Strong Base for a Bright Future
Tigre language is one of the Semitic languages spoken in Eritrea. It is
the second most spoken language (following Tigrigna) in the country.
However, its speakers are widely distributed over the country. They are
found in both the western and eastern lowlands, northern parts of
Eritrea and eastern regions of the Sudan. We also find them in the
highlands of Eritrea in places like Dirfo, the environs of Rebto (Irra,
Me’aldi and Wara), the environs of Hazemo, Alla (Bellesto), Ubel, Seb’o
and various other places.
Since it is widely distributed, Tigre borders many other peoples and
languages. Bordering with one another does also necessitate influencing
one another. In such a situation, we could raise a question, “Has Tigre
language was influenced more than it has influenced others?” Although
answering this question needs to be supported by research, this language
has enriched itself by adapting some dancing styles and musical beats
into its original ones. This is in addition to what the other languages
could borrow from it.
Many of the societies that live neighbouring or mixed with Tigre
speaking people have fluency in Tigre language. Even some of them are
part of the efforts concerted towards the development of that language.
Putting this into consideration, no other language in Eritrea could
compete with Tigre language mainly in its distribution.
This being the truth, what are the problems that have been roadblocks in
the development of Tigre language? This article will try to discuss, in
short, the efforts that have been exerted for the development of the
language and their outcomes. These include the conference on standard
usage of Tigre language in mass media that was held in August 2007 and
the symposium under the theme “Quality Art Work: a Society’s Guide” held
in December 2008.
One can’t blame everything on colonization in raising the question, “Why
hasn’t Tigre language developed?” As we can see in different aspects of
it, at certain eras of colonization, Tigre language had had a better
chance to develop. So as to get a clear picture in answering this and
other questions, it would be necessary to look, briefly, into the
experiences the language went through in various fields and times.
Tigre Language in Education and Writing
A book titled “Jah” quotes various texts and elders that the first book
to be written about Tigre language is “Vocabularire de la Langue”
published at Burney in French by Warner Munzinger in 1863. It is stated
that around the same time, another book had also followed by the same
writer in the same language. Also in 1868, an English-Tigre dictionary
was also published in London. Similarly, a grammar book of this language
was also published in the languages of Tigre, Arabic, English and
All the books stated above were written using Latin scripts. It is easy
to realize how hard it could be to find and understand them at this
time. Therefore, when did the works written in Geez script start?
It is indicated that a book titled “Ktab Fidel Weqran” (An Alphabet and
Reading Book) written by two priests – Qeshi Dawit Amanuel and Qeshi
Tewelde-Medhin Ghebre-Medhin – is the first book to be written in Geez
script. It came out in 1889 and was published at Em-Kulu (the environs
of Massawa) known to be the first printing press in the Horn of Africa.
This book was later improved and was reprinted as “Ktab Agazot Weqran”
by Memhir Musa Aaron in 1957.
Even after this, writing Tigre in Latin script didn’t stop. For
instance, a Tigre grammar book in Italian and Tigre in 1894, a similar
work in German language in 1897, and a book of Mensa’e and Maria
genealogy by Carlo Conti Rossini – an Italian researcher – in 1901 were
published. It is indicated that the same researcher, after two years of
the work stated above, had written in Tigre language using Geez script
on the history and culture of the clans of Sobderat and Algedien from
the Beni-Amer tribe. This is according to the book titled “Jah”.
Books written in Tigre, English and German languages by a German
professor of Semitic languages Enno Littman assisted by an Eritrean
Nefa’e Ethman followed in 1910 and 1913. These books are, at this
moment, ready for reprinting with some improvements under a title ‘mieras’.
The books include 717 songs (known as Hilay in Tigre). The songs touch
on various aspects of the society’s culture and were prepared with
profound research and utmost care. Littman with the cooperation of Maria
Hoffner also prepared another English-Tigre-German dictionary published
This being the progress Tigre language showed in writings, following
will be the development that the language showed in education.
The first objective of the Swedish missionaries that set foot at Massawa
port in 1866 was to expand spiritual (religious) teachings. To do so,
they found out that it was helpful to give modern education along with
it. Therefore, they established a school that taught in Tigre language
in Ailet (in the environs of Mai-W‘ui) in 1871.
The missionaries moved this school to Em-Kulu and changed it into a
boarding school in 1877. It is indicated that another boarding school
was also set up in Gheleb in 1874. Both of the two boarding schools
taught in Tigre language to Eritreans who came from different parts of
the country. It is noted that they were schools that produced Eritreans
such as Mr. Weldeab Weldemariam who played important role in the
political struggle and in raising general consciousness of the people of
Eritrea. The above mentioned two Eritrean scholars Qeshi Dawit and Qeshi
Teweldemedhin were also students of this school.
It is understood that it was important for the missionaries to instil
spiritual teachings through the secular one. To implement this, they
used to produce books in Tigre language that could serve for both
purposes. The Gospel of Mark had already been translated into Tigre by
these two priests – Keshi Dawit and Keshi Tewelde-Medhn – and was
published at Em-Kulu printing press. Similarly, science, geography,
mathematics and other text books were also published. It is indicated
that the missionaries had written books on customs and traditions of
Tigre but did not get the chance to be published.
There was a missionary priest named Karl Gustav Rudien who was stationed
at Gheleb and he looked after the publishing works. This Swedish cleric
was very fluent in Tigre language. It is noted that he with the
cooperation of another Swedish colleague prepared two books: “Digm Qdus
Ktab” (The Story of Holy Bible) and “Fitih Mehari We’adotat”, a book on
customary law, which was published in 1913.
At that time, the beginning of Tigre language, especially in writing,
was very impressive. However, it didn’t fully develop as it should have.
This good beginning was nipped in the bud for various reasons.
Succeeding this, there had been no work accomplished that deserve a
mention here. Except the radio broadcast (Seni Masiyam) that began at
the end of 1960s and continued till 1991, and the nine papers presented
at a workshop conducted under the umbrella of University of Asmara to
evaluate the radio broadcast, it appears that there were no other
Here, the endeavours during armed struggle and individual contributions
by Memhr Mussa Aaron should be recalled and given credit.
Tigre Language during armed struggle
It is inevitable that policies drafted would have both positive and
negative influences. During Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia, a
question: “Which languages should be official language of Eritrea?” was
raised. It is a recent history that small numbers of people opted for
Tigre language to be an official language. However, whatever the reason
might be, the suggestion did not succeed.
Although it could be stated that the language was reborn during the
struggle period, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t some facts
negatively recorded in the history of the language. The offence
especially committed by ELF in Homib (Barka) in 1976 deserves mention
here but its analysis should be left to history.
On the other hand, at the same time, there was an important measure
taken by EPLF. It started to use Tigre language as a medium of
instruction in Zerro (Sahel). It is the students who went to this
school, and who in their turn worked whom we consider to have brought
the language to a stage of “strong base for bright future”.
After the establishment of this school, in 1977-78, about 40 books in
Tigre language meant for students, teachers and adult education were
produced, according to a paper presented by martyr Nigusse Weldu in the
first conference of Eritrean languages in 1996. The same work indicates
that another 39 books with similar purposes were published in Tigre
language from 1982 to 1984.
Moreover, EPLF established a radio station broadcasting in Tigre
language (known as ‘Kirn Gebil’ (Voice of the Broad Masses)) in the
liberated areas in 18-08-1979. This has served as a major source of
information and awareness, especially to the illiterate sector of the
society, for a very long time. The role it played in creating a standard
language that different dialects could understand can’t be taken
It is indicated that ELF had tried a radio broadcast in Tigre language
stationed at Homib in November 1980, although it did not last long
Tigre Language in Literature
I don’t think the books written in Tigre about hundred years ago
produced any works that could be considered as a body of literature.
They should only be regarded as writings. If we agree upon this, we
could say Tigre language was written in a form of literature for the
first time in the 3rd Literature Competition held on the occasion of
March 8, 1987.
In this competition, from the works presented we could mention two: “Hatr
Fda Adu” (A Hero for His Country) by Mohammed Idris Mohammed and “Min
Midrna Tewez Y’enbil!” (We’ll Never Budge from Our Land!) by Ali Abe
Mohammed. As the latter was awarded first prize, it was selected for
publication. As far as I know, it became the first fictional work
embodied with characters to be published in Tigre during the struggle
period. Therefore, Ali Abe Mohammed has taken a special place in the
history of Tigre language for being the first writer to publish a
fictional work in this language.
Ali Abe also has a novel titled “Atrayemet Gebeyom” (Their Journey Has
Been Extended) published in 1994 to his name. He has also published
recently a third novel titled “Leshirun Shef” (The Mad Battle). He is a
Tigre language author who was brought up in the armed struggle. He is
well-known for his good knowledge of the language and profound
understanding of his society.
Another novel titled “Emenini” that touches on various aspects of the
armed struggle was published by Mohammed Ali Ibrahim in 2007. Similarly,
this writer is also a product of the armed struggle; he has contributed
various published and unpublished works on culture. In the same year, a
collection of poems titled “Tinker” (Flow) by Mohammed-Said Osman
There are also a number of fiction works that didn’t get the chance of
being published but aired on the Voice of the Broad Masses (Tigre
service). These are a few to mention from the works produced: “Echet
Hina” by veteran journalist Mussa Mohammed Adem (Wed-Mender), “Arwahat
Min Qebir” and “Seles Gebey” by Ibrahim Idris (Kirbit), “Edam Embel
Jerimet” by Hamid Abdella Adem (Albasat), “Sahel Midir Mihierbet” by
journalist Mohammed Idris Mohammed….
However, it appears that the works haven’t yet received feedback from
the public. Of course, as the society had been restricted to oral
stories for many years, reading habit could not be expected to spread
overnight. Even that is a fact, it is not reasonable to complain saying
there is nothing to be read while what have already been produced
haven’t still found readers. As change is usually gradual, it could only
be reached after an inevitable waiting.
Stage dramas could not be treated separately from literary products.
There are various eventful stories in Tigre society that could be useful
resources for dramas, feature and series films. Such works shown during
National Festival and Independence Day celebrations, we could mention
the following: “Dingier”, “Wed-Amir”, “Wed-Basheqhir”, “Zemat Wed-Ukud”,
“Arem Lega”, “Em-Kulu” and others. Although there are comments that such
works are presented to audience with shallow treatment and without
developing the stories fully, Abot Drama Group has to be praised for
doing its best in such works.
In addition, there was a feature film titled “Emb’e Dib Edra” which
received negative criticisms more than acclaim for different reasons.
Previously, there was another film titled “Halib Btuk”; however, it did
not have sound and picture clarity.
There are also criticisms that the dramas were intended purely for
campaign purposes. Even though the dramas may appear like that, we find
highly elevated reflections of culture, tradition and language. For
instance, there was a radio drama sponsored by the Ministry of Health
titled “Gebey Dehan Hol Gisa” by Mohammed Abdella Saleh and Mohammed
Assenai. This drama, aired for more than a year, dealt with the health
issues along with the traditional methods of treating diseases; and it
is a good reflection of the traditions and culture of the society. We
could also take feature films “Bana Lb” – on girls’ education – written
by Ibrahim Hussien and “Emb’e Dib Edra” as examples of such kind of
And after these works, the soap opera titled “Biet Min Arish” followed.
This work received critical acclaims and wide acceptance. It was
acclaimed by all, whether they spoke the language or not. It also proved
that Tigre language could be employed in various forms of literary works
if enough endeavours are put towards it.
In the first part of this article, we discussed the general background
of Tigre language in education, writings and literature as well as the
stage it has reached. We also, sufficiently, saw some works accomplished
during the period of armed struggle. In this part, we will look into
various fields we didn’t cover in the previous part and the status of
the language inside and outside Eritrea. This part of the article will
also include various professionals who took part in the development
process of the language as well as the general impediments faced.
Tigre Language after independence
The teaching-learning process in Tigre language, which was started
during the struggle, continued in full swing after independence. The low
acceptance of learning in one’s own mother tongue has also continued
along with it. People used to complain: “Since we know our language,
while we’re still in our homes, there is no reason to learn it at
school! Are we going to teach you or teach us Tigre language? And how
can we use it across the border…?”
The Ministry of Education has handled this matter at policy level and
has also exerted efforts to instil into parents that students will not
only learn their languages, but also get various subject matter
knowledge through their language.
Therefore, there have been various developments that pushed the progress
of the language positively after independence. In addition to the text
books prepared by the Department of Curriculum of the Ministry of
Education, various supplementary reading materials were also published
by Cultural Affairs Bureau of the ministry as well as individuals.
The radio station for adults (now known as Radio Bana) – run by the
Department of Media of the Ministry of Education – started to air
programs in Tigre language in 1995. Although it has had some problems of
reaching the target areas, its programs are up to the level of the
society. The educational programs are aired in the form of dramas, which
in their part play important role in the development of literature. The
television broadcast in Tigre language that was commenced by Ministry of
Information in 2000 is also a first experience; and it also enabled
people to see its image in another medium.
While all these things were underway, PFDJ has not been totally
inactive. It approached Memhir Mussa Aron, a veteran writer and who
contributed in the language for a long time, to come back from abroad
and prepare a Tigre-Tigre dictionary. The work was undertaken in the
form of project within five years realizing a dictionary titled “Kibt
Qalat Higya Tigre”. This work was launched along with a booklet meant to
help Tigryna speakers to learn how to write Tigre language on October 5,
Memhir Mussa is an exemplary citizen who has tirelessly worked for the
development of Tigre as well as Tigryna languages despite health
problems and old age. However, it doesn’t mean that he has prepared this
dictionary with perfection. It is almost natural that it has some
problems which could be corrected in the future since he prepared it
from scratch. However, it may not be necessary to go into their analysis
but there could also be some problems on the part of some users of the
Periodicals in Tigre Language
No magazine or newspaper in this language with satisfactory distribution
and content has been available to date. However, it doesn’t mean there
were not any. The monthly newspaper “Geled” – run by NUEYS – published
its first issue on September 13, 1996 and could be considered as the
precursor of this field in Tigre language. Nonetheless, the number of
its readers started to decline gradually; it then became bi-annual and
it finally stopped.
The trials of the NUEYS did not stop here. A Tigre language version of “Menesey”
magazine titled “Takyat” printed its first two-monthly issue in January
2006. Its chances, however, were not different from that of “Geled”.
Even if it is still being published, it doesn’t come out regularly –
once in two months.
In addition, a magazine titled “Rayet” was published twice in the 20th
and 25th commencement of Maria Schools, whose medium of instruction is
Tigre language. It had praiseworthy contents and presentation.
There was also a magazine titled “Tsehay Berhet” with spiritual and
secular contents that were prepared by Abba Thomas Osman, cardinal of
the Catholic Church in Gash-Barka, and Keshi Oqubarebi Hibtes under the
umbrella of Eritrean Catholic Church (Barentu branch). It had also
continued for five issues until 1998.
Outside Eritrea, speakers of this language who live in Sweden in the
town of Viekjo published a magazine – “Hedgayt Nisal” – that had raised
diverse and multidimensional topics. It published its first issue in
1997. This magazine was edited by Mr. Mahmoud Kiflegiorgis and Mr.
Ermias Idris Tujar; however, I don’t think it continued for a long time.
“Sa’eyob”, another periodical whose focus was on children, had also
begun publication but was faced with the same fate like the ones
mentioned above, before it goes to publication.
After all these trials, “Eritrea Haddas”, a weekly newspaper (published
every Wednesday) commenced its publications on January 2, 2008. Since
this government newspaper hasn’t yet developed its own style, it has its
own limitations. One of its positive aspects is that it is still being
printed unlike those that ran for a few issues and faded. And as it has
organized its permanent staff as of 2009, its future appears to be
Tigre Language in the Diaspora
Although it can’t match the efforts being exerted within the country,
one cannot belittle the initiatives taken for the development of this
language in the Diaspora. Most of these steps are taken by Eritrean
citizens who live abroad. There are also some foreigners who sometimes
take similar initiatives.
The efforts of Eritreans who especially live in the town of Viekjo in
Sweden were very effective. To mention a few: they started to teach
their children in Tigre language starting from 1988; they also started
adult education with books previously prepared in 1991; taking advantage
of the policy of the country which allows foreigners to develop their
language, they established an association namely “Eritrea Mahber Tewerot
Higya Tigre” in 1992 and started to conduct their activities under its
They have also had a radio station that broadcasts in Tigre language
since 1994. About 70 Eritreans actively involve themselves in this
endeavour. The following are a few among them: Mahmoud Kiflegiorgis,
Ermias Idris Tujar, Sarah, Hiwet, Ellen, Paulos Abraha, Abdellah Tedros,
Tiebe, Idris Shanino and Mohammed Cheway. Memhir Mussa Aaron was also
part of this endeavour while living first in Kenya and then in Canada.
These nationals who lived abroad had also extended their contributions
in support of the efforts being exerted within the country. For
instance, when “Geled” newspaper printed its first issues, the first
positive feedback was given by the association cited above. On the fax
message sent on November 10, 1996 by the representative of the
association, Mr. Mahmoud Kiflegiorgis, they assured that they will fully
support the newspaper in all its activities. Keeping their word, they
supported it to the end by granting it assistances for computer and
As it deserves mentioning here, on the preparations of about five books
of children stories and language, they gave me morale and material
support too. When “Eritrea Hadas” kicked off, their assistance didn’t
wane. Especially, the initiatives taken by Mr. Ermias Idris and his wife
Mrs. Hiwet deserve special credit.
Moreover, there are also some universities abroad that teach Tigre
language. Some of them also conduct researches and organize workshops
regarding this language. For instance, there was a workshop on history
of the people and language of Tigre organized by Universita Di Napoli
L’Orientale on February 7-8, 2008. In addition to this university, there
is another university by the name in Berlin, Germany, that teaches Tigre
Along with the endeavours taken aboard, we can consider those activities
undertaken in the Sudan. As was mentioned in the first part of this
article, Tigre language is also spoken in the eastern parts of the
Sudan. There are also efforts taken for the development of the language
in that country.
In the town of Kessela, eastern Sudan, there is a radio station that
broadcasts its health and cultural programs in Tigre language every
Friday from 9:00 to 10:00 in the morning. There is also unverified
information that there is a Tigre-Arabic dictionary in that country.
It is possible to add momentum in the development of the language to
forge cooperation with the works being accomplished in the Sudan (not
only in Tigre language but also in Bidawyet language). However, the
imaginary line drawn by colonizers in Berlin in 1884 has still played
its negative role by leaving various peoples divided.
Tigre Language in Translation
No need of expositions about the importance of translation works in the
development of a certain language and society. It is not uncommon
between peoples to make use of translation works so as to exchange their
civilizations. What does the condition of translation works in Tigre
language look like at this time?
Translation works, in the first place, have two aspects. One is works
written in that language and translated into other languages. If we
start with this first aspect of translation, there has not been
satisfactory works conducted so far. The book “Digim Kil’e Mensa’e”
written by the Swedish cleric Karl Gustav Roden (in 1913) was translated
into Arabic by Mr. Mohammed Idris Humeday. It was published and
distributed in February 1995. “Adgamat Bedir Egil Hadis Gim” another
book of Tigre folktales has been translated into English by Ministry of
Education and has been in the schools since 2007.
In addition, in the translation work of poems “Who Needs a Story?”
prepared by Prof. Charles Cantalupo and Dr. Ghirmai Negash, there are
three Tigre poems included in translation version. They are “Nzeker” by
Paulos Netabay, “Iltdekel” by Mussa Mohammed Adem and “Juket” by
Mohammed Said Osman. There is also unconfirmed information that some
works of the famous poet Mohammed Osman Kejeray have been translated
into Arabic in the Sudan.
In the second aspect of translation – works of other languages
translated into Tigre – they are numerous relative to those stated
above. In addition to the book I learned and taught with during the
struggle period, “Mebatir Keyiht Enboba”, numerous books on politics
were translated into Tigre. That is because the major literary work
conducted during the struggle period was translation.
One work from that period is “Hakim Ber” (Bare Foot Doctor) translated
by Mr. Mengis Ghebre. It is a work that should be commended leaving out
the problems in the naming of body parts that arose from dialect
differences may be.
Recently, 20 books meant to raise children’s awareness about their
rights were translated from the languages of Kunama and Tigrigna by
Citizens for Peace, a local organization lead by Prof. Asmerom Legesse.
A few of these 20 books were written in Tigre.
Moreover, “Kiya 18 Deqayq”, a book written by Solomon Dirar, was
translated and published by Hidri Publishers in 2002. Some of the works
of late Mr. Nayzghi Weldu (Wed Hayget), one of the founders of the Voice
of the Masses (Tigre Service), have been retained for posterity with
In the past few years, two works of history, “Aynfelale” and “Federation
Eritrea with Ethiopia”, by Mr. Alemseged Tesfay, an Eritrean historian,
have been translated into Tigre. The work was done by three individuals
namely Adem Saleh Abuharish, Mohammed Idris and Omer Abib. Three of them
studied and taught in that language; they have also shown promising
translation works previously. “Aynfelale” has already been published and
is in the market, while the other one is on the polishing stage to be
ready for printing.
There are also various works that were translated and aired through
radio of the Voice of the Masses but haven’t yet got the chance of being
published. For instance, “Wefri Sigre-Dob” written by Solomon Berhe and
translated by Mussa Mender and was aired on radio. The author of the
book confirmed the standard of the translation work saying that the
translation work was better than the original one.
Moreover, the novel “Qedyet Alqadi” by the Egyptian woman writer Semiha
Kahloni was translated into Tigre by Memhir Hamid Abdella Adem; it was
aired on radio and was well received by the audience. It is my personal
belief that it could add some variety to the Tigre literature if it is
published in a book form. Although the translator stated his inability
to publish it, he hasn’t also shown interest to publish it.
The Advent of Professionals in the Ethnic Group
When we talk about a book, newspaper, magazine, radio, television,
translation, drama, film…, it is understood that we are also talking
about authors, writers, directors, editors, composers, journalists,
translators, poets…. These individuals could be amateurs, beginners or
professionals. Their advent in the society is, though a blessing to the
development of the language. One of the advantages of the workshops
conducted in the past enabled us to find out who has got what talent.
For instance, in the last workshop that assessed Tigre literature
(December 2008), Memhir Adem Ali presented a research paper. The paper
attested that there are not only the professionals stated above
available in that language, but also critics who could guide the works
of those professionals were not far away.
Each of the nine papers presented in the workshop had its own unique
feature. They helped in assessing the talents of each presenter as well
as of those who discussed them.
Over the last 150 years, not less than 100 books on diverse
subject-matters have been produced in Tigre language. It is a
development that could be considered as a driving force. Especially the
measures taken at this moment are very promising. For instance, over 90%
of the decisions and recommendations forwarded at the workshop on
standardized usage of Tigre language in mass media have been implemented
on time. Where too many intangible and hollow promises are very common
in the world we live in, to find deeds justifying words is such a novel
happening indeed. The time management and handling of issues in the last
symposium on assessment of Tigre literature were highly admirable.
The government policy appears to have left open the field for everyone
interested to use their potentials. Before such an opportunity passes us
by, we should make use of it. On this moment, Tigre language is laying
grounds for the coming generation and its future. Establishing the basis
of any task is a part that needs the highest attention and caution,
because, what we build on a hastily set base would only be unsafe.
One element that many people consider negative in the efforts for the
development of Tigre language is lack of coordination.
However, the collaborative artistic work presented by various Tigre
artists on the opening ceremony of the symposium on assessing Tigre
literature was a proof not only that unity is strength, but also that
diversity has its own beauty. When one’s steps are coordinated and
directed forwards, they certainly turn out to be big jumps. Jumps
towards common development! Jumps for communal progress!
By: Dessale Berekhet (translated by Tedros Abraham)