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date: 14 December 2017

Linguistic Landscape of Ethiopia

Summary and Keywords

The linguistic landscape (henceforth LL) has proven to be a fruitful approach for investigating various societal dimensions of written language use in the public sphere. First introduced in the context of bilingual Canada as a gauge for measuring ethnolinguistic vitality, in the 21st century it is the focus of a thriving field of inquiry with its own conference series, an increasing number of publications, and an international journal dedicated exclusively to investigating language and other semiotic resources used in the public arena. The scholarship in this domain has centered on European and North American geographical sites; however, an increasingly voluminous share of studies addresses the LL of sites across the world through both books and articles. African contributions have added an important dimension to this knowledge base as southern multilingualisms bring into question the very concept of language in that speakers and writers draw on their rich linguistic repertoires, avoiding any compartmentalization or separation of what is traditionally conceived of as languages. The LL of Ethiopia has contributed to this growing base of empirical studies in the exploration of language policy issues, identity constructions, language contact, and the sociolinguistics of globalization. A new language policy of ethnic federalism was introduced to the country in the 1990s following a civil war and through a new constitution. This policy was set to recognize the various ethnolinguistic groups in the country and the official use of ethnic/regional languages to satisfy local political and educational needs. Through this, languages previously unwritten required a script in order for speakers to communicate in them in written texts. And many regions have chosen the Latin script above the Ethiopic script. Nonetheless, some languages remain invisible in the public sphere. These events create an exciting laboratory for studying the LL. Given the change of language policy since the late 20th century and the fast-growing economy of Ethiopia (one of the poorest countries on the continent) the manifest and increasingly visible display of languages in the LL provides an excellent lens for studying various sociolinguistic phenomena.

Keywords: linguistic landscape, Ethiopia, language policy, identity, language contact, multilingualism, regional languages, ethnic federalism, Fidel, globalization

1. The Linguistic Landscape as a Sociolinguistic Lens for Ethiopia

The linguistic landscape (henceforth LL) has proven to be a fruitful approach for investigating various societal dimensions of written language use in the public sphere. First introduced by Landry and Bourhis (1997) in the context of bilingual Canada as a gauge for measuring ethnolinguistic vitality, today it is the focus of a thriving field of inquiry with its own conference series, an increasing number of publications, and an international journal dedicated exclusively to investigating language and other semiotic resources used in the public arena. The scholarship in this domain has centered on European and North American geographical sites (Blackwood & Tufi, 2015; Blommaert, 2013; Gorter, 2006); however, an increasingly voluminous share of studies addresses the LL of sites across the world (Backhaus, 2006; Gorter, Marten, & Van Mensel, 2011; Rubdy & Ben Said, 2015; Shohamy, Ben-Rafael, & Barni, 2010; Shohamy & Gorter, 2008) through both books and articles. African contributions have added an important dimension to this knowledge base (see, e.g., McLaughlin, 2015; Stroud & Mpendukana, 2009; Williams & Lanza, 2016) as southern multilingualisms bring into question the very concept of language in that speakers and writers draw on their rich linguistic repertoires, avoiding any compartmentalization or separation of what is traditionally conceived of as languages (Good & Di Carlo, 2016; Makoni & Pennycook, 2006; Storch, 2015).

The LL of Ethiopia has contributed to this growing base of empirical studies in explorations of language policy issues, identity constructions, language contact, and the sociolinguistics of globalization, especially in light of the globalized economy in Ethiopia. These issues are of particular importance for Ethiopia given the country’s history, and the study of the LL has contributed to our understanding of these complex issues. Notably, the fourth international conference on Linguistic Landscape (LL4) was held in Addis Ababa in November of 2012. Ethiopia is a multilingual, multiethnic, and culturally pluralistic sub-Saharan country located in the Horn of Africa and bordering with Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and Eritrea (see Figure 1). The population of the country is approximately 90 million and comprises various peoples, each claiming a particular language (Crass & Meyer, 2008; Levine, 2000; Prunier, 2007). According to Ethnologue (2017), Ethiopia has 88 distinct living languages. Ethiopia’s languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan phyla, each subdivided into a number of families of languages, with the population sizes of the speakers of these languages varying considerably. The Semitic language Amharic is the “national working language of the country, the first language of many speakers in the capital area, and a second language” used throughout the country. At present, however, Ethiopia’s major ethnic group is the Oromo, who speak a Cushitic language of the same name and constitute about 40% of Ethiopia’s total population. The other major Semitic language in the country is Tigrinya, spoken by the Tigrayans in the north of the country in the region bordering Eritrea, which has the language as its national language. The Semitic Amhara and Tigrayans comprise only 32% of the population of the country while they have dominated historically and politically. The Ethiopian script, referred to as “Fidel,” is unique to the country and has been used for centuries, in particular for writing Ethiopia’s Semitic languages.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Federal regions of Ethiopia (Map: http://flagspot.net).

A new language policy of ethnic federalism was introduced to the country in the 1990s following a civil war and through a new constitution. This policy was set to recognize the various ethnolinguistic groups in the country and the official use of ethnic/regional languages to satisfy local political and educational needs. Through this, languages previously unwritten required a script in order for speakers to be able to communicate in them. And many regions have chosen the Latin script above Fidel. Nonetheless some languages remain invisible in the public sphere. In this regard, Shohamy (2006, p. 110) affirms that the presence or absence of languages in public spaces conveys “symbolic messages about the importance, power, significance and relevance of certain languages or irrelevance of others.” These events create an exciting laboratory for studying the LL. Given the change of language policy during the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the fast-growing economy of Ethiopia (one of the poorest countries on the continent) (see Lanza & Woldemariam, 2013), the manifest and increasingly visible display of languages in the LL provides an excellent lens for studying various sociolinguistic phenomena in the country, including language policy issues, identity constructions, language contact, and the effects of globalization.

2. Language Policy in Ethiopia and the LL

As is often the case in multilingual countries, in Ethiopia, with its many indigenous languages, a single language came to dominate the LL. This language is Amharic, a Semitic language, which is arguably the most advanced African language due to its long literacy tradition. Having served as a national language for so long, Amharic was until recently the only language of literacy,1 the only medium of instruction in schools, and a lingua franca for most people from different ethnolinguistic backgrounds. Amharic has played an important role in all domains in society, including the LL. Since 1991, however, with the new language policy that promotes other vernacular languages to serve as official languages in their respective localities, Amharic has been essentially relegated to functioning as the working language of the federal government. Regional states in Ethiopia have been granted the right to choose their respective official languages to serve in administration, primary education, media, and other functions. Though there is no official language policy that dictates which languages can be used in the public sphere, the LL in Ethiopia broadly reflects the de facto language policy of the respective region.

The language policy and LL of Ethiopia have undergone significant milestones corresponding with various political regimes in the country. The language policies of Ethiopia during the imperial and military regimes throughout the 20th century until the 1990s promoted the use of Amharic as the only national and official language of the country and the language to be used in all public spheres. The current language policy, however, which came into effect in 1991, grants the use of one’s language of choice in all public arenas. Consequently, regional languages have been widely used in the public space, education sector, administration, and judiciary systems as well as in the media (Getachew & Derib, 2006; Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008, 2014a; Smith, 2008). The new constitution that advocates a policy of “ethnic federalism” guarantees that persons belonging to various ethnic and linguistic minorities shall not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture or use their own language. Accordingly, various proclamations have been made to undertake the decentralization of decision making between central and regional administrations; this includes the decentralization of language choice as dictated in the federal constitution, which has led to the official use of languages other than Amharic by members of different ethno-linguistic communities (Hoben, 1994; Smith, 2008). A national Educational and Training Policy that promotes “mother tongue education” and the publication of text materials in vernacular languages has also been introduced (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2014b). As a result, over 30 ethnic languages have been selected for development as media of instruction for primary education in their respective localities.

In this new political era, regional languages, particularly the major ones such as Oromo, Tigrinya, Wolaitta, and Sidama have become especially visible in their respective regional capital cities. This is a situation that is relatively unprecedented in the country, as the early-21st-century policy opens up for more regionalism with regard to language choice in education and hence literacy. An investigation of the LL of Mekele, the capital city of the Tigray region, one of the nine regional states in Ethiopia (see Figure 1), revealed that Tigrinya, the official regional language of the Tigray region, has the most visibility (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008). This may indicate the relative power and status of the competing language groups. Lanza and Woldemariam’s (2008) study aimed to investigate the ethnolinguistic vitality of languages in the regional capital of Tigray through what may be referred to as a classic study of LL in which all visible signs in a designated area are inventoried and subsequently counted in order to attest to the individual language’s visibility in the public sphere. While there are potential pitfalls with such a quantitative approach (see “Critical Analysis of the Scholarship”), the methodology does provide insights into the impact of the current language policy in the country. A similar situation was found in the Oromia region with Oromo figuring in both monolingual, as well as bilingual/trilingual signs (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014) (see Figure 2).

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Visibility of Oromo signs in Adama, capital city of Oromia (photo: H. Woldemariam).

In spite of the policy ideals to promote all Ethiopian languages to be used in different domains of language use in society, the absence of minority languages from the LL is still a reality in most multilingual regions, which focus only on promoting major languages or on continuing the use of Amharic. In their study of the LL of the Harari region in eastern Ethiopia, Yigezu and Blackwood (2016) point out that in spite of the language policy that promotes the Harari language in the eastern part of the country, the LL in the area is still dominated by Amharic. Similar observations have also been made about other minority groups in southern Ethiopia by Mendisu, Malinowski, and Woldemichael (2016), who indicate the nearly complete absence of two minority languages in the area, namely Gedeo and Koorete, from the LL of the towns of Dilla and Amarro-Keele. The authors raise questions about the feasibility of promoting local language policies into practices of visibly displaying minority language. In the same manner, Lanza and Woldemariam (2008) report the absence of minority languages such as Irob and Kunama in the LL of the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia. The situation clearly demonstrates the power and status of a majority or strong minority group over other minority groups. Socio-political control can indeed be exerted by regulating the discourses of space, in particular through the languages overtly or covertly sanctioned for representation in the public sphere.

Another important language that dominates the LL in Ethiopia is English, often considered the language of modern globalization. Languages may be said to compete for written attention in the public sphere, and hence English rivals Amharic in its extensive presence in the public spaces of the country, particularly in urban areas. The LL in Ethiopian cities is increasingly marked by the use of English, not only in general signage but also through international brand names and through advertising (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2013), as discussed below. Though Ethiopia has never had a colonial history, apart from the occupation by Italians from 1936–1941, English serves as a de facto second language, as a language of higher education, public broadcasting, advertisement, and much more. English is essential for everyone in the country in order to access employment opportunities in different nongovernmental and private organizations; moreover, it serves as a language of globalization for participating in international affairs. Interestingly, English is not perceived as a hegemonic colonial language in Ethiopia, as it may be in other former British colonies. However, Amharic is perceived as having played a hegemonic role in relation to other indigenous languages (Cohen, 2005; Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008, 2013, 2014b).

The language use patterns in the LL vary across different regions and territories in Ethiopia. When one journeys from the capital Addis Ababa to the regional capital cities, one can see an increase in the number of languages appearing in a sign. In Addis Ababa, the most visible signs are bilingual using both Amharic and English in the texts. In regional cities, signs are often trilingual, involving the regional official language (if it is different from Amharic), Amharic, and English (see Figure 3). With regard to the issue of language combinations and order of appearance, a regional official language commonly occurs at the top position of the sign, followed by Amharic and English respectively. Such a pattern proves to be very regular, particularly with official signs erected by government or public organizations (see Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008, 2013; Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014).

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Placement of languages in a trilingual (Oromo-Amharic-English) sign (photo: H. Woldemariam).

With private signs, any possible choice or order of languages may be found depending on the preference of the shop owner. English transliterations of Amharic and local languages are widely found in the public sphere. Bekele (2013) provides a comparative analysis of the LL in two well-known districts of Addis Ababa, namely Bole and Mercato, and illustrates considerable variation across the two sites in the city. Bole is a relatively new quarter of the city, which is favored by the international community and high-income Ethiopians, an area with an abundance of shops, supermarkets, fashionable bars, pubs, and eateries. Mercato, which is considered the largest open market in Africa, is an old district with a high concentration of local people. While Amharic is more frequently used in the LL of Mercato, occurring in monolingual and bilingual Amharic-English signs, English dominates the LL in the Bole area manifested not only by bilingual Amharic-English and English-Amharic signs but also by English-only monolingual signs (see Figure 4).

Linguistic Landscape of Ethiopia

Figure 4. Language use in bottom-up signs of Bole area (English-Amharic) (photo: H. Woldemariam).

Mercato is a place where Amharic, in contrast to English, has prominence in the LL with monolingual Amharic signs commonly used in the area. Interestingly, even in bilingual signs that employ Amharic and English, there is a tendency for the Amharic text to be highlighted distinctively, as exemplified in Figure 5.

Linguistic Landscape of Ethiopia

Figure 5. Prominence of Amharic in bilingual signs (photo: H. Woldemariam).

The LL of Ethiopia also contains traces of the Italian legacy in Ethiopia. Through monuments erected in important areas of the city municipality, and through names of schools, hospitals, bridges, streets, and other buildings, the names of important battles held between Italian fascists and Ethiopian patriots can be found (see Woldemariam, 2016). Despite their short-lived stay in Ethiopia, the Italians left vestiges of their architectural and cultural heritage, as well as place names in Addis Ababa, such as Mercato, Piazza, Kazanches, Populare. Also with the ongoing emergence of a Chinese presence in Ethiopia through investors, contractors, and technicians, the Chinese language is finding its way into Ethiopia’s multilingual landscape. In restaurant and shop signs in certain areas of Addis Ababa, Chinese has become visible even through monolingual signs. Though rarely, Arabic can also be found in the LL of the capital and in regional capitals (see Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008) with signage usually associated with Islam-affiliated organizations or restaurants (see Figure 6).

The LL of Ethiopia reflects the change of language policy in the 1990s with the new constitution promoting ethnic federalism through which more languages than only Amharic, the now federal working language, have the possibility of being used in written communication in the public sphere.

3. The LL and Language Contact in Ethiopia

Research on the LL in Ethiopia also provides a platform for investigating language contact and the extent to which such language use relates to issues such as language rights, identity, agency and power, involving the shop owners and sign designers. Woldemariam and Lanza (2014) and Lanza and Woldemariam (2014a) studied language contact that was documented in the LL between regional languages, which have only recently made the transition to literacy as the result of the new language policy, and Amharic, the federal working language that previously dominated literacy in the country. The current language policy of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia has contributed to a greater potential of regional and individual agency—the “socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (Ahearn, 2001, p. 11), and hence power, through an assertion of linguistic equality. Nonetheless, certain ideologies of linguistic hegemony from the past are often perceived to prevail through the apparent dominance and influence of Amharic in various domains, including the LL. In other words, despite the new policy of ethnic federalism that in principle elevates the status of regional languages, we may say that a persistent covert ideology among speakers/writers exalting the national language still pervades literacy practices and the more formal use of spoken language.

An ethnography of the LL of two regional centers of Ethiopia, namely Mekele and Adama, the capital cities of Tigray and Oromia regional states respectively, revealed certain literacy practices whereby the structures of Tigrigna and Oromo2 were influenced by the structure of Amharic, which, as previously noted, had until the new constitution enjoyed exclusive visibility and dominance in the entire country (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014). In other words, signs written in the regional languages in the respective capital cities clearly demonstrated the influence of phonological and grammatical features of Amharic.

Amharic syntactic patterns were attested in the manner in which locals wrote the vernacular languages. Shop signs are usually noun phrases. The syntactic structure of Amharic was, for example, applied to express the equivalent noun phrases (NPs) in the Tigrigna language. Note that while they share basic sentential word order, the Semitic languages Amharic and Tigrinya exhibit a word order difference in their noun phrases and compound nouns. Noun phrases in Amharic are right-headed while their equivalents in Tigrinya are left-headed (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014; Nega, 2003). Right-headed NPs are not considered grammatical Tigrinya forms in the spoken language and their occurrences are believed to be the result of the influence of Amharic (Reda, 2013). Nonetheless, right-headed NPs are found in the Tigrinya texts across the LL in Mekele. Shop signs that involve complex NPs that constitute an NP embedded within another NP were found following Amharic structure both in the embedded phrase as well as at the main phrasal level, as demonstrated in Table 1. However, mixed structures were also found. In the latter case, either the embedded or matrix phrase followed Amharic structure resulting in a number of various structures in the LL, as exemplified in Table 1 for signs in Mekele, Tigray, used for “stationery shop.”

Table 1. Various syntactic structures of NPs used for ‘stationery shop’ (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014)

1) [mədəbir [məsarihi s’ihfət]]

‘shop instruments writing’

[TIG [TIG]]

Both the main NP as well as the embedded NP

follow Tigrinya word order

2)[mədəbir [s’ihfət məsarihi]]

‘shop writing instruments’

[TIG [AMH]]

The embedded NP follows Amharic word order

while the main NP follows that of Tigrinya

3) [[məsarihi s’ihfət] mədəbir]]

‘instruments writing shop’

[[TIG] AMH]]

The embedded NP follows Tigrinya word order

while the main NP follows that of Amharic

4) [[s’ihfət məsarihi] mədəbir]]

‘writing instruments shop’

[[AMH] AMH]]

Both the embedded NP as well as the main NP

follow Amharic word order

Participant-observation of Adama, the capital city of Oromia, also revealed that Amharic not only has high visibility in the city’s LL but also influences the structure of Oromo texts exhibited in the LL (see Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014, p. 95). Hence the situation with the LL in the two regional capitals is similar, despite the fact that Oromo and Amharic belong to two different language families, the former Cushitic and the latter Semitic. Furthermore, the written Oromo appearing in the LL of Adama also reflected certain features of Amharic’s phonology and morphology (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014). Though Amharic and Oromo are genetically unrelated and typologically different languages, speakers of these languages nonetheless have been in close contact in Ethiopia due to historical and sociopolitical factors; hence their languages have been able to influence each other over the centuries. The influence of Oromo on Amharic has also been documented by earlier studies (see Yimam, 2004).

One can claim that Amharic’s dominant role in society promoted the language to be the most developed literary language in the country. Amharic was historically the language of literacy in all nonliturgical arenas until the new language policy of ethnic federalism. As illustrated in Woldemariam and Lanza (2014), when regional languages such as Tigrinya and Oromo assumed the position that was historically reserved for Amharic in the LL, people have nonetheless employed structures of Amharic, including functional elements of the language, in writing their respective regional languages. Such examples of language contact are not widely documented in the spoken forms of Tigrinya or Oromo, yet they appear in the LL. This literacy practice, moreover, is not only a phenomenon of the LL.

Signs in the LL may be considered as “unregulated spaces” (Sebba, 2009), as the shop owners independently make their own signs. However, contrary to what may be expected in “regulated spaces” where monolingual norms prevail, the same type of language contact occurs. We find this literacy practice in other textual materials, for example, in the production of written materials for education in both Tigray and Oromia. Textbooks in Tigrinya and Oromo used in the elementary schools are reported to have elements of direct translations of the Amharic textbooks, which had been in use for decades (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2014a; Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014). Even though the language contact in question has not been widely documented in everyday spoken language, an interesting phenomenon concerns the spoken texts used for media broadcasts, a regulated space. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, one-hour of airtime per day has been allocated to both Tigrinya and Oromo. The Amharic news is taken as the main source for the respective transmissions in the two regional languages, and the journalists translate the texts to be broadcast. In the process, broadcasters fill in lexical items of the respective regional languages into the structure of Amharic, as opposed to translating idiomatically. This results in what is perceived by Ethiopian audiences as a somewhat stilted language use that is associated with the register of media broadcasts. The main reason for such structural borrowing may be the historical position of Amharic in the country as the language of literacy and formality and the intensive contact between the regional languages and Amharic.

One may claim that one reason for the use of Amharic structure to write regional languages could be the fact that the shop owners are of the generation for which Amharic was still the medium of instruction in schools and hence the key to literacy. Despite the regional acquisition of new language rights regarding written language in the public sphere, given the widespread pattern of language contact and its tacit acceptance, and the fact that Amharic has traditionally been the language of literacy, it appears reasonable to assume that Tigrinya and Oromo speakers somehow continue to perceive Amharic to be the language of literacy although they utilize their own language in writing. In any case there is implicit acceptance of this language contact in literacy practices. As Leeman and Modan (2009, p. 332) point out, “Landscapes are not simply physical spaces but are instead ideologically charged constructions.” And hence the written texts in the landscapes of the two regional capitals of the nation can be seen as reflecting “ideological perspectives that, themselves, reflect relations of power” (Purcell-Gates, 2007, p. 23). Therefore, as demonstrated in the LL, we may claim to witness the covert power of Amharic, despite the reduced role of Amharic in current language policy.

As pointed out by Woldemariam and Lanza (2014), languages are not agents; agency is a capacity of speakers. If we take the view of language as local practice, as opposed to the analyst’s view of language contact between two separate “reified” entities (see Makoni & Pennycook, 2006; Pennycook, 2010), what we are witnessing is how speakers of the regional languages draw on their multilingual resources to create a new arena for language use—an arena that develops a new register for the regional language. Invoking the words of Makoni and Pennycook (2006), we may say that we as analysts need to “disinvent” our conceptions of language as preset notions with regard to multilingualism and rather “acknowledge that languages are inherently hybrid, grammars are emergent and communication fluid” (Canagarajah, 2007, p. 233). Indeed research on code switching has stressed the monolingual bias in dealing with language contact (see Meakins, 2016).

Hence despite the new policy of ethnic federalism that in principle elevates the status of regional languages, we may say that a persistent covert ideology exalting the national working language still pervades literacy practices, as demonstrated in the LL of various regional cities. However, the speakers/writers who engage in new literacy practices in their regional languages are active agents in forming a new register of language use, with processes of possible enregisterment (Agha, 2005) at play. To what extent these literacy practices found in the LL will influence spoken language is a matter for future investigation.

4. Identity Construction in the LL of Ethiopia

Issues of identities and identity constructions have been at the very core of much sociolinguistic inquiry, and many studies of the LL have examined how both individual and collective identities are displayed and challenged in the LL. The first book on LL to explicitly focus on questions of identities in a multilingual context is Blackwood, Lanza and Woldemariam (2016), a volume that contains two articles on the LL in Ethiopia. Identity is here viewed as dynamic, in that it is continually performed and negotiated in interactions with others (Benwell & Stokoe, 2006), and this also concerns the construction of identity in and through the LL. To understand the meaning of language choice in the LL, an understanding of the indexical processes in society is essential. Silverstein (2003, p. 193) claims, “‘Indexical order’ is the concept necessary to showing us how to relate the micro-social to the macro-social frames of analysis of any sociolinguistic phenomenon”. Indeed, identity is culturally and historically situated. Moreover, the very placement of a sign, its message, and the language and other semiotic resources used in the message all contribute to identity constructions in the LL (Scollon & Scollon, 2003). Blommaert (2013, pp. 47–48) points out that the “demarcating effect of signs in public space also defines identities” and that “when we walk through a street, our identities can and do change every few steps—from someone who is included in a communication network, to someone who is excluded from it.” In the available research on the LL in Ethiopia, issues of identity are discussed, based on both stationary LL and mobile LL, grounded in various aspects of the LL, and concerning local identities, national identities, religious identities, and aspiring identities of modernity.

Identity issues were addressed in Lanza and Woldemariam (2008), a study of the LL of the capital city of Mekele in the region of Tigray, northern Ethiopia (see Figure 1). Tigrinya, the regional language, is employed in the LL since the policy of ethnic federalism entered into force in the 1990s. The article focused on language policy and language ideology; language ideology is closely linked to identity. The Semitic Tigrayans have a rich cultural heritage with the ancient capital of the prestigious Axumite Empire located in the region, with this heritage rendering the basis for regional pride. After the overthrow by the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) in 1991 of Mengistu and his so-called Derg, a harsh Marxist regime supported by the former Soviet Union, the Ethiopian government was led by a Tigrayan elected by the parliament. In Figure 7, we see a large sign, displayed in central Mekele, depicting a war scene reminiscent of the civil war, serving to enforce the representation of a Tigrayan identity. The local warriors are shown brandishing their arms, and the text in Tigrinya states, “We will replace these by tanks and BMs (a type of gun).” The LL serves to highlight a recognizable local identity, reconstructed as passers-by behold the image.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 6. A scene of Tigrayan warriors (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008).

The identities of local shop owners in Mekele were also constructed through the language choice in their shop signs. For example, in Figure 7 we see three scripts employed: Ethiopic (Fidel), Arabic, and Roman. Furthermore, the crescent and star on the sign, displayed as bracketing the name of the shop, indexes Islam or the Muslim community. In this sign then various linguistic and semiotic resources are invoked to construct several identities (see Jaworski & Thurlow, 2010).

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 7. A restaurant sign in Mekele (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008).

An interesting sign that also contains more than one script is shown in Figure 8 in which the word “modern” is inserted into an otherwise Amharic phrase. Here the very word on the tailor’s shop sign stands out and indexes the type of clothing that is available: modern as opposed to cultural dress. The use of the English word has a double effect of conveying the semantic meaning and also a symbolic one, as English is associated with modernity (see Blommaert, 2010).

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 8. A sign outside a tailor’s shop in Mekele (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008).

The LL of Harar, a walled city in eastern Ethiopia, and the capital of the ethnopolitical region Harari (see Figure 1), provides an excellent backdrop for investigating an emerging Harari identity in the public sphere since the implementation of the policy of ethnic federalism (Yigezu & Blackwood, 2016). Harari is a Semitic language whose speakers are dominated by Cushitic speakers of Oromo in addition to the politically dominant Amhara and Tigrayans. The Harari identity is claimed on the basis of a shared cultural heritage, and Harar’s fortified historic old city has the recognition of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The majority of Harari are Muslims, and hence there is an emphasis on literacy in Arabic. Harari has actually been a written language since the 16th century, and writing traditions have passed through the use of various scripts including Arabic, Ethiopic/Fidel, and Latin until the official adoption of Fidel. Harari has experienced a visible “uplifting” (Du Plessis, 2011, p. 195), as Yigezu and Blackwood (2016, p. 141) point out, after almost a century of Amharization across Ethiopia. Nonetheless, the language is only used by a minority of speakers. The Harari National Regional Government instigated policy through sign creation and erection to “create a highly visible linguistic identity for the Harari in a region in which they not only constitute a numeric minority, but also seek to reverse a language shift to a language of wider communication: Amharic” (Yigezu & Blackwood, 2016, p. 141). And in the linguistic marketplace in the region, both Amharic and English function in more propitious economic terms. Hence, bottom-up actors such as small and medium-sized businesses opt out in favor of these languages at the cost of Harari. Yigezu and Blackwood (2016) portray the complexities of identity construction in this historical center of Ethiopia; moreover, they illustrate clearly how the visibility of a particular language does not necessarily indicate the language’s vitality (see Barni & Vedovelli, 2013).

National identity is negotiated often in contrast with other national identities. The Ethiopian diaspora utilizes the colors of the Ethiopian flag—yellow, green, red—in their static and mobile LLs in order to index this identity outside their homeland, as demonstrated in Woldemariam and Lanza (2015). On national holidays in Ethiopia, the colors of the flag are extensively demonstrated through banners, posters, stickers, and streamers in addition to flags. This fervent display of nationalism is also done on religious holidays of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, a significant icon of national identity. For example, Timkat (the Amharic word for “baptism”) is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of the Epiphany, celebrated in January according to the Ethiopian calendar. On this day, banners and streamers in the national colors of Ethiopia fill the streets. In many places, one may see an image of Mary, the Mother of God, alongside the symbolic colors of the country, emphasizing the close link between national and religious identity, as demonstrated in Figure 9.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 9. Image of Mary during religious holiday celebration (photo: H. Woldemariam).

In more recent times, Protestant religious movements have been introduced through foreign missionaries and this has created tension, which is also evident in the LL of Addis Ababa in what may be referred to metaphorically as “religious wars” (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2012). As discussed in Woldemariam and Lanza (2012, p. 170), “The LL serves as a platform for religious groups to contest, interact and debate points of differences, resulting in tension, with the inherent goal of such interaction indubitably being to attract potential converts and/or to reinforce the faith of the members of the individual churches.”

Noticeably in Addis Ababa (see Woldemariam & Lanza, 2012), stickers could be seen on vehicles that appear to be in dialogue with one another—mobile LLs (see Moriarty, 2014). A specific source of contention concerns the veneration of Mary, the Mother of God, who has a special standing in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, while this is not the case in Protestant religions. The image of Mary is often placed on posters and stickers announcing Orthodox religious events, and reference is made to her either directly or indirectly. In Figure 10, we see the image of Mary alongside other faces placed on the poster by the car window, advertising a religious gathering that is easily recognizable as Orthodox Christian, due to other semiotic features such as the white clothing of the Ethiopians pictured.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 10. Image of Mary on poster fastened to car window (photo: H. Woldemariam).

Fieldwork in Addis Ababa revealed that on another car, one could observe a sticker that stated in English: “Jesus is the ONLY WAY to heaven.” On yet another car, a sticker was placed on the back window with the following text in Amharic (here translated and interpreted): “All those (i.e., Protestants) who looked down on you (i.e., Mary) will eventually bow down to your feet” (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2012, p. 178).

Furthermore, as noted in Figure 9, the juxtaposition of Mary with national colors in LL streamers only emphasizes the efforts to associate the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with a national identity. Banners and posters in public are at times superimposed one on the other, thus adding to the impression of a contestation concerning religious messages. The debates observed in the LL also take place on mediated online sites. The LL in Addis Ababa serves as “a platform for globalization, evangelization, commodification, contestation and debate among the various religious groups” (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2012, p. 170). Moreover, national identity is invoked in an association of religion and “being Ethiopian.”

Among the many identities constructed in the LL of Ethiopia, English indexes what is perceived as a “modern” identity, one that figures among the higher order scales of indexicality, carrying a higher order indexical value, both socially and culturally. As Blommaert (2010, p. 6) states, “orders of indexicality define the dominant lines for senses of belonging, for identities and roles in society.” The increasing use of English in the LL of urban conglomerations, not only in general signage but also through more prevalent international brand names and advertising, attests to the aspirations towards modernity and its attributed prestige and power in this country of the global South. In Figure 11, we see a sign in Addis Ababa in which English is indirectly equated with power.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 11. English instruction advertised in Addis Ababa (photo: H. Woldemariam).

English has been held in high regard in Ethiopia, and education at the secondary and tertiary levels is given in English as the medium of instruction. Despite all good intentions and a desire to educate the people to prepare for an international outlook, the policy has met with significant setbacks in its implementation, resulting in other compensatory strategies, as discussed in Lanza and Woldemariam (2014b). English remains, however, the language of globalization.

5. The LL and the Globalized Economy in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world in the 21st century. Although it was once one of the poorest countries in the world, the 21st-century economy is making important strides. This development also has a linguistic dimension, as demonstrated in the LL, in addition to many social, cultural, political, and economic features. As noted above, in a comparative analysis of the LL in two well-known districts of Addis Ababa, namely Bole and Mercato, the language use in the LL of Addis Ababa varies from place to place, each representing differing economic orders (Bekele, 2013). In Bole, a relatively new quarter of the city favored by the international community and high-income Ethiopians, the visibility of English is dominant. On the other hand, in Mercato, which is the largest open market in Africa, the prominence of Amharic, in contrast to English, is attested. The spread of English has been associated with globalization, and as noted above, serves to index an aspiration toward a modern, prosperous identity.

The globalization of services and goods is accomplished hand in hand with an increased localization of these services and goods. Of interest is how local actors render a product local and the social meanings transmitted through the process. A curious phenomenon has evolved in which international brand names are employed in businesses (cloned, in fact), which entails another means to index a higher order of scale, aiming at prestige (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2013). In Figure 12, the international Marriott chain of hotels is invoked in the LL designating the hotel’s name. The logo is also clearly used and hence the misspelling of the hotel chain name cannot be considered a conscious effort to disguise the cloning but rather an example of what Blommaert (2010, p. 127) calls “grassroots literacy,” including among other features “inconsistent punctuation, frequency of spelling errors, the unwarranted use of capital and cross-register transfers.”

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 12. Clone advertising of an international hotel chain (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2013).

Another blatant cloning involves the imitation of a multinational corporation that profits on Ethiopia’s most important export: coffee. Kaldi’s Coffee (see Figure 13) is a popular chain of coffee shops in Addis Ababa that not accidentally resembles Starbucks, an icon in the global economy that was originally progressive and liberal but then grew to symbolize the ills of globalization, including undertakings with Ethiopia (Fellner, 2008). Kaldi’s logo, colors, interior, uniforms, and menu are all modeled on Starbucks. Hence it is the nonlinguistic semiotic resources that create the image of a Starbucks clone. The name Kaldi refers to the legendary Ethiopian goat herder who is claimed to have discovered coffee when witnessing his goats’ excitement after having eaten the plant. In this example, we see how the global becomes local in the cloning process. The establishment of the clone chain was, in fact, a reaction to Starbucks, which would not allow Kaldi’s a franchise in Ethiopia in the early 2000s. The owner reputedly acknowledged the cloning and in defense accused Starbucks of stealing Ethiopian coffee (see Lanza & Woldemariam, 2013, p. 503). Starbucks, meanwhile, was involved in a trademark dispute with Ethiopia and eventually had to conform to international conventions for acknowledging registered trademarks for Ethiopia’s fine coffees, including several recognized varieties. The victory for Ethiopia in this patent case serves as a model for other developing countries. This case of cloning in the new global economy illustrates how the LL is a nexus for the discourses of development and identity.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 13. An Ethiopian clone of a global icon (photo: E. Lanza).

The latest development in the LL of Ethiopia is the proliferation of Chinese in texts in the public sphere (Woldemariam & Lanza, 2016), as illustrated in Figure 14, a sign posted on a shop entrance in a local market selling a common commodity. Notably, Amharic is on top, followed by Chinese, then English.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 14. Sign for sale of mobile sim cards (photo: E. Lanza).

Chinese migrants are indeed to be found in every continent of the world. Chinese migration has occurred throughout the centuries within and across national borders. As Li Wei (2016) points out, the profiles of these migrants vary considerably in socioeconomic status, education, occupation and language, with some varieties of language being mutually unintelligible. However, as Li Wei (2016, p. 1) states, “There has been little systematic research into the linguistic practices of the Chinese in the diasporic communities, despite the fact that language is an integral part of Chinese migration and the building of the Chinese diaspora and diasporic identities.” The oft-cited article on Chinatown in Washington DC (Leeman & Modan, 2009) addresses the LL of an area that is no longer a habitat for the Chinese while the ethnic identity has been commodified and maintained for economic purposes.

Studies on the Chinese in Africa are rare; however, see Deumert and Mabandla (2016). Chinese relations with Ethiopia have had ups and downs in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the early 21st century, however, China has aided Ethiopia significantly through loans, the transfer of technology, education, and diplomatic assistance. The Chinese are duly credited for the important improvements to Ethiopia’s roads and railway system. China’s share of foreign direct investment in Ethiopia has risen significantly the past years. A large number of Chinese companies have established themselves in Ethiopia along with the Chinese personnel required and online sites for Chinese expats abound.

In Addis Ababa, there is no discernible Chinatown as is often the case in other cities, where Chinese traders offer their goods. In the area around the Bole International Airport, which has traditionally been something of an international area, one may, however, experience local markets with merchants openly soliciting Chinese clientele, as shown in Figure 15.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 15. Local Ethiopian merchants solicit Chinese customers (photo: E. Lanza).

Some shop owners have signs professionally made to post on their shop windows in order to attract the Chinese, who are known to be good customers. In Figure 16, a shop specializing in mobile phones and data equipment even went so far as to post handwritten messages on the shop window.

Linguistic Landscape of EthiopiaClick to view larger

Figure 16. Local Ethiopian merchant with sign for Chinese customers (photo: E. Lanza).

Interestingly, while many signs are composed of Amharic, Chinese and English (see Figure 14), there are also many only in Chinese. Fieldwork in the area, including informal ethnographic interviews with the Ethiopian merchants, revealed that the merchants managed to communicate with their Chinese customers. While some used English, others used some basic Chinese phrases learned through repeated encounters, such as “Where is your car?” These communicative encounters warrant further investigation, particularly in light of the Chinese texts in the LL of the market places.

The globalized economy has brought new linguistic challenges and opportunities to Ethiopia, and the LL reflects these many developments.

Critical Analysis of the Scholarship

The field of LL studies has undergone several notable developments since its inception through the now-classic article Landry and Bourhis (1997), which advocated the study of the informative and symbolic functions of language use in the LL in order to unveil the ethnolinguistic vitality of languages in light of language-planning issues. Initial approaches to the study of the LL, inspired by this seminal article, have been especially quantitative in nature, counting the presence of various languages in specific geographical spaces. In the introduction to a special issue on multilingualism and mobility in the LL, Moriarty (2014) points out the various shortcomings of different approaches to the study of LL. These include a narrow focus on static places as opposed to dynamic mobile LLs; the need to extend the notion of LL beyond written language to include various semiotic resources (see Jaworski & Thurlow, 2010); and the limitation of descriptive quantitative approaches to the study of LL. Indeed a qualitative shift has been prevalent in many recent works on LL in which various theoretical issues in sociolinguistics are explored with the point of departure in the LL. Moreover, the semiotics of space expands to include sensory aspects of the environment (see Pennycook & Otsuji, 2015) and the body (see Peck & Stroud, 2015).

In the study of the LL in Ethiopia, many of the approaches outlined above are also documented in the available published literature. The first study published on the LL in Ethiopia (Lanza & Woldemariam, 2008) finds its place among those initial studies whose point of departure was a defined geographical space of importance and made a distributional analysis of the representation of the various languages in the area (noting also the absence of local languages). While some studies have taken the “qualitative shift” (e.g., Lanza & Woldemariam, 2014a; Woldemariam & Lanza, 2014) in the exploration of identity constructions and agency, the importance of the documentation of local languages with regard to solving language policy issues is still a vital theme in Ethiopia given the multitude of languages in the country and the need for the implementation of the language policy of ethnic federalism, particularly with regard to education. A key study in this area is Mendisu, Malinowski, and Woldemichael (2016) on the highly multilingual area of southern Ethiopia, which explores not only the representation of languages but also the absence of languages.

The challenge for continued research on the LL of Ethiopia will be to explore the LL of other regions of the country than those already documented, thereby ensuring geographical coverage of the implementation of the policy of ethnic federalism. Not only is there a need to document the presence and absence of local languages in regards to language policy, a particular point of interest will be to investigate the roles in these areas of Amharic, the national working language, and English, the language of globalization strongly represented in the capital, Addis Ababa. Lanza and Woldemariam (2014a) and Woldemariam and Lanza (2014) dealt with the issue of language contact in which Amharic plays a role when, due to the language policy of ethnic federalism, languages took on the new register of writing and gained presence in the LL. In the southern region of Ethiopia, there is a high degree of multilingualism among the various peoples inhabiting the area. Issues of language contact involving not only Amharic but also other languages may also come to the fore in future investigations. While the LL focuses on the written language and the use of other semiotic resources, there will be a need among all studies of the LL to deal with the relationship between written and spoken communication.

As noted in the articles on language contact, employing features from Amharic, the national working language and the language with a long history of literacy, appears to be a resource for speakers to index a more formal means of communication. The extent to which this trend is prevalent across the country and across a range of speakers (and to what extent this marks an incipient language change) is a matter for future research. Moreover, the role of English will need to be charted over time. Finally, a chronological developmental study of the LL of a particular region may shed light on the increase of literacy and the impact of globalization processes. As Pavlenko and Mullen (2015) point out in their title, “Diachronicity matters in the study of linguistic landscapes.” The data for the first study of the LL in Ethiopia were collected in 2006; a follow-up ten years after and beyond holds the promise of new revelation.

Acknowledgments

This work was partly supported by the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence funding scheme (project number 223265, MultiLing).

The international journal Linguistic Landscape, published by John Benjamins, is available online.

Further Reading

Blackwood, R., Lanza, E., & Woldemariam, H. (Eds.). (2016). Negotiating and contesting identities in linguistic landscapes. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press.Find this resource:

Gorter, D. (Ed.). (2006). Linguistic landscape: A new approach to multilingualism. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.Find this resource:

Lanza, E., & Woldemariam, H. (2008). Language ideology and linguistic landscape: Language policy and globalization in a regional capital of Ethiopia. In E. Shohamy & Durk Gorter (Eds.), Linguistic landscape: Expanding the scenery (pp. 189–205). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Lanza, E., & Woldemariam, H. (2013). Indexing modernity: English and branding in the linguistic landscape of an African capital. Special issue: Mobility and Linguistic Landscape. International Journal of Bilingualism, 18(5), 491–506.Find this resource:

Lanza, E., & Woldemariam, H. (2014a). Multilingualism and local literacy practices in Ethiopia: Language contact in regulated and unregulated spaces. Multilingual Margins, 1(1), 74–100.Find this resource:

Lanza, E., & Woldemariam, H. (2014b). English in Ethiopia: Making space for the individual in language policy. In B. Spolsky, O. Inbar-Lorie, & M. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Challenges for language education and policy: Making space for people (pp. 109–122). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Levine, D. (2000). Greater Ethiopia: The evolution of a multiethnic society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Mendisu, B. S., Malinowski, D., & Woldemichael, E. (2016). Absence from the linguistic landscape as de facto language policy: The case of two local languages in southern Ethiopia. In R. Blackwood, E. Lanza & H. Woldemariam (Eds.), Negotiating and contesting identities in linguistic landscapes. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press.Find this resource:

Shohamy, E., Ben-Rafael, E., & Barni, M. (Eds.). (2010). Linguistic landscape in the city. Bristol, U.K.: Multilingual Matters.Find this resource:

Shohamy, E., & Gorter, D. (Eds.). (2008).Linguistic landscape: Expanding the scenery. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Woldemariam, H., & Lanza, E. (2012). Religious wars in the linguistic landscape. In C. Hélot, M. Barni, R. Janssens, & C. Bagna (Eds.), Linguistic landscapes, multilingualism and social change. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

Woldemariam, H., & Lanza, E. (2014). Language contact, agency and power in the linguistic landscape of two regional capitals in Ethiopia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 228, 79–103.Find this resource:

Woldemariam, H., & Lanza, E. (2015). Imagined community: The linguistic landscape in a diaspora. Linguistic Landscape, 1(1–2), 172–190.Find this resource:

Yigezu, M., & Blackwood, R. (2016). Harari linguistic identity in the LL: Creation, legitimization and omission in the city of Harar, Ethiopia. In R. Blackwood, E. Lanza & H. Woldemariam (Eds.), Negotiating and contesting identities in linguistic landscapes. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press.Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1.) Ethiopic script, which is unique to the country, is used to write Amharic.

(2.) While Tigrinya and Amharic are both Semitic languages written in Ethiopic script (also known as Fidel), Oromo is a Cushitic language, recently written with a modified form of the Latin alphabet. Significantly, this alphabet was chosen by the Oromo people in order to assert an independent identity from Amharic, once the language policy of ethnic federalism paved the way for literacy in other Ethiopian languages, particularly in education.