The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 23rd May 2006

Ethiopian Studies at SOAS - past, present and future

Given by - Prof. David Appleyard

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


“I am not being replaced”. So said Prof. David Appleyard announcing his retirement at the end of this 2006 academic year. Prof. Appleyard, Professor of Languages of the Horn of Africa, was making a keynote address to the Society at its AGM on Tuesday 23rd May.

The announcement was received with some surprise. It surely ushers in a decline in SOAS’s pre-eminent role over the last five decades in the teaching of Ethiopian languages, particularly Amharic.

David Appleyard’s personal teaching contribution has been very considerable. He is the author of Colloquial Amharic – the Complete Course for Beginners (Routledge 1995).

It was, he told us, all a question of money: for every European undergraduate student, SOAS makes a loss. Funding needs an enormous number of students. Too few have opted for Amharic, Tigrinya, Ge’ez or Oromo.

We shall have to accommodate ourselves to SOAS’s decline in this particular area – at least in the short to medium future. But if the future is bleak, the past has been anything but.

Prof Appleyard’s address was entitled ‘Ethiopian Studies at SOAS – past, present and future’. At present, he and Martin Orwin, who teaches Somali as well as Amharic, are the only two members of SOAS staff whose job titles contain anything to do with Ethiopia or the Horn of Africa.

But as Prof. Appleyard was quick to point out, language is not the only starting point for study of a country, its culture and its people. SOAS has many world-class departments including: History, Anthropology, Art and Archaeology, Music, The Study of Religions as well as a Centre for Development, Policy and Research (CDPR) – all touch at one time or another on cultures in the Horn of Africa.

In the History Department, Dr. Cedric Barnes has been teaching a new course on mediaeval Ethiopia – ‘Kings, Saints and Pagans: Rise and Fall of the Mediaeval Ethiopian Empire’. In the department of Art and Archaeology, Dr. Tania Tribe has been carrying out research on mediaeval Ethiopian Christian Art. In the CDPR, Dr. Degol Hailu has been working on economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Ethiopia.

Turning to the past, Prof. Appleyard outlined the role SOAS has played in Ethiopian studies. SOAS began life in 1917 as SOS – the School of Oriental Studies.

A Department of Africa was established in 1932 by the phonetician, Ida Ward. This, however, specialised in African languages spoken in the Colonies. No Ethiopian-Eritrean language was taught in this early period. Tuition in Amharic and Ge’ez was first given by the renowned Ethiopian author and minister, Heruy Walde Sellassie, who accompanied the Emperor to England into temporary exile.

It was only in 1938 that SOS became SOAS. The transition, Prof. Appleyard noted, has generated initial confusion for those using the SOAS library. Ethiopia’s position in the scheme of things is not quite clear: books on Ethiopia’s semitic languages are located on the ground floor under the jurisdiction of the Librarian for the Ancient Near East, Semitics and Judaica; whilst almost everything else is to be found on the first floor under the sphere of the Librarian for Africa.

The book problem in the SOAS Library is almost an allegory of Ethiopia’s position in the real world – fiercely independent, yet torn between Africa and the Middle East.

Prof. Appleyard outlined the contributions at SOAS of RC Abraham (The Principles of Amharic, 1942) and FR Palmer (The Morphology of the Tigre Noun, 1962) as well as AN Tucker and Margaret Bryan who jointly produced The Non-Bantu Languages of North East Africa (1956). BW Andrzejewski’s massive contribution at SOAS over 42 years to the study of Somali and Oromo is still remembered, he said.

GWB Huntingford’s (Department of Anthropology) Historical Geography of Ethiopia was published posthumously in 1989 and was prepared for publication by Richard Pankhurst and David Appleyard . CF Beckingham (Department of the Near and Middle East, 1965 until retirement in 1981) worked with Huntingford to produce in 1954 Some Records of Ethiopia, 1593-1646. Beckingham chose the subject of ‘The Prester John Legend’ as the title of his inaugural lecture in May 1966.

In any survey of SOAS’s role in Ethiopian studies, one name predominates, that of Edward Ullendorff.

Ullendorff joined SOAS in 1964 to take up the Chair of Ethiopian Studies specially created for him. He stayed in his position until 1979 when he took up the vacant chair in Semitic Languages. Retiring in 1982, the University of London conferred upon him the title of Emer itus Professor of Semitic Languages and Ethiopian Studies giving recognition to both Chairs.

As Prof. Appleyard said: “The current generation of ethiopianists at SOAS, in which I include myself, owes much directly and indirectly to Ullendorff and the place he made for Ethiopian studies in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century”. Fullsome and proper recognition.

During his many years at SOAS, Ullendorff was assisted by his one-time pupil and long-time member of our own Anglo-Ethiopian Society committee, Dr. Arthur Irvine. Arthur gained his doctorate in the study of epigraphic South Arabian. Tablets of epigraphic South Arabian are found on both sides of the Red Sea and provide conclusive proof that South Arabia is the wellspring of semitic culture in Ethiopia.

Prof. Appleyard began to concentrate on the non-semitic languages of the Horn of Africa. He highlighted the work of Richard Hayward who was on the academic staff of SOAS from 1971 until his retirement in 2002. Hayward is a linguist specialising in phonology and morhphology.

An indication of the linguistic wealth of the Horn of Africa is given by the work Hayward has done on Cushitic and Omotic languages – hardly any of which, I for one, had ever heard of. Prof. Appleyard listed them alphabetically: Afar, Arbore, Bayso, Burji, D’Irayta (Gidole), Oromo, S’aamakko and Saho among the Cushitic languages; and, Ari, Gamo, Koyra and Zayse which are Omotic, from the River Omo in Ethiopia’s far south.

Hayward has many publications to his name among which is an Afar-English-French dictionary produced in 1985 with Enid Parker. His Gamo-English-Amharic Dictionary is eagerly awaited. He is apparently currently working on Kunama and Nara, two Nilo-Saharan languages of Eritrea.

I suspect that Prof. Appleyard is himself proficient in many of these languages having broken away from the seductive embrace of Ethiopia’s pre-dominant south semitic languages, Amharic and Tigrinya.

Our retiring Chairman, Richard Snailham, thanked Prof. Appleyard for his masterly survey and expressed the hope that his research work would go on for many years. There is every indication that it will.

It looks as if filthy lucre has determined that SOAS has passed the zenith of its contribution to the study of the languages of the Horn of Africa. What a shame! Wouldn’t it be nice to be wrong?

First Published in News File Summer 2006

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