U of T begins teaching ancient Ethiopian language

The course in Ge’ez, which could be a first step to launching a larger Ethiopian Studies program, was helped made possible by a donation of $50,000 each from a prof, the school and the Weeknd.

The Star
By MEGAN DOLSKIStaff Reporter
Published on January 13,2017

ancient Ethiopian language
University of Toronto Professor Robert Holmstedt teaches Ge’ez at the University of Toronto( Source the Star)

A language that hasn’t been spoken for more than 1,000 years is being taught this semester at the University of Toronto, a step perhaps towards decoding rarely understood excerpts of history.

The ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez is written in a script that’s read left to right and has 26 letters. Letters have variations for the vowels that go with them, meaning students have to learn 26 characters in seven different ways.

The goal of the class, which meets twice a week, is to get students on their way to reading.

Milen Melles, a history major, said her parents immigrated to Canada from Eritrea in the 1990s and is taking the class as an opportunity to connect with her roots. She one day hopes to study texts from the region at a graduate level.

“This is a huge step for western academia to be exploring African languages, ancient languages, because they usually only study Swahili,” Melles said, noting that African studies often get lumped together at universities, differently than other regions where specific areas or countries are studied independently of one another.

“They treat Africa like a monolith, if they were to have an Ethiopian studies program that would clearly change that whole model of the way that they look at Africa.”

U of T’s Scarborough library is working on digitizing tens of thousands of pages of historical manuscripts written in Ge’ez that hardly anyone can understand.

The class’s professor, Robert Holmstedt specializes in Semitic languages and is one of only a handful of people teaching Ge’ez at a university level in North America.

Holmstedt said Ge’ez hasn’t been spoken since about the year 1000, and is the ancestor of the modern languages of Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre (similar to the relationship Latin has with the romance languages). Also similar to Latin, Ge’ez lived on through the church as literary language after people stopped speaking it. Holmstedt said outside of a church-context, very few people learn it anymore.

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