Omotic Language Groups

Ethiopia Table of Contents

Between the lakes of southern Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley and the Omo River (in a few cases west of the Omo) live many groups that speak languages of the Omotic family. As many as eighty groups have been distinguished, but various sets of them speak dialects of the same language. Together they were estimated to number 1,278,100 in 1970. Of these, the Welamo (often called Wolayta) are the most numerous, estimated to number more than 500,000 in 1970. Gemu-Gofa is a language spoken by perhaps forty autonomous groups, estimated at 295,000 in 1970 in the Gemu highlands. Kefa-Mocha, spoken by an estimated 170,000, is the language of two separate groups (one, commonly called Mocha, calls itself Shekatcho). Of the two, Kefa is the larger.

The relatively limited area in which they live, the diversity of their languages, and other linguistic considerations suggest that the ancestors of the speakers of Omotic languages have been in place for many millennia. Omotic speakers have been influenced linguistically and otherwise by Nilo-Saharan groups to the west and by East Cushitic groups surrounding them. As a result of the early formation of ancestral Omotic-speaking groups, external influences, and the demands of varied physical and social environments, the Omotic speakers have developed not only linguistic diversity but also substantial differences in other respects. Most Omotic-speaking peoples, for example, are hoe cultivators, relying on the cultivation of ensete at higher altitudes and of grains below approximately 1,500 meters. They also practice animal husbandry. Many in the Gemu highlands are artisans, principally weavers. Their craftwork has become attractive as the demand for their work in Addis Ababa and other urban centers has increased. In the capital these people are commonly called Dorze, although that is the name of just one of their groups.

Except for the Kefa--long influenced by Orthodox Christianity--and a small number of Muslims, Omotic speakers have retained their indigenous religious systems, although a few have been influenced by European missionaries. Most of these groups originally had chiefs or kings. Among the exceptions are larger entities such as the Welamo and the Kefa, both characterized by centralized political systems that exacted tribute from neighboring peoples.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress