Prof. Getatchew Haile Biography

32 mins read

April 19, 1931 – June 10, 2021


Intro American philologist; scholar of the Ge’ez language
Is Philologist Linguist
From United States of America
Type Literature Social science
Gender Male
Birth 1 June 1932
Age 89 years
Star sign Gemini
University of Tübingen Doctor of Philosophy
The American University in Cairo
MacArthur Fellows Program
Edward Ullendorff Medal 2013

Getatchew Haile (April 19, 1931 – June 10, 2021) is an Ethiopian-American philologist widely considered the foremost scholar of the Ge’ez language alive today. He was acknowledged for his contributions to the field with a MacArthur Fellows Program “genius” award and the Edward Ullendorff Medal from the Council of the British Academy. He was the first Ethiopian and the first African to win the MacArthur.4

He is Regents Professor Emeritus of Medieval Studies at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, and Curator Emeritus of the Ethiopian Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, where he began work in 1976. At HMML, he prepared catalogues of more than five thousand Ethiopian manuscripts and trained Ethiopic manuscript cataloguers in paleography, dating, and other skills.

Previously he was associate professor in the Department of Ethiopian Languages and Literature, Haile Sellasie I University (now Addis Ababa University), from 1962 to 1969, and 1971 to 1974, where he taught Amharic Grammar, Amharic Literature, Ge’ez Grammar, Ge’ez Literature, Arabic Grammar, and Semitic Linguistics.

He is on the advisory board of a number of journals, including Comité de lecture of Analecta Bollandiana (Journal of Christian Hagiography), Ethiopian Journal of EducationJournal of Ethiopian StudiesNortheast African StudiesEthiopian Register (1994-2001), and Acta Aethiopica (1980–89).

From 1945 to 1951 he attended Trinity School in Addis Ababa. He moved to Cairo tin 1952, and lived there through most of the 1950s, graduating from the Coptic Theological College, Cairo, Egypt with a B.D. in 1957, and from the American University in Cairo, with a B.A. in 1957. He then moved to Germany in 1957, where he received from the Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen a Ph.D. in Semitic Philology in 1962. the title of his dissertation was Das Verbalsystem im Äthiopischen: Ein orphologischer Vergleich mit den orientalischen semitischen Sprachen.

In addition to his writings and translations of a variety of works on Ethiopia and the Orthodox church, he has produced two 2-volume books on the history and beliefs of Abba Estifanos of Gwendagwende, one in 2006 the other in 2011. His first translation, into Amharic, was of Mark Twain’s short story Extracts from Adam’s Diary, in 1965.

The languages in which he works are Amharic, Ge’ez, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, German, and Coptic.


Getatchew Haile’s work has frequently been described as foundational to the field of Ethiopian studies and he was won many awards.

Edward Ullendorff, professor of Semitic studies at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, described Getatchew Haile’s work as “highly significant” due to his “profoundly erudite” knowledge of Ethiopic language and literature. On another occasion, Ullendorff wrote that Getatchew Haile’s work represented the “most meticulous and original study of Ethiopic literature” ever done, and “on a scale and depth never before attempted.” He added, “no other person before Getatchew Haile has ever been able to survey so much of Ethiopic literary creation and thus to gain so sovereign a command of this genre,” which made a contribution not only to Ethiopian studies but also the study of Christian oriental writing more generally.

The Ethiopian poet Amha Asfaw wrote a poem in Amharic for him in 1999.


He was born in Shenkora (in the historical Amhara province of Shoa, Ethiopia). As a boy, he attended Ethiopian Orthodox church school, where he learned Ge’ez and “devoted his energies to reading and understanding the texts.” Getatchew Haile married Misrak Amare only July 12, 1964, in Sidamo, and they collaborated on books together. They have four children, adopted two more, and have many grandchildren. Among his children is the material science professor Sossina M. Haile and the author Rebecca G. Haile.

In 1974, while a member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Getatchew Haile opposed the Derg government. When government soldiers came to his home to arrest him, he was involved in a several day shootout and eventually shot and captured. However, because of severe damage to his spinal cord, he was allowed to go to London for medical treatment. Since then, he has had paraplegia and uses a wheelchair.


  • Abebe Bikila’s Life Time Achievement Award, 2018
  • Honoree of a festschrift volume in 2017: Studies in Ethiopian Languages, Literature, and History Festschrift for Getatchew Haile Presented by his Friends and Colleagues.
  • Council of the British Academy, Edward Ullendorff Medal 2014, awarded for scholarly distinction and achievements in the field of Semitic languages or Ethiopian studies.
  • Ethiopia Diaspora organizations’ recognition for community service, May 26, 1996; November 9, 1996; May 26, 2001; and August 21, 2004.
  • Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, 1987–present.
  • MacArthur Fellows Program, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, 1988-1993.
  • Ethiopian Government Award for academic excellence, 1991 (declined).
  • Member, Ethiopian Parliament, representing the province of Shoa, 1974-75.


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  • The Faith of the Unctionists in the Ethiopian Church (Haymanot Msi’awit), Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium series, Vol. 517/Aeth. 91 (1990).
  • A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Vol. IX: Project Numbers 3501-4000, Collegeville, (Minnesota) 1987. ISBN 978-0-940250-55-0
  • The Different Collection of Nägś Hymns of the Ethiopic Literature (Oikonomia no. 19), Erlangen (Germany), 1983.
  • A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Vol. VIII: Project Numbers 3001-3500, Collegeville, (Minnesota) 1985.
  • A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Vol. VII: Project Numbers 2501-3000, (with a checklist by William F. Macomber), Collegeville, (Minnesota) 1983.
  • A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Vol. VI: Project Numbers 2001-2500, (with a checklist by William F. Macomber), Collegeville, (Minnesota) 1982.
  • A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Vol. V: Project Numbers 1501-2000, (with a checklist by William F. Macomber) Collegeville, (Minnesota) 1981.
  • A Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts Microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa and for the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, Collegeville, Vol. IV: Project Numbers 1101-1500, Collegeville, (Minnesota) 1979.
  • Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth (adapted into Amharic from the German version, Tagebuch von Adam und Eva), Addis Ababa, 1968.
  • Amharic Manual for Adult Learners (in Amharic), Addis Ababa, 1964.
  • Amharic Manual for Teachers of Adult Learners (in Amharic), Addis Ababa, 1964.
  • Das Verbalsystem im Äthiopischen. Ein morphologischer Vergleich mit den orientalischen semitischen Sprachen. Diss., Tübingen 1962

Prof. Getatchew’s Life Story

Getatchew Haile (Prof., Dr., or Gashe to different readers) was an exceptional individual who led a truly remarkable life. In his final days, he compiled a brief overview of the events that he viewed as being the most significant in shaping him as a person. The original was written in his native Amharic, and can be accessed here. The English translation is provided below. For those who wish to read the full story of all that Prof. Getatchew Haile experienced and accomplished in his life, we refer you to his autobiography አንዳፍታ ላውጋችሁ, available here on Amazon.

In his own (translated and lightly edited) words…

Prof. Getatchew was born in the city of Shenkora at a place known as Degomsissa on April 19, 1932. [1] His father was Haile Woldeyes, who held the title of Grazmach [2], and his mother was Assegedech Wolde Yohannes.

At the time Prof. Getatchew entered primary school, Fascist Italy occupied Ethiopia. The people of Shenkora rebelled, and women and children fled. The Banda horsemen [3] burned the countryside repeatedly. During the same period, his father contracted what was believed to be gout (R’hae) and the family went to the Hamere-Noah Kidane-Mehret Church to seek treatment from the Church’s holy water. That situation enabled Prof. Getatchew to commence his education, which he pursued avidly. However, as the family with three children was entirely dependent on the generosity of the kind father of the church, Prof. Getatchew’s mother was forced to return to Shenkora. Soon thereafter, she took the children to Tullu Ferra and delivered Prof. Getatchew to his uncle, Debtera [4] Belayneh Woldeyes, who had established and served St. Mary’s Church. The one-year period he spent there enabled Prof. Getachew to learn the Oromo language.

Prof. Getatchew was able to pursue his education with intensity by living with his father who had moved to Addis Ababa following the departure of Fascist Italy from Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa, Grazmach Haile was living and educating children at a cemetery. He was an expert in Qenae [5] and a researcher, which resulted in Prof. Getatchew’s particular devotion to the Ge’ez language. His father always asked: “what does that mean?” whenever Prof. Getatchew read or memorized a Ge’ez word. Particularly useful to him was the grammar book that was published by Ethiopian scholars during Emperor Menelik’s reign. What Prof. Getatchew recalls with pleasure regarding the period when he was being educated by his father was the latter’s reference to St. Dimitros in the process of determining different fasts and feasts, as well as his adept use of his stick to awaken Prof. Getatchew in the mornings and recall him from the playground in the afternoons.

When the Holy Trinity Spiritual School was opened [6], Prof. Getatchew joined initially as a day-time and later as a full-time boarding student. After successfully completing his studies there, he, four other graduates, and three monks were sent to an Egyptian Theological College, the Coptic Theological College, in Cairo in 1951. While pursuing his studies at the Coptic Theological College, he joined the extension school of the American University in Cairo. This enabled him to graduate simultaneously with a Bachelor of Divinity from the Coptic Theological College and a Bachelor of Social Science from the American University. One of the monks who had gone to Cairo together with Prof. Getatchew for education, Liqe-Liqawent (Expert) Mehari Terfe (later, His Holiness Abune Petros), was a scholar in the New Commandment. This gave Prof. Getatchew the opportunity to learn about the interpretation of the New Commandment.

Prof. Getatchew states that what determined his future career was the education he obtained in Cairo. As recalled in his auto-biography, among the languages he was taught, the similarity between Arabic and Hebrew, on the one hand, and the languages with which he was already familiar, i.e. Geez and Amharic, on the other, and the differences with Coptic, Greek, and Latin, created a hunger in him for more knowledge about the connections and distinctions between languages. After learning from his educators that the similarity among the various languages was due to their Semitic origin, Prof. Getatchew decided to focus his profession on the grammar and history of their Semitic backgrounds. He acted on this by moving to Germany to pursue further studies as soon as his education in Cairo was completed. In Germany he studied at both Gottingen University and Tubingen University, receiving his doctorate degree from Tubingen University in 1962.

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During his time in Germany, Prof. Getatchew enhanced his knowledge of history by visiting historic cities in Europe during school holidays. In that same period, he served for several years as the President of the Ethiopian Students Association.

After completing his studies in Germany and returning to Ethiopia, he served for a few months at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ethiopian) after which, in 1964, he commenced his desired and beloved profession as an educator at the Department of Ethiopian Languages and Literature. He violated the University rule that education be provided in English by instead teaching in a national language, Amharic. For those students who had an interest in cultural knowledge, he held evening meetings, twice every week. It was Prof. Getatchew who conceived the name “እንዲህ ነው” as the title for the literary magazine of students in Amharic upon being requested to assist as an advisor. Finally, he served his colleagues for a few years as the president of the Ethiopian University Teachers Association.

Prof. Getatchew Haile was married to Mrs. Misrak Amare on July 12, 1964, at the St. Michael Church in Yirgalem (Ethiopia). They have raised the following children, who have achieved the respective professional qualifications:

Rebqa (Rebecca), graduate of Harvard University in Law;

Sossina, graduate of MIT in Engineering;

Elizabeth, graduate of George Washington University in Chemistry;

Dawit, graduate of George Washington University in Law;

Mariam Sena, graduate of Macalester College in Arts;

Yohannes, graduate of Yale University in Business Administration.

During his work as an educator, Prof. Getatchew served the Ethiopian people in writing and speeches outside the context of the university. As a result, there is hardly anyone who reads and writes Amharic who does not know Prof. Getatchew. In addition:

  • He served the Literacy Campaign (“YeFidel Serawit”) as the chairman of the committee that organized teaching materials;

  • He was one of the primary members of the Amharic Academy when it was originally established;

  • He was a member of the East African Languages Association;

  • He was a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches;

  • He was a member of the Development Commission of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church;

  • He served as a representative of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Association;

  • Although he did not accept the assignment, he was appointed the Executive Director of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church;

  • It was Prof. Getatchew who, after an investigation together with Dr. Abraham and Dr. Alula Abate, drafted in the early 1970s a now infamous report that revealed the severe drought that had occurred in the Wollo province of Ethiopia;

  • He was elected to represent the Shewa Province in a Commission during the Derg regime.

When on October 4, 1975, the Derg military came to arrest Prof. Getatchew, he fought against them in a battle that resulted in severe injury to him. A month thereafter he traveled to the United Kingdom for medical treatment. His injury sadly stole from him the opportunity to spend his life in the company of his compatriots. Recognizing what had been taken from him, as he neared the end, his children offered Prof. Getatchew the option of returning to Ethiopia to rest in eternal peace. He responded that, as he would not be able to breath the fresh air or educate the children of Ethiopia, he would rather leave the decision to his children, who have opted out for the country of their residence (USA) as his permanent resting place.

Because the gunshot wound inflicted on him by the Derg damaged his spinal cord, Prof. Getatchew was required to use a wheel chair for the remainder of his life. Throughout his years, he did not allow the constant pain he suffered from the injury to reveal itself as anguish to the members of his family. Instead, he continued to undertake his preferred tasks during his life. The only indications of the pain he was suffering was when he referred to the fact that organizers and publishers were requesting that he attend meetings and prepare written items for magazines and encyclopedia research items, thereby preventing him from attending to his ailments.

In fact, he did not give any respite to his body and used his energies to produce over 100 scholarly works, about half in Amharic and half in English. His work achieved international recognition:

  • He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1988, receiving what is otherwise known as the “Genius Award”;

  • He was inducted into the British Academy, established over 70 years ago, as a “Corresponding Fellow” in 1988;

  • He was selected for an award by Addis Ababa University, which Prof. Getatchew declined as it was to be awarded by Major Mengistu Hailemariam;

  • He was accorded recognition and an award by the Ethiopian Diaspora in 1966 for his enormous effort on behalf of Ethiopian culture and history and his struggle for human rights;

  • He was recognized by the Debre Selam Medhane Alem Church in Dallas, Texas during the church’s inauguration event in 1966 for his presentation on Ethiopian literature and history;

  • At the initiative of Mr. Asefa Gebre Mariam and the full collaboration of the clergy of the Debre Selam St. Mary’s Church, he was given an award in 2001 from the Ethiopian National Commission;

  • Ethiopians residing in Baltimore and the adjacent areas gave him an award in 1973 in recognition of his incomparable contribution to Ethiopian literature, history and religion;

  • The university where had spent his working life abroad, St. John University, Collegeville, Minnesota, bestowed on him the title: “Regents Professor” which is accorded to only a few selected scholars;

  • An award for being a singular scholar and his contribution to the Ethiopian languages and literature by the Debre Selam St. Mary’s Church in Washington, DC, (2006) during the St. Yared event when Prof. Getatchew delivered a scholarly historic speech;

  • As of 1993 he served as a member of the Scientific Committee of “Analecta Bollandiana” a publication of the Bollandist Society, established in Brussels;

  • As of 1986 he served as an Editorial Board Member of Michigan State University’s “Northeast African Studies” magazine;

  • As of 2011 he served as an Advisory Board Member of “Rassegna di Studi Etiopici” a publication of the University of Naples;

  • He was awarded the Edward Ullendorff Medal of the British Academy in 2013;

  • Received the “The Good Man of The Year” (የዓመቱ በጎ ሰው) Award in 2008 from SBS Amharic, the premier media organization serving Amharic-speaking Australians;

  • Festschrift (a book comprised of articles written by colleagues, friends and former pupils to honor academic contributions) entitled “Studies in Ethiopian Languages, Literature and History” was published in 2017 in appreciation of his enormous contributions;

  • He was given the “Pagume” Award in 2018 from Pagume Ethiopian Entertainment and Cultural Center based in Los Angeles;

  • He received the annual SEED award in 1996 from the Society of Established Ethiopians in the Diaspora based in Washington DC;

  • He received the Abebe Bikila Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 from the Bikila Award Foundation based in Toronto, Canada;

  • He was inducted into the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in 2018;

  • He was a member of the board of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies published by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Haile Selassie University (later Addis Ababa University) in Ethiopia;

  • He founded and published from 1994 to 2001 the Ethiopian Register, a monthly periodical dedicated to Ethiopian issues and published in the USA

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Among those who grieve at the passing of Prof. Getatchew are his colleagues in education and research. His research was mainly focused on the thousands of Ethiopian papers and books microfilmed and stored at St. John’s University Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (HMML) in Collegeville MN. His knowledge of Ethiopian literature rendered him a unique scholar. His utilization of the sources at HMML that are not studied by anyone else enabled him to contribute new insights to his readers. We have come to realize, when writing his life story, that when his colleagues pose a query to him, they tend to add: “if you cannot answer this, no one can”. A long time will surely elapse before a replacement is found to fill the gap left by Prof. Getatchew.

Prof. Getatchew often stated that the main source of his patience with regard to his ailments was the love and kindness of his wife and children, as well as the prayers of his numerous friends. Although the passing of Dr. Getatchew is a source of sorrow for his family, sisters, relatives and friends, his relief from his illness and the knowledge that he now rests peacefully in God’s Kingdom provide them comfort. His relatives and friends do not consider that they have been separated from him as he lives in their deep memories of him. His jokes, his seriousness, his unrelenting efforts to relieve Ethiopia from authoritarian rulers, and his graceful Amharic remain with all who knew him.

[1] There is some ambiguity surrounding Getatchew’s date of birth. As a young child, he remembers June 1, 1932 as his birthday, but upon registering for school, his father changed the date on his birth certificate to state April 19, 1931. While the discrepancy in the legal documents remain, his commitment to truth and accuracy motivates a correction of the record here.

[2] Literally “Commander of the Left Wing”, a military title meaning commander of the left wing of a unit of the Ethiopian army.

[3] The term “banda” is an Italian word meaning group or band. It was used in the Fascist period to describe platoons in the Italian army made up entirely of Ethiopians who had defected to join the Italians. Today it is used in the Ethiopian context to mean one, who betrays another’s trust, i.e., it is equivalent to the word traitor in English.

[4] Title used for ritual specialists in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, known for their advanced religious education.

[5] Spiritual poetry or oratory of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

[6] Opened in 1942 by Emperor Haile Selassie as a high school, to which a college division was later added in 1960.

Prof. Getatchew’s Life Story

Getatchew with his father, Ethiopia circa 1962

Getatchew with his fellow students and their teachers in Cairo before graduation

Getatchew in Cairo, circa the early 1950s

Getatchew in Cairo, circa the early 1950s

Getatchew addressing the German Chancellor at the then Haile Selassie I University when he came to visit the Emperor, 1972

Getatchew with his daughters at his home in Addis Ababa, 1975, just months before the attack by the Derg soldiers

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Getatchew at the Stoke Mandeville rehabilitation center Ayelsbury, England,1976

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At the White House Rose Garden, being recognized as an accomplished refugee by President George H Bush after receiving the Macarthur Genius Award, 1988

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Getatchew’s ID card during his stay in Cairo

At St. John’s University, Minnesota, Winter 1995

Getatchew on stage with the German Chancellor and the Emperor at the University

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Source –


Prof. Getatchew Haile passed away on June 10, 2021 in New York City after a long illness

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