where there is variation, Leslau supplies the variants, as where some "impersonal verbs" are shifting into personals; for example, we find both impersonal dakkama-nn and personal dakkam-ku 'I am/got tired'. Idioms, such as the expression of indefinitehess and adverbs, are listed and often exemplified at length. Regarding Amharic idioms, one resource absent in Leslau's bibliography may be mentioned here - the idiom dictionary of Amsalu Aklilu and Danacaw Warku 1986.

As mentioned, all exemplification is by "sentences referring to incidents of everyday life," a significant innovation in this grammar and heralded in Leslau's English-Amharic Context Dictionary, which also illustrates with original ordinary-life sentences. Leslau mentions (p. xxii) the special contribution of Yonas Admassu in supplying most of these excellent examples. Notice that exemplification is by sentences, which has added entirely helpful length to the book. On the other hand, unlike previous authors of Amharic grammars, Leslau has wisely avoided mixing etymological and other historical matters into the grammar. While these would undoubtedly have added usefulness and interest for many of us, they would also have added not-sohelpful length, and expense, for the majority of more pragmatically oriented users.

Especially welcome, and also different in this grammar, is the presentation of all examples in both Amharic orthography and phonemic transcription. As Leslau notes, transcription effectively overcomes the problem presented by the two main shortcomings of Amharic orthography: its failure to distinguish long and short consonants or the presence or absence of "sixthorder" vowels. In the past, by using Amharic orthography exclusively some grammarians side-stepped the problem - for those who lack Amharic phonological intuition - of knowing where long consonants and sixth-order vowels appear (even the best Ethiopian dictionaries won't tell you). Others, using only phonemic transcription, avoided the problem of deciding correct Amharic spellings of words with historically merged consonants (the best Ethiopian dictionaries sometimes err on this). Leslau has capably tackled both problems.

Because "the examples illustrating various grammatical features require a basic knowledge of Amharic," as Leslau says (p. xxi), the grammar is not intended for beginners but for "advanced students of the language and scholars specializing in Amharic studies," and perhaps "the general Semitist who might be interested in a specific feature of the language yet not be familiar with the Amharic script." However, with the phonemic transcriptions, probably any knowledgeable linguist will be able to make good use of the grammar, if with a bit of native-speaker assistance - so the grammar should also be able to serve even the rapidly growing subfield of linguistic typology and the search for language universals, in which, regarding syntax, Amharic is a notable frequent exception to generalizations. The possibility of such use is somewhat qualified by the fact that the table of contents and the indexes present Amharic words in Amharic orthography only, without phonemic transcription, and that the Amharic index is organized by the Amharic alphabetical order. (For all but Amharicist users, it would have been helpful to have ordered this index, as in Leslau's 1987 Comparative Dictionary of Ge ez, according to the transcription, or perhaps to have provided the Amharic alphabetic order at the bottom of each pair of facing pages.)

I have so far noticed only a few unimportant misprints (e.g., 'imperfecct' in table VIII), and no errors of importance, with the possible exception of the omission of the identification of the "him" forms at the bottom of table II on p. 419 and of the "you" and "him" forms at the bottom of the paradigm on p. 422 as "respectful/polite" forms. By avoiding etymologies, Leslau has escaped most potential reviewer quibbles, and assured the lasting value of this work. As one such quibble, I notice some irregularity in the provision of the second- and third-person respectful/polite forms in the paradigms given in the text; for example, these are given in the paradigm of the independent pronouns (p. 46), but are mentioned only in the text that follows the paradigm of the possessive suffixes (pp. 50-51), and the second-person polite forms are absent in the appendixed grammatical tables for possession, the copula, and the "prepositional suffixed pronouns" (p. 1025).

Grammarians, linguists, Semiticists, Ethiopianists, students, and curious speakers of Amharic will be well and long served by this exemplary work. For advanced students of the language, it will become an indispensable tool.


Amsalu Aklilu and Danacaw Warku. 1986. Yamarana Falitocc. Addis Ababa: Kuraz.

Kapeliuk, Olga. 1988. Nominalization in Amharic. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Leslau, Wolf. 1973 Amharic-English Context Dictionary. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

-----. 1987. Comparative Dictionary of Ge ez. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

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Author:Hudson, Grover
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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Next Article:Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau on the Occasion of His Eighty-fifth Birthday, November 14th, 1991, 2 vols.

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