Learning Amharic in Ethiopia: It’s for veterinarians, too


By Karissa Magnuson
Student, Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine

I have always loved learning foreign languages, and when I was in junior high, I considered the possibility of majoring in linguistics in college. However, my passion for animals won out, and instead of being a linguist, I am half way to being a veterinarian. It is nice to know, though, that despite my career choice, I can still enjoy learning foreign languages and incorporate my career and other interests together.

Today at lunch, fellow Ohio State student Korbin Smith and I invited one of our Ethiopian team members, Atnaf, out to lunch at our hotel. I decided to ask her about how their sentence structure works here.

Side Note:  I took German in high school and college and knew that in German if you wanted to say ‘ I would like to play football’ it would be like saying in English ‘ I would like football to play’. Well I was curious how it worked here because I was hoping to actually form a sentence by the end of the six weeks. We will see if this actually happens or not.

Anyways, Atnaf pulled out a piece of paper and started writing down their alphabet. The alphabet in Amharic is like little drawings. Each drawing represents a different sound. For instance there is a character that looks like a ‘u’ and is pronounced ‘ha’. From my understanding the ‘u’ for ‘ha’ is the root for other variations with similar sound/characters… i.e. ‘hu, hi, ha, h, ho’ which will look like the ‘u’ but may have an extra tail, circle, or squiggly attached somewhere on the ‘u’. They then have other root shapes with variations for a total of over 30 characters.

There are a few characters in Ethiopia with sounds that I could not make. For example, in Amharic they have a character that sounds like ‘Kkah’ but with an extra, barely imperceptible sound when pronounced. Korbin and I kept trying to say it, and she just kept laughing and shaking her head and then pronouncing it again. It requires some muscle in your throat or something that we as English speakers never have to use.

Anyway, it was a very interesting lesson, and Atnaf really enjoyed teaching us and appreciated our efforts to learn their language. Perhaps, by the end of the summer I will be able to write a sentence in Amharic.

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