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Documentation of Ongota


Language Ongota
Depositor Graziano Savà
Location Ethiopia
Collection ID 0247
Grant ID IPF0112
Funding Body
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

Ongota is the traditional language of a hunter-gatherer community in Ethiopia. It is being abandoned in favour of neighbouring Ts’amakko (Cushitic) and is only spoken by Ongota elders. The language defies classification and is considered an isolate. Investigating the origins of Ongota and its community will provide important insight into African linguistic diversity and history. The documentation of Ongota aims at the production, processing and archiving of video and audio recordings of the language. Part of the material will be properly annotated. Grammar and vocabulary will be left with the community.


Group represented

This collection represents members of the Ongota community. The community lives in the village Muts’e on the left bank of the Weyt’o river, about two kilometres from the main road. Administratively, they are part of the South Omo Zone, in the Ethiopian Federal State “Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples”.

The Ongota are members of one of the remaining hunter-gatherer communities in Ethiopia and northeast Africa, who have kept a hunter gatherer lifestyle in an area dominated by pastoralists. They are considered hunter-gatherers because they hunt, collect plants in the bush, fish and have no cattle herds. However, probably under the pressure of neighbouring pastoralists, they produce some sorghum and keep some chicken, sheep and goats. They also produce and sell bananas and honey.

The Ongota area is environmentally fragile. A dam for the close-by Birale Cotton Company causes lack of fish. Wild animals and plants are diminishing because of desertification and use of firearms.

The Ongota have long lived in isolation until they started relations and intermarriage with the pastoralist Ts’amakko (Dullay-Cushitic). They are also in contact with speakers of Gawwada and Harso (Dullay-Cushitic); Arbore, Borana Oromo and Konso (East Cushitic); Banna and Hamar (South Omotic); and Maale (Ometo-Omotic).

No official number of Ongota appears in the 1994 Ethiopian census (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia 1998). Counts by researchers are: less than 100 (Melesse Getu 1995), 84 (Fleming et al. 1992/93), 78 (Aklilu Yilma 1997), about 100 (Savà and Tosco 2000). Savà and Thubauville (2006) counted 83 residents in Muts’e and got information about people living in the neighbouring town Weyt’o and Ts’amakko villages.

The Ongota are quickly abandoning their own language in favour of neighbouring Ts’amakko. The attitude of the speakers towards Ongota is ambiguous. On the one hand they are aware of having started “killing” Ongota. On the other hand they still consider Ongota as the symbol of their ethnicity (Mole Sagane p.c.). They also express the eagerness to enhance the use of the language (Fleming et al. 1992/93 and Savà and Thubauville 2006) and complain with the linguistic behaviour of the younger generation, who see Ongota as a difficult and strange language (Savà and Thubauville 2006).


Language information

Ongota (ISO-639: bxe) is the traditional language of a hunter-gatherer community in Ethiopia. It is being abandoned in favour of neighbouring Ts’amakko (Cushitic) and is only spoken by Ongota elders. The pronunciation of Ongota is [ʕoŋgota]. The initial pharyngeal and the velar nasal are commonly omitted in the literature. Birale (Birayle, Birelle) is name given by neighbours to language and people.

Ongota is popularly seen as an Afro-Asiatic language but as yet it remains formally unclassified. It is likely a language isolate. The divergent character of Ongota and its retention of genetically heterogeneous lexical elements make the classification of the language highly problematic. Bender (1994), shows that Ongota cannot be paralleled to any neighbouring group. Aklilu Yilma (p.c.) considers Ongota a creolised pidgin. Fleming (2006) proposes a genetic relation with the main phylum of Afroasiatic on the basis of a comparative and lexicostatistic study (Fleming 2006). Other classificatory hypotheses are: an autonomous branch of Nilo-Saharan (Blažek 1991 and 2005); divergent Lowland East Cushitic language (Savà and Tosco 2003); a separate branch within South Omotic (Ehret p.c.).

The little research available so far shows that Ongota is an unusually interesting language, with great historical and cultural value. Ongota preserves unique linguistic features and is areally divergent. It does not show the rich nominal and verbal morphology of neighbouring language groups, i.e. Cushitic and Omotic (both Afroasiatic), and Nilo-Saharan. Morphological exponents and lexical items belonging to minor word classes have forms not attested in the area. Ongota shows both its own original lexicon and lexical strata retraceable to Southwest Ethiopian language groups.

Ongota is severely endangered, with abrupt language endangerment within one generation. According to Mole Sagane (p.c.), one of the Ongota elders, the people of his generation were taught Ongota as mother tongue. Once they came into contact with the Ts’amakko, they felt a sense of social inferiority which was reflected on their language. In order to improve their image, they learned Ts’amakko, which gradually replaced Ongota for everyday communication. They started teaching Ts’amakko to children, while Ongota was only sporadically taught at an older age (Aklilu 1997). The introduction of Ts’amakko as mother tongue language was pushed by intermarriage with Ts’amakko women, since the language of many mothers was Ts’amakko (see also Fleming 1992/93). Presently, Ongota is only spoken by Ongota elders, who use it sometimes in discussions among themselves. According to Mole Sagane (p.c.), Ongota is still a good means to talk among elders whenever they do not want to be understood.

Savà and Thubauville (2006) counted fifteen speakers of Ongota, seven women and eight men. Oral traditions and songs are still alive in the minds of the speakers. They can produce spontaneous speech and reveal the peculiarities of their culture practices through Ongota. Due to the speed of language change, their Ongota has not been affected too deeply by Ts’amakko. Elements of this language can be detected in part of the lexicon and some morphology (Savà 2003). Savà and Thubauville (2006) noticed that younger people could understand Ongota or just laughed at humour and swearing. Others could formulate some sentences and fixed expressions or just say single words. Detailed information on their competence in Ongota could not be collected and is not present in other sociolinguistic surveys.

Previous research on Ongota includes descriptive material (notes on phonology, lists of pronouns, some morphology and syntax and wordlists) in Fleming et al. (1992/93), Savà and Tosco (2000), Fleming (2006) and Dinote and Siebert (1994). Sociolinguistic and ethnographic notes are available in Melesse Getu (1995), Fleming et al. (1992/93), Fleming (2006), Savà and Tosco (2000), Aklilu (1997) and Savà (2002 and 2003).


Special characteristics

The documentation of Ongota is important because it preserves the linguistic expression and the knowledge of a hunter-gatherers community which is undergoing a major linguistic and cultural change and is environmentally at risk.

Ongota contributes to our understanding African linguistic diversity and genetics. The classification of Ongota will force a revision of existing genetic relations of African languages. In particular, if declared an isolate, it will represent a new linguistic family at the African level. This is extremely important, since the linguistic diversity of the continent is relatively limited.

Ongota has an important impact on the reconstruction of African history. Comparative studies will support conclusions about extinct ethnic groups who used to speak Ongota sister-languages or past contacts between the Ongota and peoples living far away. Savà and Thubauville (2006) have collected a number of toponyms referring to abandoned Ongota settlements.
Ongota will shed light on the history of the community. Through the documented oral tradition of the Ongota, the anthropologists will find out about their history and cultural change. According to Fleming et al. (1992/93), the Ongota have a particular singing style. Fleming (p.c.) also expects that Ongota religious belief keeps traces of the old Afroasiatic religion.


Collection contents

This collection presents linguistic practices in Ongota associated with the life and traditions of the community. When completed, the collection will include

  • audio and video recordings from a wide variety of speech genres: narrations, oral traditions (songs, riddles, proverbs, folktales, animal stories, etc.), descriptions of traditional practices and knowledge (recipes, building techniques, marriage customs, death/burial, hunting, cosmology, personal experiences, life stories, historical events, spiritual beliefs), etc.
  • transcriptions of all recordings
  • detailed annotations for 10% of the recordings, covering transcription in a practical orthography, glosses describing morphological elements, and an interlinear translation in English
  • a sociolinguistic survey based on questionnaires and field notes
  • an expansion of the existing lexicon to 5,000 entries, using observation, elicitation and text analysis, covering Ongota culture and ordinary activity (fishing, hunting, house building, food and cooking, bee-keeping, incense collecting, kinship, rituals, etc.)
  • an Ongota-Ts’amakko-Amharic dictionary for Ongota students
  • an expansion of the grammatical analysis through elicitation and textual analysis
  • a didactic grammar for Ongota students
  • metadata containing cataloguing, descriptive, structural, technical and administrative information, including, restrictions on the distribution of the material, information about recording circumstances, comments of local consultants, as well as analytic remarks


Collection history

Graziano Sava has been working with the Ongota since 2000, when he collaborated with Geta K’awla, Muda K’awla, Gename Wa’do and Mole Sagane in elicitation sessions. In 2001 and 2003, he visited members of the community at the market in Weyt’o. In 2006 he recorded Ongota texts and spent four days in the Ongota village. In this research, Graziano Sava updated sociolinguistic information and collected fifteen texts in audio recordings (folktales, accounts on everyday life, common practices, history and songs lyrics), five of them transcribed and analysed with local assistants.

Aklilu Yilma visited the area two times in the 1990s.

The materials in this collection were gathered and prepared by Graziano Sava, Aklilu Yilma and an Ethiopian female anthropology student between 2007 and 2011 during Graziano Sava’s postdoctoral research funded by ELDP.


Other information

The materials in this collection will also be archived as part of the DoBeS archives at The Language Archive. Archiving is also planned with Leiden University, the Abteilung für Afrikanistik und Äthiopistik of Hamburg University, the Department of Studies and Research on Africa and Arab Countries of Naples University “l’Orientale”, the Addis Ababa Institute of Ethiopian Studies and the South Omo Research Centre in Jinka (Southwest Ethiopia).


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Savà, Graziano. 2014. Documentation of Ongota. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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