Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ethiopian Naming System

By Fikru Helebo

A few days ago I received an anonymous email from a compatriot in Europe, who happened to be an EPRDF supporter, in which he stated that the current naming practice in Ethiopia (a given name followed by a father's given name and a grandfather's given name) was imposed by northerners and suggested that Southern Ethiopians should adopt a naming system that is used in the West: a given name followed by a family name (surname). The gentleman's argument for adopting the Western naming system was that the Western system will, in his own words, "enable us to see the contribution and role of the people from the south in the country".

As a person who had a hard time understanding the idea of a family name and did not like being called by my grandfather's name when I first came to the United States, I did not know what to make of the gentleman's assertion that the current naming system is an imposed one. To further support his argument in favor of adopting the Western naming system, the anonymous person also stated that some ethnic groups in the South, like the Hadiya, identify themselves with big family names (surnames), for which he did not give an example. The Hadiya, like the Somali and their other Cushitic cousins, do identify themselves with big family names such as Baadogo, Soro, Gindo, etc. To the best of my knowledge, however, these names are not used in the same way family names (surnames) are used in the West.

Being a person of Hadiya heritage myself, I got curious about this and I decided to share the gentleman's email with a Southern email list to find out if there is any truth to the gentleman's assertions. What I learned from the discussions on the list is interesting and it's worth sharing with a wider audience. I will also share with you what I found out about this issue from my simple search on the internet. Here is what I have learned:

1. The Hadiya use the suffix 'manna', meaning 'house of' or 'people of', to identify lineage (ex. Degagmanna). This naming practice is not universal among the Hadiya. When asked for their name, Hadiya folks give their father's name first and their given name second. For example, I would give my name as Helebo Fikru instead of Fikru Helebo. I lived among the Silte people, who are neighbors of the Hadiya, and I am aware that they also have a custom of giving their name in the reverse order in their culture.

2. The Shekacho and Kaffacho people do have a naming system which resembles the Western system. In Shekacho and Kaffacho communities, people are identified by a patriarchal family name that they belong to. A person is known by his/her first name and then by the family name (surname). For example, if two individuals have the same last name, say Gatimo, it means that these two individuals have some kind of blood relationship. Unfortunately, the Shekacho and Kaffacho have been discouraged from using their indigenous naming system by the dominant (read Amhara) culture.

3. I searched on the internet and found out something that startled me. The 1960 Civil Code of Ethiopia, which you can read in its entirety
here (Amharic version here), has an article that attempted to codify a naming system for Ethiopians. Regarding names, article 32 in chapter 2 states the following:

(1) Every individual has a family name, one or more first names and a patronymic.
(2) He shall be designated in administrative documents by his family name followed by his first names and by his patronymic.
I can't be sure, but I do not think that there is a people group in Ethiopia which practices the above naming system that the Civil Code was attempting to standardize. So, it seems to me, what this 1960 code was trying to impose was a brand new naming system on all Ethiopians, a naming system that, apparently, is an adaptation of the Chinese naming system, but with some modifications.

I do subscribe to the argument the anonymous person put forth about encouraging Southerners to use names that are indigenous so that their contributions to Ethiopia could be easily recognized. But based on the feedback I got and my own little research, I seriously doubt that the current naming system is imposed on Southerners by northern Ethiopians. In reality, Southern Ethiopians have a lot in common with northern Ethiopians in naming patterns and conventions than some would like to acknowledge. An exhaustive study on Ethiopian naming conventions could help to dispel misconceptions some people have on this subject. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive study and it should not be treated as one.

Coming back to my own naming system preference, I am now used to the Western naming practice and, actually, I have come to prefer it over the Ethiopian one, and I have adopted it for my own family. On the other hand, most Ethiopians I know in the West seem to prefer the use of the Ethiopian system for their families. It seems to me that the Ethiopian naming system is too strongly attached to the psyche that most Ethiopians who have immigrated to the West can't fathom abandoning it. As far as Southerners or any other Ethiopians adopting the Western naming system or the one advocated by the Haile Sellassie regime, I think it is a good idea but I doubt that the "Ethiopian" culture, be it southern or northern, is ready for such a change or will it ever be!

PS1: I am sure that there are some of you out there who are knowledgeable on this subject. It would be educational for Ethiopians and others if you kindly share your knowledge with us in the comments section.

PS2: Please check this web page for a summary of naming systems from around the world.


Anonymous said...

...but i disagree with the idea that a woman should take her husband's family name when she gets married.
Why should a woman loose her identity and root when she gets married? That is some thing the west should in fact learn from the Ethiopian Naming system.

I donot think that is right and I think i am pretty happy with the Ethiopian system - whether it is highlanders' or lowlanders' - that really doesnot matter to me!

But there is something to correct! In fact, a person should be given the choice to use either his father's name or his mother's name.

I would be very happy to bear my mother's name also into my name. So, if I use my father's name,and my mother's name as a middle name is perfect. Then I am well represented.

Plus, many mothers bring up their kids alone and the kids have to bear their 'father' name which they have never known - in that case, there must be a choice. That has to be corrected!

Anonymous said...

selam Fikru,
This is an interesting discussion you brought.
My parents are from Gondar and my father tells me how in certain parts of Gondar(like Wegera) the names are reversed i.e people would refer to you as Helebo Fikru.
I was lucky enough to have had interaction with relatives from the deep countryside of Gondar. When they are tracing geneology verbally, they use this reverse order. They go:
Helebo - Helebo Fikru, Helebo X, Helebo Y(insert your siblings name for X and Y)

I say the Ethiopian system is lot more liberal in keeping the identity of women. The historical root for this may be land inheritance. (This is the main reason the Amhara used to memorize their geneology)Since in Ethiopia inheritance can come either through the maternal or paternal line you maintain the trace clear in either line.

One more thing, in rare occasion you will see people using their mothers name. I think there was a certain dejazmach called Kebede Bizunesh. The reasons go back to land tenure again. If the father is stranger to the land, especially in the Shoan highlands that are fiercly contested, people use their mother's name to avoid their descendants being challenged from their land.

enset said...

I agree with Minte that a woman need not change her name when she gets married. As the second commentator points out, this is an aspect of the Ethiopian naming system that is more liberal and intuitive compared to the Western one. I also agree that kids who are raised by their mothers should not be forced to take their father's name. If this is the case in Ethiopia, it needs to rectified. The point raised about memorizing one's genealogy is also an interesting one. I did not know that the Amhara culture stressed it! My father can count twenty of his paternal ancestor's names. I suppose the Ethiopian naming system makes such genealogy tracing easier.

Anonymous said...

Helebo Fikru!!

You have raised a very interesting topic. Thanks.

First, the anonymous "EPRDF supporter" emailer wants to remind us that current naming "was imposed by northerners" (does he mean Tigreans?) and b) that reverting to the old or Western system will "enable us to see the contribution and role of the people from the south in the country".

Is he also in denial, as is PM Meles, of the South's contributions? The South's contributions to notions of relative tolerance and multi-ethnicity are even more evident today than in the years past--with or without re-naming. Will your caller next raise the “gastronomical oppression” the South inflicted on unsuspecting Northerners? [I am already beginning to salivate for real southern kitfo/qocho/ayBbe.]

Second, one may be best served in adapting to a proximate cultural milieu than adopting indiscriminately from a totally different setting. In other words, adopting from "Northerners" may be more efficient than adopting from Westerners. Let us not forget that there is no “pure” culture—each is the product of a number of interactions. The future will demand changes in this area too in that Ethiopian populations have become less sedentary in this age of the Internet and globalization than their forbears.

Third, the talk of “north” and “south” is of course imprecise in view of how people over the centuries have settled, inter-married, traded or warred. I am certain Fikru’s caption “A Southern Perspective on Ethiopian Current Affairs” is simply an attempt to enrich our conversation and not to create a superficial distinction.

Finally, however many the blunders of past governments are standardizing nomenclatures isn’t one of them. Failure to standardize would have amounted to a bureaucratic chaos. Shouldn’t “northerners” contemplate dropping appellations that recall “semitic” cultures for those of indigenous African cultures? There is no end to what one can conjure up.

God grant us the wisdom to leave buried that which is better left buried.

Adisu Adisu (how about repeating your father or your mother’s given name or making a pair out of each.)

enset said...

The anonymous person whose email inspired this post emailed me saying that my characterization of him as EPRDF supporter is incorrect. Here he is in his own words:

"Hi Fikru, thanks for developing and presenting it to a larger audience. My original idea was not to magnify the north/south devide and I am not EPRDF's supporter either. But I consider EPRDF as a positive force in Ethiopian politics though failed to bring about a genuine sytem. I can see very positive things about the introduction of a Sur name system. It simply magnifies our cultural diversity. Therefore, we need to upgrade and preserve it for the generations to come. We need to develope the culture of tolerance and positive thinking. History is in the making, and modernizing what is some how in our culture should be part of it. I have encountered with people who boldly claimed that the South was the colony. It is a well established fact that the names we enncounter in the history of the country are exclusively northerners eventhogh some of them might be blood related or were originally from Oromo or from the South. I think names would still matter if we can travel to the future some 200 years from now."

I will address the third point raised by the last anonymous commentator when I find time.

Anonymous said...

selam Fiqroo,

I would like to ask your friend to clarify his statement on the perceived advantages of the Sur name system to magnify our diversity. I do not see how our current system becomes an impediment to diversity.

Unless ofcourse his issue is with Southerners adopting common Amharic names like Fiqroo, Tesfaye etc. for their children. Thus few generations down the indentity may be lost. (The problem is shared by Amharas and Tigres as their urban elite give their children Biblical/ Hebrew names. I have also read a book by an Ethiopian Muslim raising the same issue with use of Arabic names.) If this is the case the Sur name system has an intrinisc advantage. But that is assuming the Sur names adopted will reflect the heritage.

Our current system can reflect the diversity equally provided parents have the desire to reflect their heritage in their children's first names. It seems to me the key is the will to stand up for your heritage in the face of popular culture and urban elitism.I live in the USA and I have three daughters- all are named to reflect my heritage. Can our friend who intiated the discussion say the same about himself?

Anonymous said...

Well, my brother, your ideas are quite OK. Sur name for preserving heritage and amplifying the diversity. Given names may reflect religion (Arabic/Biblical) or the modern ways of thinking. My kids carry biblical names. Given names keep on changing and evolving. For example, names like Aberash and Workitu may not represent the young generation in the cities. One can also be influenced by the country one is living in. To a person who is living in England, the name John best suits than the name Yohannis. Therefore, I would say given name should be clear and make life easy for communication. Many young Hadiyas, for example, may prefer Amharic names for their own since it simply makes communication with the majority of Ethiopians easier. However the Sur name would anchor one to its heritage and ancestors. For this we need to have a system in place that guarantees the sustainable usage of family names. Then my name may be Mr. Y. Sewore. Of course, one may think and believe that one does not live for either ancestors or for the future generations. Then we should avoid arguing about nationalities, heritage and diversity sort of things. One country, one people!

enset said...

It is good to hear from old friends from (I used to spell my name 'Fiqroo' when I used to be on EEDN and Ethiolist), and I am glad to see thoughtful comments which will add to our knowledge on this topic.

I am not sure if the 1960 Civil Code is the law of the land that governs how a person is named in Ethiopia or if there is something else. Whatever it is, I think that it is either a bad law or it is a law that is badly enforced. Just take a look at your Ethiopian birth certificate or some other official document. All it has for the name section is just 'name' with no subdivisions for it!

The Western naming system has its advantages, as it is pointed out above by the gentleman who initiated this discussion. But the Ethiopian system has its own advantages as well, especially as it relates to women retaining their name after marriage as the other commentators have correctly pointed out above. My wish is that, some time down the line, Ethiopians will be receptive to having family names and have a naming system that is similar to, but not a copy of, the Western system. Why not have the best of both worlds?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this educational post

gin selechegn.. this kind of idealism.. this was imposed on these people and that was imposed on these people...

some things are done for the sake of easier administration...

everyone is required to take a drivers taste before getting their drivers license and that is the law....

if the government asks everyone to use a certain naming convention on birth certificate.. this is not imposing... its just a legal request! and the government or any adminstration should have to right to request stuff legal...

what is next they imposed taxes on us? they imposed me to fill out an application for greencard


enset said...

Nolawi: Too much idealism is probably not a good thing, but I do not think the gentleman who suggested that the current naming system is an imposed one is guilty of having too much of it. In his last comment (two comments above yours), he seems to have backed off his claim since he did not take issue with my rebuttal to his assertion, which I tried to base on fact. This suggests to me that the gentleman is open to criticism and learning, which makes him a realist. Speaking of things that are imposed on the Ethiopian people, the Amharic language is a good example. The only reason the Amharic language has become the lingua franca of Ethiopia is because it was the language of the ruling class.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Amharic happened to be the language of Ethiopia for some reason - right or wrong! So what? Should we go centuries back? The whole world is speaking English or French or Spanish not because of some good reason - it is because of colonialism. Should we go back now?

The EPRDF went to the extent of 'creating' languages in the southern regions by blending different southern languages in the name of getting people to speak their own language! isn't that non-sense? But the people wanted to learn in a language that enables them to communicate across ethnic lines!

We need to communicate each other and it turned out to be we have an African language that has its own number,alphabet,matured literature but sadly we are working to go back. Other languages should grow too - no doubt - but Amharic at this point in space and time is not the language of the Amhara only - it is for the whole Ethiopians to communicate!

And every one has contributed to its maturity - be it Amhara, Gurage,Oromo, Tigre...etc people from different ethnic tribes in Ethiopia have sung in Amharic, have written books,did study and research and contributed to the overall development and maturity of this language as a national language.

Anonymous said...

We could have used Oromiffa instead of Amharic. We could have established Arabic (beginning with Gran Ahmed) or Portuguese (beginning with the Jesuits) or Italian (beginning with Menilik) or French (beginning with Haileselassie) or Russian (beginning with Derg) or English (beginning with World Bank takeover.) Anything but Amharic!! The irony is that had any of the above options been enacted we would still be disagreeing on the grounds that they were imposed on us!! This is not unique to Ethiopia (for instance Native Americans or Hispanic populations in the US, the Welsh in UK, Kurds in Turkey, natives in Latin America also complain existing policy is designed to undermine their cultural identity.)

We started this discussion with naming systems and we have now progressed (or regressed) into languages.

I think we lack the ingenuity to accept the unrecoverable past and work our way to salvage the present. You don't need to invent the wheel when you have one already. You may reinforce it or upgrade it to meet current demands and to hold the nation together--unless, of course, you are for separate enclaves; in which case there is not sense in wasting our time discussing these issues.

In the end, it is not the language that is evil but to what social policy it is put to use and the type of leadership implementing the policy.

Fikru, you are doing a fabulous job raising these issues; keep it up, brother.

enset said...

"Anything but Amharic!!" AALWOTTAGNIM!!!

Seriously, all I was trying to make was just a passing remark about somethings that are imposed on the Ethiopian people. But I also expected this kind reaction and the one Minte expressed when I posted the comment. I know this is getting off topic, but I will briefly share my view for what it's worth.

I have no problem with Amharic being an Ethiopian national language, but I do have problem with Amharic being THE Ethiopian national language for two reasons: 1) It is a weak language (not very easy to express one's thinking), 2) Oromiffa (Afan Oromo) and English need to be added to the list of Ethiopian national languages, if they are not already. English, because it is the de facto business language of the world and Oromiffa, because it is spoken by at least 40% of the Ethiopian people.

I love Geez alphabets! I believe Geez alphabet is superior to Latin in expressing the sounds of Ethiopian languages. I can't stand seeing Hadiyissa, Oromiffa and other Cushitic languages in Latin.

Anonymous said...


AAlwotahem. That's fine. All I am saying is that any government worth its salt must begin somewhere. And it appears that there has not been a ruling party that did not "impose" its own system of governance which includes enacting a language policy. We need also to remember that any ruling class will have to incorporate some cultural features of the ruled or else it will have an uphill battle on its hands. In other words, the word "impose" need not evoke negative sentiments.

I completely agree with your idea of adding Oromiffa as a national language and also using Geez script instead of Latin.

Anonymous said...

I seriously disagree on using Geeze Alphabet for Cushitic languages. I think Latin is the right choice. Sewore.

Anonymous said...

I can not unerstand people who suggest that we use English as our national language. Look what using English did to our education systam.Why should we use a forgain language with which we have no historical connecation (i.e not colonised).I know some of you will answer by saying English is the business language of the worled. the French the garmans and the japanise etc...knows about that ,but they still use their own languages for education and work.I went to school at Minelik II high school and I know all of my class mates apart from one or two boys from a class of 91 students who coulde'nt understand a word of english apart from saying yes or no,so I could say 99.5% had no clue when they sat down for MATRIC exams.once my friend said to me "YEFERENGE BUDA BIBELAGNE INQWA INGLISINYA ALINAGERM"You could see it as a joke But we lost three or four generations to this type of education system and no one seems to see it as a problem that needs to be delt with.Why should our students have to go through hardship of learning a forgain language just to get some education and why should they weast their precious youth repating classes. We have the means to change, we have qualifed people who would translet forgain books into Amahric or any other Ethiopian language. Our univercitie's and school's need to reform and use Amharic as the language of teaching and other ethiopian languages must be added to the lessons taken by students. students should have the right to study one or more forgain languages but only if they wish to , they should not be forced ,and it should not be part of the requaierd criteria.Only then we can opean our eyes to science and technology and we would also get to keep our soverginty in language and won,t be dependant on English or any other language to get what we deserve.
thank you for reading

enset said...

Dear F.Tariku:

Is there something wrong with the water you drink in Aylesbury, England? About an hour and a half ago, you left a copy of the above comment in 10 other posts where they do not belong. This is not a nice way to get attention. If you are not aware, what you did is called spamming and it is inappropriate to say the least. I would appreciate it if you do not do this again. As to your comment, I appreciate your taking the time to share it. I disagree with you, but you are entitled to you view.


Anonymous said...

sorry for the inconvinience I did'nt get a replay for over a week so I thought no one spotted it.Please write me the reasons why you disagree with my idea

enset said...

This is off-topic, but since you insist, here are my reasons for making English one of Ethiopia's three official languages (the other two being Amharic and Afan Oromo):

1. English has been used as the primary language of secondary and college level education in Ethiopia for at least six decades.

2. English is the lingua-franca of the world. Making the English language an official language will encourage Ethiopians to learn it more and use it. The economic benefits of mastering the English language is self-evident, I believe.

3. Having English as an official language will give a third of the Ethiopian population, whose first language is neither Amharic nor Afan Oromo, a neutral language that they can use if they so choose.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your replay I know you probably wont replay again regarding this topic.I've rade your reasons and more or less they reflects the view of most ethiopians.Im not trying to be the odd one and I'm only raising this issue because i belive it's very important and would be the foundation stone of a prosperous, proud and technologicaly advanced ethiopia in the future .I don't blame you for being too "Anglo Saxonized" because we were all raised beliving everything English is superior to anything in the worled living in England I personaly spend a lot of time thinking how a small nation England which is one of four on the British isles,maneged to conqure and impose their language first on the rest of the british isles then on most of the worled?and then you would come to the coclusion that because of a non stop campaign of war empire building that cotinued for over three or four centuries and aggressive foragin relationship fuiled by rescist self adoration and glory seeking through conqure of land,cultures and specially languages.
Coming back to our topic i would like to project some of the advantages we will gain by using our languages for education and work.
1-will make studying and teaching very easy equally for teachers and students make class rooms more enjoyeble.
2-we will definetly have the magority of our students complitng higher education.
3-we will get to keep our educated profesionals for our development rather than sending them to the labour market of europe or america
4-it will encourage us to build endigionous heavy industry so we can kick start our industrial revolution.
5-An educated person will be more understandable to the common ethiopian .
6-last but not list is what I mentioned on my first blog comment the soverginety of language is very important to the mind set of a nation .it will encourage more poets, writers and creative scientists and our language will not just be a language of pub and coffee time conversations.and its up to us to look carefuly at the advantages and disadvantages of using our mentioned on your replay that english has been our language of education for six decades and its no doubt that the education system is getting worse year by year not better .I know that because i passed through the same let's reform our education and give our kids the advantages that kids in first worled countries enjoy.thank you for reading

Anonymous said...

to F.TARIKU I support what you suggested I also belive that the education system in ethiopia need to reform and need to be more friendly to ethiopian students.

Anonymous said...

interestint topic. Amharic in education mainly...For me, it is simply mandatory to have a national language (if we were to survive as a nation) and use it for education -if we want mass education..).

Otherwise, we will simply replicate the last 40 years of african experance: huge investement in education only to produce a mainly expatriate elite that express itself in a language that the common compatriot does not understand.

Just like the europeans elite used to write in latin in order to keep themselves in a separate word before the calvinists. The educational revolution that came after that in what made europe what it is: a massivly and highly educated crowd.

Anonymous said...

I am concerned that nobody has remembered that the amharic language was the language alledgely (sorry for spelling)was spoken by
Jesus in the Bible.

enset said...

The language that Jesus spoke was Aramaic, not Amharic.

Rehinna said...

You make so many great points here that I read your article a couple of times. Your views are in accordance with my own for the most part. This is great content for your readers. source