Several languages spoken in the Horn of Africa are now endangered as more dominant and economically important languages begin to gain ground in the speech habits of smaller communities. The adoption of another language passes from a stage of strong bilingualism in which the target language is used in economically and socially more important contexts and the local language in limited to internal and familial domains. In this situation, the local language acquires a negative image because younger generations tend to see it as “ugly”, “useless” and “difficult”. The decision to give up speaking ancestral languages is thus made by rising generations who may or may not decide to teach them to their children. Once the transmission to the following generation is interrupted, the language is no longer a mother tongue and is destined to become extinct.
The phenomenon of extinct languages is by no means limited to the Horn: it is now expected that in the coming years, half of the world’s languages will disappear. However, while strong languages used in trade, technology, administration, and media such as English in North America, Spanish in South America, and Russia in Siberia gain ground at the expenses of smaller tongues, the situation in the Horn typically involves local dominant languages. The spread of Somali in Somalia and Djibouti makes these countries linguistically relatively homogeneous.While the interesting thing here might be to see which Somali variety, or dialect, has become economically and socially more prestigious, one should not forget the small Bantu languages of Southern Somalia and minority Cushitic languages such as Afar and Saho, on the Ethio-Djiboutborder. Sudan and South Sudan are more varied. Here it is mainly Arabic that puts at risk a number of minority languages, particularly those whose speakers have suffered forced migrations due to warfare. The social and economic role of Tigrinya in Eritrea is absolutely dominant. The Eritrean constitution states this, implicitly creating a danger for the dozen of minority languages spoken in the area. At the same time, Ethiopia is probably the country of the Horn with the greatest variety of languages and cultures in danger. Out of the about eighty Ethiopian languages, including the majority languages Amharic and Oromo, half are declared endangered by Unesco. Continue reading