There are over eighty languages in Ethiopia, and yet Amharic (the language of Amhara) dominates. Of course, it is convenient to have a lingua franca, but only ~30% of Ethiopians speak Amharic as their native language (the most-spoken native language is Afaan Oromoo) — what gives?
Amharic (based on the ancient language, Ge’ez) has been considered the “official” language of the Ethiopian empire since the reign of Emperor Menelik II (1881-1913), when he starting using it as the functional language in administrative offices. Depending on who writes the history books, Menelik’s reign was defined by either brutal military conquest or the expansion of the great Ethiopian empire. Either way, he took over a lot of non-Amharic- speaking people, and Amharic began its role as the language of the conquerer.
Emperor Haile Selassie (r. 1930-1974) promoted Amharic as a tool of unification (or domination — again, perspective is a fickle beast), trying to develop (or force) a common language and culture for an incredibly diverse empire. When Italy occupied Ethiopia (1935-1941), the Italians promoted use of local languages, hoping undermine these unification efforts, in order to divide and conquer.
But, when Haile Selassie regained power, he re-solidified use of Amharic, including the media. All newspapers were in Amharic, except for one in Tigrinya. Two-thirds of radio time was reserved for Amharic programs, with Tigrinya, Somali, Tigre, and Afar (the only other languages even allowed on the radio) squeezing collectively into the other third of the time.
When the Derg Regime took control in 1974, they declared Amharic would no longer dominate and local languages would be respected. They decided primary school would be taught in one of fifteen languages: Amharic, Oromo, Tigrigna, Walaita, Somali, Hadiya, Gidole, Tigre, Kambata, Kunama, Sidama, Silti, Afar, Kefa-Mocha or Saho.
Ironically, because the literacy campaign insisted on writing all of these languages with the Amharic alphabet (fidel), and because many of the teachers they sent to the rural areas only spoke Amharic (and not the local languages they were meant to teach), their campaign actually wound up spreading Amharic, instead of promoting local language use.
The Derg was overthrown in 1991, and the 1994 Constitution defined three basic rules about language use (1994 Constitution, Article 5):
- All Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state of recognition.
- Amharic shall be the working language of the Federal Government.
- Members of the Federation may determine their respective languages.
Today, Amharic is the official, national language. It is also the official language for four regional states (Amhara, SNNPR, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Gambella) and two federal cities (Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa). Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, Afar, and Somali are official, regional languages in their respective regions. In some zones and districts, there are other locally-official languages. Primary school is still taught in local languages; there are currently 21 different languages used to teach primary school.
In 2020, Tigrinya, Somali, Afar, and Afaan Oromo were officially added as national languages, although in practice, Amharic is still the primary national language.