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Interview with Dr. Richard Pankhurst


Senamirmir: What is the origin of Ethiopic as a language?

Dr. Pankhurst: As far as I can understand Ethiopic (or more properly a proto-Ethiopic, or earlier form of Ethiopic), emerged as one of the Afrasiatic languages in the northern Ethiopian highlands.

I think that the recent researches of Grover Hudson, Lionel Bender, Roger Schneider and others prove that the theory of a South Arabian origin of Ethiopian civilization must be questioned. This is not to say that the civilizations on both sides of the Red Sea were not closely connected, or to deny that the so-called Ge'ez script seems to have developed out of the so-called Sabaean (with, however, the addition of vowel-signs, a change in the direction of the writing, and some redrawing of the basic characters).

Senamirmir: It is suggested that Ethiopic may have borrowed its vowel system from India. Is there any evidence that support such view? If this is true, what would be credited to Ethiopians on Ethiopic writing system since it is believed that the script itself is borrowed from Sabaean script?

Dr. Pankhurst: It is evident that the adoption of the vowel sounds took place in Ethiopia and part of India at approximately the same time. I do not see this can have been a coincidence. I feel that one civilization must have influenced the other, or that they were both influenced by a third party. I do not believe we have sufficient information to answer the question definitively. One must bear in mind that contacts between Ethiopia and India, in part on account of the "trade winds", date back to the very beginning of history (see my paper delivered at the Fourth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, held in Rome in 1972), but also that Christian missionaries, from Syria, etc., came to both countries at about the same time. The addition of vowels may well have been part of a linguistic simplification resulting from the coming of Christianity, and a desire to make the newly translated Bible more understandable by the newly converted population. This thesis, if accepted, still, however, begs the question whether the vowel signs were devised by the missionaries or their converts. It is in any case my view that there is nothing shameful in borrowing from another country or civiliastion; it is more shameful to fail to borrow when there is something worth borrowing!

Senamirmir: There have been two school of thoughts on Ethiopic Script alphabetic order--namely "a-bo-gi-da" and "h-le-hh-me". How we came about to have two alphabetic orders?

Dr. Pankhurst: This is still on my list of issues to be researched!

Senamirmir: It seems the predominant view of Ethiopic Script is that it is syllabic; however, there is an emerging view that Ethiopic Script is not syllabic. How complex is it characterizing a script either way?

Dr. Pankhurst: I call it syllabic, but I am open to change!

Senamirmir: How was Ethiopic Script adapted into Amharic? Who did it?

Dr. Pankhurst: As I understand the transformation was a gradual process, effected by Ethiopians writing on more secular subjects. Already in the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles, which are basically in Ge'ez, some Amharic words are used to refer to things not in the Bible, such as most notably fire-arms.

Senamirmir: Why do we know so little about Ethiopian scholars who worked on Ethiopic for thousands years?

Dr. Pankhurst: Partly because the old Ethiopian scholars (like Ethiopian church artists!) wrote largely anonymously, and partly because modern scholars have not troubled to investigate the lives and work of Ethiopian scholars. One valuable research topic would be to write a history of the Ethiopian so-called "informants", who assisted European "scholars": from the time of Abba Gorgoreyos and Hiob Ludol, in the seventeenth century, to the present day.

Senamirmir: How was the name "Ethiopic" was coined for Ge'ez and by whom?

Dr. Pankhurst: The term Ethiopic was adopted by European scholars who saw that Ge'ez was written in Ethiopia. The big name is again Ludolf, whose "Grammatica Aethiopica", in Latin, appeared in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1661, and was followed by his "Lexicon Aethiopico-Latinum" in 1699. What Ludolf wrote could scarcely be rejected by lesser mortals!

Senamirmir: Given the information age that we are in, have computers helped in solving problems which would have been otherwise extremely difficult, in research and other related works on Ethiopic and its writing system?

Dr. Pankhurst: I am not an expert on computers, but the great advance I am personally the beneficiary of is the Internet, which enables me to obtain answers to historical and bibliographic queries in a matter of hours, which in the past would have taken days or more probably months.
Senamirmir Project, 2001