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.
In its first semester, five undergraduates and five graduate students are enrolled in Holmstedt’s class, with a handful more auditing. He said his students are taking the class for many different reasons, for some it’s a chance to connect with their heritage while for others it’s an effort to unlock ancient bits of history.
Funding for the class started with a $50,000 donation from U of T history professor Michael Gervers, who worked on digitizing manuscripts for the university from the Gunda Gunde monastery in Ethiopia.
Gerver’s donation was later matched by Scarborough’s Abel Tesfaye (better know as Grammy award-winner, the Weeknd) and by the university.
His donation was made as part of the Bikila Awards organization’s efforts to fundraise for the course. The organization said the Weeknd, whose parents moved from Ethiopia, “immediately” answered its call for support. The artist later tweeted that he was proud to help and share Ethiopia’s “brilliant and ancient history.”
Gervers, who is auditing the class, said the graduate students in Holmstedt’s class will be working with the Ge’ez manuscripts that U of T has for their term papers. He said the university has more than 200 manuscripts that contain roughly 35,000 pages of Ge’ez writing.
U of T is now trying to figure out its next move towards its goal of eventually offering a larger Ethiopian studies program. “I think it’s in the air to consider a course on literature,” Gervers said.
Wendy Belcher, professor of African literature at Princeton University, said Ge’ez is an ancient African language “in which there is seven centuries of criminally understudied literature.”
“Many students know that there were influential ancient languages like Latin and Greek, but they don’t know that Africa also had influential ancient languages,” Belcher wrote in an email. “In particular, Ethiopia was not some irrelevant back water over human history, but a place that has shaped the world since the BCE era. Its empire of Aksum was one of the four ancient powers, and many texts were preserved in its language of Ge’ez that we would not have otherwise. Studying Ge’ez gives us insight into many languages. Few universities teach it, but I think we will see that changing, as we have seen with the initiative of the University of Toronto.”
Suzanne Akbari, director of U of T’s centre for medieval studies, said one of the university’s specialties is manuscript studies, so the Ge’ez class fits nicely within one of the school’s areas of expertise.
Akbari said that while studying the ancient past can sometimes seem like a distant undertaking, doing so can still be relevant today.
“On the one hand it’s a little corner of the medieval past, but it’s also a really vital corner if we are thinking about our history in terms of how people are connected,” she said.
Akbari said Ethiopia is especially interesting when studied as a crossroads where cultures, religions, trade and languages met.
She said an Ethiopian studies program will be important in shaping the way students at U of T view Africa from a historical standpoint. She said that too often, African Studies is considered an isolated subject, and she thinks it’s important to study the region as it is connects with Europe and the Middle East, and the rest of the world.