A Brief Introduction to Qene
What is Qene? It is an Ethiopian style of speech, where one says one thing while implying a different meaning at the same time and in the same sentence. This may be difficult to understand for people unfamiliar with the language. Qene can usually be expressed in a poetic form or in a prose, containing the two parts of ‘sem’ and ‘werk,’ (wax and gold,) all within the same expression. The wax and gold analogy comes from the craft of the goldsmith during the making of jewelry. The image is first formed in wax, because wax is soft and pliable to carve. The wax is then covered with clay, plaster, or porcelain, which hardens. When the molten gold is poured into the plaster or clay, the wax melts away, leaving the gold, with the desired image. Thus, encrypting a hidden message in Qene is an ancient art of creating more than one meaning, where the apparent ‘wax’ and the hidden, ‘gold,’ are intertwined in the same sentence.
Qene, in its documented form, was first expounded in the classic works of Saint Yared, the Axumite cleric and royal minstrel. His two major works: Dgua and Tsome Dgua, date back over fifteen hundred years, to the Fifth Century AD. According to Ato Alemayehu Moges, a Qene expert, however, such a flourish of Qene is not likely to have suddenly appeared in just one man and in a single generation, as it did with Saint Yared. (1) Ato Moges attributes Qene, at least in its oral form, as having existed in much earlier times, and to a certain cleric, Tewaney, who lived in the island of Dek-Astifa, in Lake Tana.
A great deal of Amharic and Geez Qene depends on one word having, or of being ‘interpreted,’ in more than one way. This is true also for many other languages, where one word can often have more than one meaning. But in Amharic and in Geez, it can also be due to the phonetic system of the Geez alphabet, which lacks a symbol for accent as stress indicator on words, as is done in various other languages and alphabet systems. Thus, once a word is written in phonetic Geez, it can be pronounced with slight variations by putting the stress on different parts of the word to produce different sounds, thereby, giving more than one meaning to one and the same word.
As an example of the first type, where the same word can have different meanings without any change in stress, is the word ‘belew.’ This word can mean: ‘tell him,’ or ‘strike him,’ or could just be an expression of surprise. As an example of the second type, take these two simple words: ‘a-le’ and ‘a-lech.’ These words, depending on where one puts the stress, can have different meanings. When the ‘le’ is soft: ‘a-le’ and ‘a-lech’ mean: ‘he said,’ and ‘she said,’ respectively. But with a stress on ‘le’ the meaning changes: ale’ and ale’ch, now become: ‘he is present,’ and ‘she is present,’ respectively.
The best way to illustrate Qene might be to give some examples. Here is the first one:
The first line simply states about some ‘Yaltaweke kimem,’ an unknown spice of having entered the dish. The second line explains how this spice was giving off a ‘strong aroma’ to all the invited guests. This is the ‘sem’ or wax interpretation of the Qene. The ‘werk’ or gold, the hidden meaning, is found by the play on the word: ‘be-sheeta’ which also means ‘sickness’ when the stress is applied on ‘shee’ and ‘ta,’ making it sharper and shorter, ‘besh-ee’-ta’. This would then change the meaning to: ‘All the invited guests were consumed with sickness due to some unknown spice which had entered the dish…’
Here is another example by the same author:
In the first line: ‘Yeferenjun… bermel’ tells of bringing a barrel, the work of the ‘ferenj’ or Europeans. In the second line it further clarifies that the writer had asked not for a barrel, but for ‘our own local clay pot’ or "enesera." That is the wax part, or apparent meaning. The gold, however, is in the word play of: "enesera," which can have two meanings by just shifting the stress from ‘ene’-se’ra’ or ‘en-ese-ra.’ In the Geez phonetic, both these words are written in exactly the same way, as there is no symbol for accents to show where the stress should be. The word ‘ene-se’-ra’ means: ‘let us make,’ which changes the entire meaning of the Qene as the ‘gold’ now expresses the desire of the author to make or manufacture ‘our own craft,’ and not borrow from the ‘ferenj.’
Another technique of Qene is where two or more words may be joined to become one, or a word may be split into two or more parts, to change the meaning. In a famous poem rendered to Emperor Menelik II, the word ‘Ya lemtam’ is used in this technique. The obvious meaning or the sem, is in ‘Ya lemtam,’ which literally means ‘that leper,’ while the gold is: ‘Yalem ta’m’ or ‘the sweetness of the earth.’ Thus the poet gave a wonderful and hidden praise, while pretending to insult Emperor Menelik II on account of his leprosy. The poem also addressed Menelik as ‘thou’ in the tone of respect, and stated:
It can, somewhat, be translated into:
That was an example of an insult being turned into praise, but more often than not, it is the other way around. One would seemingly praise while actually insulting the chosen target. The following Qene will illustrate this:
It is attributed to the late, Negadras Tessema Eshete, father of the once famous Ethiopian soccer captain, Ato Yednekatchew Tessema. It was uttered at some social function, where a certain ‘arbegna,’ patriot, who apparently had become an important official for his participation in the liberation struggle, had asked the Negadras for a word of praise. (It is pretty common for poets and singers to be asked to sing or express the praise of famous persons in the community during a wedding or some similar social occasions.)
The wax meaning is obvious by a direct reading of the poem:
But the Negadras, clearly, did not think much of this particular "arbegna," who had demanded to be praised. The hidden meaning, (the gold) in the Qene can be found from the word play on arbegna. When the word is split into two parts, it becomes: ar – begna, ar – shit, begna – on us. The hidden meaning then is: Now, in time of peace, this patriot/shit is playing on us… (by bothering us and demanding to be praised.)
In the late 60’s, Ian Smith, who had declared the then British colony, Rhodesia, an independent nation, and made himself prime minister, had hanged many black people who opposed his regime. That was when a certain Ethiopian cleric took up his Begena to express the following Amharic Qene in a song, as a form of solidarity with the people:
The Qene is hidden in the word "meskel." It means cross: the cross on which Jesus was hanged, or the symbol of a cross priests usually carry, and would often use when blessing the people. But the same word, without any changes in stress, also means: to hang with a rope. The meaning of the poem then becomes clear:
Besides these few basic forms, there are various other ways of crafting Qene, and we hope this brief introduction has served as a means of cracking a door into this wide vista of the Ethiopian lingual heritage to all who may be unfamiliar with it. We also hope that it would bring them many hours of joy and pleasure in reading and figuring out the hidden meanings in many ‘simple looking’ expressions.
(1) Geez and Amahric Study Without Qene is Incomplete p. 99, Alemayehu Moges, Addis Ababa, 1966
(2) The original Amharic script of this poem can be found on the web at:
http://members.lycos.co.uk/artpage001/index.html under the sub-links poems and Qene)