Burji Online

by Tego Wolasa

Ethnologue puts the number of languages in the world today at 7,117. They say that 40% or 2800 of them are endangered and often with less than 1000 speakers.

According to UNESCO, the number of endangered languages is 2,473 while 200 have become extinct over the last three generations.

Some languages, such as Yagan in Chile, has only one living speaker while others, such as English, have over 1.3billion speakers.

Other endangered languages include Arabana of Australia with five speakers, Votic in Russia eight speakers, Ainu of Japan ten speakers, Bathari of Oman twenty speakers, Manchu of china twenty speakers.

In Africa, there are languages such as Yaaku of Kenya with seven elderly speakers as of 2016, Twendi of Cameroon 30 speakers, Nluu of South Africa 84 speakers, and Ts’ixa of Botswana 200 speakers.

With 1.3billion speakers, English is the most spoken and the most studied language, followed by Mandarin 1.12billion and Hindi 637million.

According to UNESCO, English is spoken in 101 countries, Arabic in 60 countries, and French in 51 countries. The top 23 languages are spoken by half of the over 7billion people in the world.

Wolfgang Sachs posits that not more than 100 of the above languages will survive within a generation or two.

Glottog classifies language on a six-level scale starting from “not endangered”, “threatened”, “shifting”, “moribund”, “nearly extinct”, and “extinct”.

Ethnologue has four stages of language classification – “Institutional” if the language is not only used in the homes but also sustained by institutions such as schools. “Stable” if there is no institution supporting it but is the primary language to adults and children at home. “Endangered” if children are not learning and using it. And Finally, “Extinct” if there is no speaker left.

UNESCO bases its classification on the intergenerational transfer of the language. A language is either “Safe” (not endangered), “vulnerable” (not spoken by children outside the home), “definitely endangered” (children not speaking), “severely endangered” (only spoken by the elderly), “critically endangered” (few elders speak broken) and “extinct” (no living speakers).

A Linguist, Michael Krauss, classified a language as “safe” when the children will probably be speaking them in 100 years— “endangered” if children will probably not be speaking the language in 100 years, and “moribund” if children are not speaking the language now.

Based on the above classifications, it is perhaps safe to state that a language’s health does not primarily depend on the number of those who speak the language. It depends on the language transfer from parents to children and its usage in and outside the home.

A language with only 500 speakers used by adults and their children at home and outside is safer and healthier than a language spoken by millions if their children do not acquire the language.

Ethnologue classified the Burji language as “institutional.” That means it is used and sustained by institutions beyond the home and community.

According to Glottog, the language is “threatened.” That is the second stage after “not endangered.”

In my opinion, we have to relook at the classifications. For starters, the Burji language belongs to the Highland East Cushitic (HEC) group of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.

It is in the same category as Alaaba, Gedeo, Hadiyya, Kambaata, K’abeena, Libido/Marek’o, Sidaama, and T’imbaaro. Only the Burji language is spoken both in Kenya and Ethiopia from the HEC family.

Map of Burji District

I suspect that those of you reading this article from outside the Burji District might find my claims far-fetched.

The Burji people today are settled in four clusters; In Burji District, Outside the Burji District but within Ethiopia, In Kenya, and abroad (outside Kenya and Ethiopia).

In Burji District, the language is safe and healthy because both adults and children speak it. Similarly, children are acquiring the language from their parents. Besides, The language is fully institutionalized.

In other parts of Ethiopia, the Burji speak either Burji, Oromigna, or Amharic as their first language. In Kenya, the Burji speak either Burji, Borana, or Swahili. Those abroad speak either Burjate, Oromigna, English or Swahili.

A 2006 Marsabit-based study by Dr. Keneth Ngure found that 59.4% of the Burji speak Burji as the first language, 36.2% speak Borana while 4.3% speak Swahili as the first language.

Now let the numbers speak. According to the 2007 National Census in Ethiopia, there were 56,681 Burji speakers in the Burji District and 15,077 speakers in other parts of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is yet to conduct another Census.

The 2009 Census in Kenya put the Burji Population at 23,735. I used the 2009 census because it is the one closest to the 2007 Ethiopian Census.

Based on the above, we have 59% of Burji speakers in Burji District, 16% in other parts of Ethiopia, and 25% in Kenya.

In the Burji District, where we have 59% of the speakers, the language is safe, healthy, and institutionalized. It is being transferred well from parents to the children.

That percentage could be higher because some parents living outside the Burji District have been able to transfer the language to their children, but I haven’t even considered that.

Neither have I considered institutionalization such as the online Burji Language classes by Buruuj Training Institute nor Burji language diploma course at the Dilla College of Teacher Education. We also have daily broadcast in Burji Language at KBC Burji Services in Kenya


Now tell me, how would you classify such a language? A language that is safe and healthy in more than 60% of places where it exists? I will leave that to you.

In the comment section, please give me your thoughts on what is making the language endangered in other parts of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Also, share your thoughts on turning around the language’s dwindling prospects in those two areas. Would you?

Over to you, Rudano.



6 Responses

  1. Thanks for your analysis and opinions on the status of Burjate. Never the less I have problem with the percentages given; 59% of people in Burji worada and Kenya speaking Burji language.
    Let’s look and languages most spoken in Burji worada. Burjate, Qawwate(Amharic), Badate(Koratte),Ormatte(Oromoffa) and Konsate.
    In Burji Soyema Qawwate and Ormatte are spoken as language of the civilised. Going up to shulle, shargo and beyond koratte is popular among the the residents. Gomaide and its surroundings Konsatte is mostly spoken.
    Looking at communities surrounding Burji Woreda most of their population don’t show interest in learning Burjatte as Burji community is putting effort to learn their languages.
    Diaspora Burji community are putting more e:ffort to learn the language of the dominant community while not giving equal energy to teach their children Burjatte.
    My opinion:
    . The percentages given is high, it may not be reality.
    . Burjatte is the most known by the parents but not chilrden.
    . Many Burji children are not showing interest in Burji language.
    .Burji Culture as instrument of language propagation lost to both Islam and Christianity
    Positive moves so far:
    .Burjatte subject in Burji woreda
    .Burjatte radio programmes
    .Burjatte gospel songs
    .Christian and Islamic summons in Burjatte
    .Burjatte online platforms

    1. Excellent, in-depth, well thought and balanced perspective. Thank you so much for taking the time to share feedback and insights. I am sure it will help other readers as well as our next article.

  2. Thank for the well thought research and eye opener to Burji community. The lifespan of a language is determined by the elderly in transferring the language and culture to the young. Due to Cosmopolitan nature in our current settlement our language is dorminated by the dorminat other neighbouring spoken languages. Eg Boran language is dorminat in all nearby settlement both in Kenya and Ethiopia thus, assimilation of Burji language is common. We appreciate the democratic language space in our village but this obviously has pros and cons. No confidentiality, secrecy in common language as spoken. Other factors like political space hinders propagation of community interest, language and culture diffusion. Chiefdom established way back in colonial days helped in community culture development and respect. With schools development chiefs who are not conversant with language and culture are appointed hence that gap widening the Burji a part. In Kenya mother tongue is a prerequisite in preprimary. How many of our children are thought in their language. Identity of your community is paramount and anytime you are employed ensure you are coded to avoid obviously grouping with others. We appreciate your efforts in deliberately spreading the Burji far and wide. I thank you.

    1. Well thought and well artculated, MaashaaAllah. Indeed urbanistion is the key challenge to transfer of language from parents to the children. But like other documented languages, it can be taught and learnt. We have languages which were reconstructed after they had become extint. As you rightly mentioned, mother toungues are supposed to be taught at pre primary level, this is a wake up call and challenge to all of us in general and teachers in particular. Books, movies, dramas etc in the Burji Language will keep the interest alive. It will be sad if the languages slips out of our hands yet we know how to read and write and we have those who are fluent with the language.

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