Amara or Amhara – What is in a name and does it matter at all?
By Abebe Haregewoin (MD, Ph.D.)
March 25, 2014



Have you ever tried to call an Arab an Ahrab, or a Tigrean a Tihgrian, or an Oromo an Orhomo? Or ever tried to call somebody called Berhanu, Behrhanu etc..? Try any of these alone or in combination and you will find out this is one of the best ways to provoke an angry response, lose a friend, or even start a fight. Curiously most Amaras who never refer to themselves as Amharas are quite happy and willing to accept and perpetuate a misspelled and wrong nomenclature. Granted etymologically this appellation might be the right one when used in Geez or Tigrigna for a somewhat different linguistic or grammatical reason. The author of this article only understands these two languages and cannot generalize it to other Ethiopian languages. But the question is why do the apparently malleable Amaras do not mind being called Amharas or perhaps might not even care if they are called Ahmaras or Hamaras.

This topic might be considered untimely or irrelevant or too late in history to worry about by some. Many might say, why even care, it if the Amaras themselves do not seem to care. Why not leave this minutiae of spelling and the mere addition of an “h” alone, as long as nobody is worried or pained by it or worse still nobody died or was admitted to the emergency room of a hospital for being wrongly called Amhara or for calling somebody Amhara. The fact is that words, my friends, are not just a utilitarian convention for communication only, but do have a paradigmatic and deep psychological impact even if they are not obvious swear words and do not seem to carry aspersion. The author of this article would like to recall the old adage, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can wreak your spirit. Words are the basis of our humanity and can embody a sense of self as well as sense of wellbeing and have the capacity to change identity and this has been shown scientifically to change how the brain works. This article is about the exploration a specific terminology in this context and an examination of whether it is just a harmless vocalization or has a more negative consequence without ever suggesting one more reason for communal rancor.

Recently a somewhat convincing argument has been made that the word Amhara/Amara has evolved into two distinct social groups consisting of a generic and a restricted and more ethnically/geographically cohesive group of people. The more generic usage refers to a mostly urban group coming from different ethnic backgrounds who have adopted Amharic/Amarigna (not Amaric/Amharigna) as a common lingua franca or a convenient pidgin who also assume a vague associated identity that goes with it and identify themselves not necessarily as Amara/Amhara but most simply as Ethiopians. The more specific and restricted usage of the term relates to what might be considered a distinct group and more ethnically homogeneous rural group coming from the well known contiguous Amara/Amhara heartlands in Gondar, Gojjam, Shewa, Wollo etc. and those who have migrated further into the country or elsewhere globally but still retain this identity. One wonders if these two different social groupings require two different nomenclatures with the more permissive term Amhara used for those whose identity emerges mostly from a linguistic and utilitarian usage and the more constrained word Amara, used for those who ethnically come from distinct geographic areas of the country. But one should ask if this is a sustainable argument given the heterogeneity of almost all ethnic groups in Ethiopia without using the disreputable Stalinist definition of nationalities which is a self serving statist propaganda rather than a scientific terminology.

As glossed over above words of identity indeed have psychological, spiritual, anthropological, political and emotional resonance. When it comes to specific communities descriptive words of a group result in what can collectively be referred to as the intertwined national-identity/citizenship. This point connotes equal membership and a status from which flow rights and obligations as well as participatory practice such as political and human rights. Indeed identity is a right which includes the taken-for-granted assumption that allow a group to legitimize rights and distributive justice other than group altruism and a formalized and calculated exchange of courtesy. It is also important for the individual to relate to a broader entity and community with the perception and empowerment of feeling of “our” common interest and within the practice of politics with the expectation of reciprocity of rights and obligations from others. Thus if identity also defines a political group with or without a demographic scope it can make the difference between losing and winning in a participatory modern democracy.

As being called or referred to by a misspelled name can affect the individual negatively, so can a the consequences of a misspelled identity for a group. The author therefore recommends to use whenever possible the word Amara instead of Amhara particularly Amaras themselves as they are the ones who are directly affected by it and it’s potential prejudicial connotations. A lot of Amaras most likely do not pay attention and are comfortable with the alternative term Amhara. It is not known when the “h” became incorporated into the word, but it is likely that it was initially used by Western authors and then implicitly and gratuitously adopted by Ethiopian writers writing in English or other languages. This is not different than the insertion of another “h” into the word Ethiopia which should have been spelled Etiopia or Etyopia, when it is clear that the “h” serves no purpose other than the copy cat attitude and permissiveness we have allowed to enter our language. But we should also know that it was a nomenclature putative colonizers of the past such as the Italians and those in collusion with them were trying to force on Amaras knowing full well that an altered and adulterated identity can help change the social dynamics of the group they most feared. This has been an effective psychological strategy that worked very well for them elsewhere but not in Ethiopia. Why is there now a need to accept this term as the one and only nomenclature when one writes in English or in any language other than Amarigna. Many Amaras unlike all others are leery of being accused of chauvinism whenever such topics arise believing that a somehow meek acceptance of such terms will shield them from broader accusations such as the acceptance and even apologetic attitude and stance towards the rampant historical accusations so many others are throwing at them continuously. Many are willing to collude believing that it can allow their group to have a vicarious role as the most important glue that can hold the nation together if they just grind their teeth and repeat the mantra of patience for the greater good. But they should know charity and self-respect begin at home and they should insist on being referred to as Amaras before it changes to something else they may not like.

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NB: Abebe Haregewoin is not a politician affiliated with any group but an observer of things Ethiopian, who would like to best describes himself as a social commentator on issues and ideas he finds interesting without trying to offend anyone or support any cause other than his own ideas.


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