Along with Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, Ethiopia’s Ge’ez is considered one of the world’s oldest Semitic languages—but you’ve probably never heard of it.
Michael Gervers, a professor in the department of historical and cultural studies at the University of Toronto, believes it’s important to resurrect it. “The entire history of Ethiopia is in this language,” he says. “Everything written up until 1850 was written in Ge’ez, so we have 2,000 years of textual material that people don’t have access to.” It was replaced by Amharic as Ethiopia’s official language.
In 2015, Gervers started a fund to create an Ethiopian studies program at U of T, setting a goal of $200,000 and donating $50,000 of his own money. The dean’s office matched that donation; and this year, so did Abel Tesfaye—the Toronto-born, Grammy-winning R&B singer professionally known as The Weeknd, whose parents immigrated to Canada from Ethiopia in the 1980s.
Tesfaye promoted the cause to his more than four million Twitter followers. “Sharing our brilliant and ancient history of Ethiopia. Proud to support the studies in our homie town through @UofT and @bikilaaward,” he wrote.
U of T will offer a Ge’ez language course starting in January, making it the first post-secondary school in North America to do so. Eventually, the university hopes to offer undergrad and graduate programs that focus on Ge’ez and Ethiopia’s culture and history.
Gervers believes Ethiopia has been ignored due to a European influence on academics. Since the country was never colonized (except for a brief occupation by Mussolini’s fascists) not many people know of its original language. “It was outside of the gambit of colonial Europe,” he says. “And, as a consequence, you can go to any African studies program—with the exception of the University of Toronto—and you won’t find Ethiopian studies.”