My relationship with Amharic started with some trepidation, because after all, if I’d managed to go back to India for a job, I would already KNOW a bit of Hindi and Marathi. So it did require an intellectual and emotional squaring of shoulders and commitment to embark on another language-learning quest. Especially in the US, not hearing Amharic spoken around me, phrases like betam amesingenalehun (thank you very much) weren’t exactly rolling off my tongue! I wondered if all words in Amharic had that many syllables 🙂
But as with most things, I think in the end it’s mostly about the amount of effort you put into it, and I was / am determined to learn the language as a way to connect with people. It’s still difficult, but I’m picking it up bit by bit, reinforced by the inordinate but gratifying number of smiles that result when you say the right greeting or word.
The greeting process itself is very emotionally filling: rather than just a “Hey” or “Good morning” like you might find in the US, there’s almost always an embrace: men, or a man and a woman, use the handshake to pull in and touch opposite shoulders (sort of a combo of a handshake and a hug); while women (and sometimes women and men) touch cheeks once, twice, three times! I’d experienced the two-cheek kiss in other places before, but with that as the baseline, the addition of the third one feels like a bonus! i.e. “You’re so special I’ll give you three!” 🙂 And that’s all before the talking- Salaam (hello) (related to the same Arabic / Hebrew word for peace), Dena alleh? (how are you), Dena adderu (good morning), etc. And as with many places I’ve visited, the whole process is relaxed, savored… even if they’re the same questions you hear every day, people hang around long enough to hear the answer and are interested in it!
Another motivating factor is to be able to understand just a bit of what people are saying in their conversations. For example, one morning on the minibus (I study my little book during the commute to work), I wanted to learn the word for guava, since I’d just bought some the day before (and was now carrying some in my clear lunch bag). It’s zaytun (isn’t that beautiful?! I love the way it sounds [z-eye-tune], powerful yet delicate, and kind of want to name my future kid that, but then when they discover their name means guava they may not be too impressed. So much for that one I guess!). So anyway, I learn the word, then as I get off the minibus and walk through the streets to work, I pass a group of school kids. Naturally, they’re curious about the ferengi (foreigner). As I passed, I heard them say zaytun, and it was SO exciting to be able to understand what they were talking about! Small victory but a victory nonetheless 🙂
I’ve already heard a few words Amharic has in common with Arabic, so it looks like there’s been some linguistic overlap between the two regions.
For the most part there aren’t any crazy-impossible sounds (I’m still frustrated about Hindi / Marathi’s four ways of saying “d” and “b” and not being able to make that forceful BUH sound [and not being understood!]. Haha just kidding, still love Hindi & Marathi). Amharic does have these cool clicking sounds though, which are obviously hard to describe through writing but just add a little spice to the fast-paced conversation.
Amharic even looks beautiful – very ancient-looking, you can easily imagine it carved onto some stone wall or tablet from 2,000+ years ago. I’m not sure I’ll be able to read and write it in a year, because for each of the 38 characters, there are 7 different forms depending on the vowel it’s next to!
And here’s a link to some Ethiopian music! (my free blog isn’t quite cool enough for me to embed the songs directly haha)
Dorky video but cool music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYjJxHInKGY
And here’s one by the biggest singer in Ethiopia now, Teddy Afro. 15,000 people were at his concert last week! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5OnYA8Q6Jk