SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY The Ethiopic Computer Keyboard

By Aberra Molla

g]z (Geèz) or Ethiopic is one of the ancient alphabets. It has retained the representation of sounds by characters. In Latin, to replicate the same sound, a consonant has to be followed by a vowel. The use of the computer keyboard for Ethiopic typing has been discussed in Ethiopian Review (April, 1991). Since then the expansion of the keyboard by using two keystrokes per character has improved Ethio-phonetics. Ethio-phonetics is a new method of typing the individual phonetic character with a maximum of two keystrokes. The two keystrokes involve the striking of any two of the character keys or double striking the same key. Ethio-phonetics is an efficient use of the keyboard since it expands it for use with hundreds of the Ethiopic characters and functions.

The Ethiopic keyboard is the latest of the preliminary version.. The emphasis was on convenience rather than show the relationship between the Ethiopic and Latin characters. Complications still exist since the exact map of each of the 480 Ethiopic characters has not been settled. Automation of languages has continued to be a problem due to incompatibility of character maps. This problem has continued even after IBM has increased the character set from 128 to 256 in 1983. These problems were avoided by excluding the maps assigned to the extended characters in both ModEth (Ethiopian word processor for DOS released in 1988) and EthioWin (Ethiopic for Windows). Another solution was EthioScaler which moves characters around. In spite of these, there are still a few problems with even Microsoft Word which happens to be the best of all the current programs for Ethiopic typing. WordPerfect is slightly behind in moving the Ethiopic templates and typefaces. Ethiopic documents can be exported or imported to and from many programs and mixed with other language characters. Ethiopic can also be sent via electronic mail over the Internet as document or as attachment. Our hard work and persistence has enabled us to receive a US pending patent.


The computerization of Ethiopic involves the systematic substitution and mobilization of thousands of characters. We established a standard layout so that Ethiopic can be accessed and typed by many programs. It is an enabling constructive technology which gave us the power to type Ethiopic for the first time. On the other hand, the other typewriter methods are disabling methods. These methods reduce the functions of computers to those of typewriters in that only incomplete fonts can be used. They are methods to fit the Ethiopic to the contemporary technology. Some have been modifying our keyboards only because gullible consumers do not know better or care less. The users have been offered cheap prices of non-Ethiopic characters that come apart with commands as simple as formatting. For some, anything better than the Amharic typewriter is a quality product.

The principle behind cutting the Ethiopic characters to pieces and assembling these pieces to different characters on the screen is unacceptable. This method started out with unsuccessful attempts to modify the English typewriter print-head to accommodate the hundreds of the Ethiopic characters. Such characters have been made obsolete because of the power of computers to solve such problems. The obsolete method requires the creation of different incompatible and incomplete layouts with non-Ethiopic arbitrary characters and would have ultimately defeated the purpose of using computers for Ethiopic text.

A few have not heeded our warnings to drop this backward method and have continued to produce programs with concepts related to the Amharic typewriter. Their incomplete glyph sets are often distributed on two sets while the minimum for even a single style is three. The trick behind most of these layouts and methods reside in the unconventional placement of commas, hats, hyphens, etc., as characters outside the font boundaries and overwriting other displaced characters with these weird structures. The primary purpose of using such fonts now is to sell programs that assemble and line up the characters they deliberately distorted and misplaced. These programs, which were never needed in the first place, do not write even in a single style Ethiopic font in any program, are incomplete and have confused the consumer. It boils down to incapacitating computers to type non-existent characters with numerous problems. For instance, their fonts are proportional with no option for fixed variety fonts. They sprung up around 1993 and many are mutilated versions of previously unsuccessful layouts. These incomplete and dismantled sets are characterized by less than a total of 400 characters, some of which require more than one delete command to remove. Some need the use of three or more keystrokes or command keys to type or edit some characters. No two are alike with their character numbers and maps, typing methods, purposes, etc. though they all use deception to falsely claim typing of Ethiopic languages without Ethiopic characters. The end result has been the destruction of the characters as well as the typing methods because of their inability to modify our simple methods. We have abandoned numerous and transitional options for the sake of establishing a single sound typing method and keyboard. (Our rights to various forms of Ethiopic are reserved.) In spite of this, many have been modifying our methods for use as reduced varieties and the end is not in sight. This will continue to destroy Ethiopic.

We have been publishing our work so that the user will stand by Ethiopic. With the current trend, it has been difficult to incorporate advanced technologies because of limited market.


A Geèz character is not Ethiopic because it looks like one; but rather because it is. (Yg]zn fDl fDl YmyDrGw fDlNt anj fDl MmSl AyDLm#) Some consumers who were used to the Amharic typewriter and lack the appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the proper characters have been taken for a free ride by the improved looks of the typewriter modifications of the printing press characters. Exploitation by those who seem determined to continue imitating us include the marketing of reduced and altered versions of our products or improper fonts with no future. The need to concoct the characters on the screen results in modification and displacement of the majority of the characters. Unsuccessful attempts to compete by under-cutting the prices have led to false claims and misleading advertisements. For instance, the computer slants a standard font when an italic variety is not available. A slanted font is not italic and an italic Ethiopic font requires the presence of an Ethiopic italic font. A complete single Ethiopic typeface family requires the mobilization of typefaces equivalent to a dozen or more Times Roman typefaces. Many have never moved farther than cutting a single font to many pieces or reducing the character number. g]z qrurx fDl AyDLm#

The simplest method of typing the hundreds of the Ethiopic on a keyboard with about one hundred keys is using a maximum of two keys per character just like the Latin and this has been achieved and publicized. Ethiopic computerization requires the use of the fonts at different levels. One of the best approaches is to manipulate the fonts from within programs. Since this has to be performed without interfering with the other functions of a program or a computer, it requires powerful computers and programs. One such program is MS Word where the add-on Ethiopic is named EthioWord. Since Word has numerous features, the Ethiopic has acquired many of the features. This has the advantage that the Ethiopic is also accessed by numerous other languages and programs through MS Word. The above keyboard is useful for these purposes irrespective of the approach. Many others have rightfully followed the keyboard but, could not duplicate the simple method. In their attempt to look different, they ended up destroying the keyboard, the characters and sets and our typing methods.


There is one English keyboard for the English alphabet and there is no reason why Ethiopic should have many. We need different typefaces and programs; not different maps and parts of the same font. Our truetype Geèz characters include the Amharic, Tigrigna, Oromo, Agew/Bilen, Gurage and Saho characters and the symbols and numerals, many of which have also been in use by the Ethiopian printing presses. The last major hurdle Ethiopic has faced was the limitation of the computer character set to 256. Currently only a small number of programs (such as MS Word, WordPerfect, QuarkXPress) can directly handle Ethiopic without other EthioWin utilities and this will improve for the better in the future. It has been our principle not to reduce the numbers as well as change the structures of the Ethiopic characters to fit programs and computers.

Ethiopic has a lot to offer and has to be studied before they rush to destroy it. Ours are the only programs which type Geèz. We would not have been able to discuss the characters today since they would not have survived the onslaught without our efforts. Even the Ethiopian government got into the business of reducing the character numbers to less than 256 and lost millions of dollars in its unsuccessful venture. We need each and every character today so that the computer recognizes them. Our programs were configured such that the most commonly used characters would not be inconvenienced by the less used characters. We have always enjoyed Ethiopic and neither its quality nor its quantity has been a problem. We also spent years developing Ethiopic from scratch and this is not the time to destroy this foundation. Ethiopic is an excellent phonetic alphabet and the absence of one of the major hassles of spelling is one of its features. Some characters are repetitions in that they share the same sounds. However, the exact character varieties have to be used in some languages such as Geèz. There are others who prefer preservation for etymological and other purposes. We have 480 characters because each differ in shape, size and use.


In an attempt to discourage these regressive activities and also salvage the keyboard and the characters, we have released our Geèz editor (GeezEdit). Its current purpose is for use in programs such as Windows Write, WordArt and TextArt which do not allow font switching and can not thus type the complete Ethiopic. In GeezEdit, each character also requires a maximum of two keystrokes for typing and the keyboards and typing methods are almost the same with those of EthioEdit. GeezEdit is the only utility that can accommodate all the characters on a font set and is one of our numerous solutions for the unique Ethiopic problems.

The main reason why GeezEdit was released was in response to the recent appearance of numerous typewriter methods in spite of our published opposition. Many of these copy cats are new to the PC or are cross-over from the Macintosh where there is still no program to write in even a single Ethiopian font. One replaced our default sixth order with first order characters and was falsely claiming the non-Ethiopic characters as Ethiopic. Another was also pushing a phonetic three-key typing method while the typing was not phonetic. A third was copying our template methods of incorporating Ethiopic and was changing the assignment of the characters while using four keys for typing some characters. There are also numerous others about which we know very little. Some have been bundling them with computers. These other fonts are incomplete, are not Ethiopic and can not stand on their own. They have also proven to us that they can not survive with or without Ethiopic. None of them can even make a single complete style out of the piece meal approach and are now gearing up to make varieties for non-Ethiopic. They are exploiting the use of less character numbers while they are making many new fake ones. They are advocating the use of weak programs which can not type Ethiopic and are instead taking advantage of using half characters or half alphabets which they have preferred to keep secret. Replacing our perfect two-key typing method with more keystrokes is neither fast nor convenient. Our insistence in maintaining the integrity of Ethiopic has attracted opportunists who are interested in disintegrating it paving the way to change personal computers to personal keyboards.

GeezEdit can be used on different varieties of fonts and character parts. One of the advantages of GeezEdit is its power to change typing methods without the need to alter character maps. Its documents can be improved to Ethiopic with our products such as EthioEdit. It maintains our simple and uniform typing method for the different fonts from the different sources while eliminating the different variety of keyboards and typing methods others have been introducing with their fonts. GeezEdit was pre-maturely released to stop the destruction of Ethiopic, its keyboard layout and the standard typing method. It replaces different typing tools for fragmented fonts and all one has to do is select the font. We recommend that character parts be replaced with the proper characters. This is because GeezEdit is an Ethiopic supplemental method and is not a substitute. GeezEdit is the future of Ethiopic primarily for use in Windows 3.11 and Windows 95 programs which allow font selection with or without switching. Examples of programs where the single font is selected and used for typing are WordPad, Word 6.0, WordPerfect 6.1, Ami Pro, PageMaker and QuarkXPress. It also has numerous other uses one of which is its novel power to type anything mapped outside the upper and lower case character positions just like the other Latin characters. w


Dr. Aberra Molla is President of Ethiopian Computers & Software of Littleton, Colorado. He is also a contributor of ER.

This article was published in the September 1995 issue of the Ethiopian Review magazine.

Copyright (c) 1995 Ethiopian Review

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