Advances Made by Ethiopians in the Computer Technology

By Dr. Aberra Molla

© 1991 Ethiopian Computers & Software

If you show the Ethiopian alphabet to an American you meet on the street the chance that it would be guessed right is one in a hundred. Most of the people do not know that Ethiopians had developed beautiful and perfect alphabets and have been using them for thousands of years. Many wouldn’t know that Ethiopians have their own printing presses and books such as the Amharic,Tigre and Oromo Bibles had been in print using these Ethiopian alphabets for over a century. Most of the people would not know that the Ethiopian child learns how to read and write the 400 or so phonetic Ge’ez characters along with the English alphabet in grade schools.

Unlike the ancient Egyptian and Chinese alphabets and its Japanese modifications where pictures were drawn to write down ideas, the ancient Ethiopians came up with a character for every possible sound. They figured out that there are eight varieties, orders or vowels of some forty Ethiopian primary [alphabets or] characters. The primary or the first order characters are altered into second order character by adding a second small uniform piece at the  right side of the character in a simple pattern to create a uniform pattern of sounds. This process is repeated for the other orders though complications do occur because of numerous exceptions.

The Ethiopian alphabet is as simple as the Greek and its Latin derivatives. They are different from the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets and those of the English and other related alphabets. The Ethiopian and Greek alphabets share the lack of the Arabic “0” number probably because these alphabets were developed before the scientific significance of this number was realized.

Ethiopia does not have a typewriter which can be used for typing each and every one of the characters. If Ethiopia had such a keyboard, it would probably look like a piano keyboard. The Amharic typewriter was developed about forty years ago by modifying the print head of an English typewriter. It was built such that some of the keys were saved for modifying the primary characters into their vowel forms. Other keys were arbitrarily assigned to other characters such that the major criterion was whether or not a character could be created out of different smaller pieces or were to be assigned a single key. Thus the primary and most of the other orders or characters such as those which create the “R” sound were given numerous separate standard or shifted key spots while some of the primary characters had no keys of their own.

Typing using an Amharic typewriter requires concoction of the characters on the fly on the paper during typing. Creating some of the characters require going over the characters, sometimes twice, and one has to got to a typing school to study this complicated typing which resembles a series of key sequence recording. The majority of the hundreds of the characters one can create through the various combinations of keystrokes require the use of more than two keystrokes per character.

The other major problem with the Ethiopian typewriter is the poor quality of the characters which are completely different from what Ethiopians use in their handwriting and from what the printing presses use for typesetting. The Ethiopian handwriting characters are equivalent to the English cursive styles which are genuine imitations of the corresponding typesetting characters. The need to use the Amharic typewriter created aesthetically inferior characters the majority of which never existed and were distorted in all dimensions. The method is also besieged with lack of control over the right margin, pitch and spacing and some characters even lost their baselines. However, the Amharic typewriter did serve an invaluable service by saving Ethiopians from using handwriting for routine office work over the last few decades since typesetting was not an inexpensive and practical alternative.

The task of building an Amharic typewriter out of an English typewriter was not simple. The difficulty of creating an Amharic typewriter out of an English typewriter and writing with it is as difficult as creating an English typewriter out of the numeric key pad and use this for typing the English alphabet. Unlike the standard Ethiopian alphabet, most of the typewriter character took twice as much paper space as an equivalent typeset Amharic and English character.

In 1982 Grum Ketema, one of my brother-in-laws, came home from college and told us how he has been cracking his brains with an Arab classmate to write Arabic on a computer. That kindled my childhood love for the Amharic alphabet and I told him that if he is good enough to write from right to left, he should try to come up with one for writing the Ethiopian syllables. He told me that working with the 27 Arabic characters is not the same as dealing with the hundreds of the Ethiopic characters. We agreed that these Sabean alphabets may require creating a special chip and an Ethiopian computer and then developing Ethiopian computer languages. In the meantime (ABSHA was established and) we thought there may be alternative methods of creating Ethiopian word processors so that the thousands of English computer programs would be available to Ethiopians.

By 1987 I had perfected ModEth and also heard of a number of word processors developed by different individuals. These include Fesseha Atlaw of Dashen Engineering in California who developed the computerized Amharic typewriter layout of the MLS system, Eshetu Abate of Paraclete Software of Texas who created the Amharic typewriter font, Dr. Gillette of Duke University who, in collaboration with Dr. Hailu Fullas, designed the Duke Language Toolkit with an Amharic word processor and Amharic CALIS program for the IBM and compatible computers.

By 1988 the number of Ethiopians and Americans known to have developed some sort of an Ethiopian word processor had increased and included Yemane Russom of Phonetic Systems of Texas who wrote GeezWord for the Macintosh computer; a MacWrite font set developed by Linguists’ Software of Massachusetts, and Fekade Mesfin of California who developed Feedel, also for the Macintosh computer.

Professor Curt Peterson of Illinois developed one for the Commodore system while Dr. Philip LeBel of New Jersey developed an Ethiopic word processor for the Apple II computer. This is not a complete list, and with the exception of one, I have not even seen any of these programs; but I have heard of a number of others, some of which include methods and add-on utilities to dump scanned Amharic characters. A Newsletter, published by Friends of Ethiopia, which I recently came across, lists six of the above. I have also come across a number of documents printed using computers which I could not associate with any of the programs I have heard of. Creating an Ethiopian document one way or another is not a simple task and I have my admiration for the ingenuity and persistence of these people, especially since most of them struggled on their own in the absence of corporate and government involvement. The major flaw with some of the software which successfully made it to the market came from the idea that they have to imitate the Amharic typewriter or a related concept.

The Amharic typewriter is not a machine worth simulating to standardize it for computer keyboards. This is because the Amharic typewriter does not write the Amharic characters and the process in not the same as transition of the English computer keyboard from the English typewriter keyboard. With a few exceptions, the relative sizes of the Ethiopian characters are almost the same with those of English. As a result the Ethiopian alphabet is well suited to adapt to and exploit the English typewriter. The need to concoct the hundreds of Ethiopian characters was brought about with the need to use the English typewriter with less than one hundred keys for the 400 characters and this problem should not be carried over into the computer environment. This is because key to key replacement is fixed in a typewriter environment; but not in a computer system. It is possible to replace an English key with an Ethiopian key in a computer environment where different varieties of layouts can be brought onto the screens and printers through the use of internal and soft fonts. There is thus no need to simulate the Ethiopian typewriter which was created to solve an old problem with an old machine when we have numerous simple and efficient alternatives with computers. Reasonable improvements may result in more confusion on top of the problems carried over into the computer with the typewriter keyboard.

What I did over the last few years was to tinker with a number of software and hardware until I perfected a simple novel method of using computers for use with the Ethiopian alphabet. Unlike the concept of using the computer as a modified Amharic typewriter the way other people used it, I came up with methods of using the computer to fulfill the needs of the Ethiopian characters and beyond. I came up with a method of simulating the Ethiopian printing press in a system which was never possible heretofore. This took me from creating each an every Ethiopian character pixel by pixel to developing scaleble outline fonts with only a few thousand bytes for the various screens and printers. The method involved mapping each character as a single solitary character under any one character and bundling them in various orders or groups. Each order was then mapped under a function key or any other character such that writing each character required no more than two keystrokes.

The purpose of the two keystrokes is to pull up the character from the computer memory; not to connect two pieces of a character. Another size or configuration was saved under a different map or another case such that with the use of an IBM PC or a compatible computer one can write in thousands of fonts.

A series of Ethiopian fonts along with English and other language alphabets is also accessible through a few keystrokes. I thus came up with numerous simple methods which do not even require the knowledge to type Amharic while at the same time eliminated the complications we have gone through to write in one font. By the time I was finished I found out that not only have I come up with a reasonable command structure, but also with potential methods which made the Ethiopian typewriter obsolete; and also effectively put the XT computer in competition with the Ethiopian printing presses. Encouraged by my effort my brothers, Dr. Bekele and Getachew joined my endeavor with their PC’s. Dr. Bekele also edited and printed the manual with ModEth and his other contributions have been invaluable.

Our use of different font designers and formats, which we intend to release, has given us the flexibility and potential to use different programs, word processors and desk top publishers. We have also met a number of challenges, including the demand for a number of keyboard layouts which the user can change or create, and high resolution characters with hundreds of points in weight. When one starts ModEth with the ME command the vowels are with F2, F3, etc. When started with ME2, the vowels are mapped under comma, period etc. respectively for fast typing; ME3 replaces the function or vowel keys with the numeric keys while ME4 changes the Ethiopian-English keyboard into English-Ethiopian. ME5 is to create compatibility to read documents created by the various keyboards. In the past the Ethiopian writing methods and printing presses had been limited to a few fonts while the English alphabet enjoyed thousands of fonts. Adobe alone has many thousand English typefaces and the computer technology we have now developed for the Ethiopian languages may come handy for others.

Other Ethiopians have approached us to incorporate more fonts, though fonts can not be protected even by copyright. In the process of applying for a patent on these and other novel uses of computers, we have come to communicate with Ato Abebe Muluneh who heads the Ethiopian Scientific Commission and have found out that a team of Ethiopian engineers headed by Ato Daniel Admasie have been doing an excellent job.

Support of my wife, Senait, was crucial while the help of my brothers, and of Grum as well as those of my extended family has made a big difference. Other Ethiopians have been very supportive with their suggestions and continue to buy the incomplete ModEth program since early 1989 from Ethiopian Computers and Software, Inc. Others have been very appreciative of our approach of not jumping at eliminating the characters; but rather been adding essential ones while creating new standards. ModEth stands for modern Ethiopia since it includes the Ge’ez characters of the Amharic, Tigre, Oromo and Gurage alphabets. A colorful optional transparent keyboard overlay was created so that each key represents an Ethiopian consonant and those who are used to the Amharic typewriter have found it very simple and convenient though the user has the option of using it with any layout.

It is our policy to keep the confidentiality of our customers which include the various Ethiopian political organizations, churches, universities and individuals who are using it for writing Amharic, other Ethiopian languages, and English documents, and for publishing books. We have sold the software in countries wherever Ethiopians have settled in large numbers. For instance, the Ethiopian Evangelical Churches in Colorado, California, Texas, Washington, Washington DC, Canada, Kenya, and other places are using it by even sharing expensive printers located in only a few churches. We have also introduced it to Ethiopia. We are grateful to the many Americans who continue to help us though most of them still wonder how we are using their hardware and software outside the power and purpose they were made for. ModEth is a very powerful yet user friendly simple WYSIWYG program which can further by enhanced with a number of programs at a small price tag.

We have scrambled and unscrambled fonts for the various screen boards, dot-matrix and laser printers and the non-copy protected program requires an activator. The Amharic documents are handled just like the English with routine word processing commands such as cut and paste. Priority was given to simplicity and the print quality of the Ethiopian characters and many believe the ability to type the Ethiopian and English fonts with standard typing methods of a qwerty keyboard is a breakthrough. The purpose of this document is not to advertise ModEth or belittle the Amharic typewriter, but to share the significant developments. For instance, it is a scientific fact of life that only statistically significant advantages be utilized. We do not need statistical analysis to show the obvious that it is an economic reality to use programs where each and every character takes a space as opposed to programs which because of their simulation of the Amharic typewriter or its modifications require more than one character space and thus more than twice as much space on the screen, disks and papers to view, retrieve and store the same information.

Ethiopia is one African country whose ancient alphabet has jumped from Gutenberg’s printing press to the microcomputer by virtually bypassing the patented English typewriter. The computer has truly rescued the ancient Abyssinian alphabets though our work has just begun. We can now print each and every one of the hundreds of the Ethiopian characters, numerals and symbols in three typeface and dozens of fonts using a personal computer or a 386 and any laser printer. It remains to be seen if this ancient alphabet will in turn come to the rescue of the computer by bridging the gap between this machine and the human brain.


[This paper was written in a rush to meet deadlines. Words such as characters and alphabets which were interchangeably used have been replaced and minor mistakes corrected to avoid confusion.]

Dr. Aberra Molla is President of Ethiopian Computers & Software, Inc., Littleton , Colorado and a contributing editor of ER.

The above article was published in the April, 1991 issue of the Ethiopian Review magazine

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