Ethiopian English: 19 = one nine, 90 = nine zero

A recent blogpost and podcast of “The world in words” is dedicated to Ethiopian house names. These are names different from a person’s first name used by family members (and friends) to address him/her. House names are also used by Baskeet speakers. Often the house name is even the most widespread name used for a person, while the “official” first name (usually of Amharic origin) is just a name given when a child starts going to school or when a person applies for his/her first ID card and thus only used in official contexts.

The podcast by “The world in words” is interesting for its information on naming in Ethiopia – but there was another thing that struck me when I listened to the podcast. Here’s a transcription of an excerpt towards the beginning of the recording:

[Reporter:] On the campus of Addis Ababa University a group of students walks to class under the shade of eucalyptus trees. [Interviewed:] “My name is Kalkidan Hailemariam. I am ninet[y/een] years old, one nine. I am a journalism and communication broadcast journalism student.”

The podcast, inadvertently, documents the common Ethiopian habit of spelling out the numbers from 13 to 19 and the tens from 30 to 90 digit by digit. This is often done to avoid misunderstandings between 13 and 30, 14 and 40 etc., because in Ethiopian English (usually) no noticeable distinction is made between the numbers from 13 to 19 and the tens from 30 to 90. If you listen to the podcast here, you will hear that it is really hard to tell whether the interviewed girl says “ninety” or “nineteen”. The habit of spelling out numbers is so deep-rooted that the interviewed girl, who nobody would have imagined to be ninety years old!, even feels to add “one nine” in a context where a misunderstanding is very unlikely to occur.

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