Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Isabelle A. ZAUGG, Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia University's Institute for Comparative Literature and Society

Addressing the theme of linguistic challenges and change within multilingual Ethiopia, this presentation looks at the interaction of Ethiopian languages with the global digital sphere. Digital technologies, due to their history as tools originally developed by and for English-based societies, have spread across the globe, but without completely abandoning their bias towards supporting English and other Latin-based languages. This has promoted the perception that the Latin alphabet is more “modern” than other writing systems. This view, while problematic, has helped to spur adoption of the Latin alphabet in many global locales. Furthermore, even in cases where the Latin alphabet is not embraced by policy, digital technology users of non-Latin-based languages, like Amharic, have been pushed by ease-of-use to use the Latin alphabet when communicating digitally. Within this presentation I will share some of the findings from my dissertation research entitled “Digitizing Ethiopic: Coding for Linguistic Continuity in the Face of Digital Extinction.” I will address the extent to which the Latin alphabet is still widely used by Amharic-language users online, despite progress in digital supports for Ethiopic. I will also present some of the potential reasons why Amharic-language users opt to communicate digitally using the Latin alphabet rather than the Ethiopic script. I will close with recommendations about the technological and policy supports that can help change this trend so that Amharic-speakers are able to use not only their own language but also their own script in the digital sphere. This presentation makes a case for the importance of considering communication technologies within the framework of language and cultural policy, since global technologies affect local language practices. It also proposes that rather than uncritically allowing global technologies to shape language and culture, it is better to design, shape, and localize technologies to serve the language and culture of their users.