The Language in the Hottest Place on Earth

If I ask you what the hottest place on Earth is, your answer might probably be either Death Valley, or somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa. After all, these are the regions that have recorded the highest ever temperatures on the planet, with 56.7 degrees Celsius in Death Valley, and 54 degrees Celsius in Kuwait. But these areas still cannot compare to a ghost town in Ethiopia in terms of annual average temperatures. While the average annual temperature of, say, Kuwait is around 27.15 degrees Celsius, the world’s hottest (once) inhabited place, Dallol, Ethiopia, has an average annual temperature of 34.4 degrees.

In Dallol, average summertime temperatures can reach as high as 46.7 degrees Celsius in June, with record highs hitting 49 degrees Celsius. There are many factors contributing to this degree of extreme heat, including its location in the tropics, its proximity to the Red Sea, which has relatively warm waters in winter, its low elevation at 130m below sea level, and the lack of nighttime cooling for some meteorological reason. With an extremely dry climate, Dallol has a hot desert climate, making its climate among the least hospitable for human settlement.

Yet, this town in Ethiopia had a economic pull to it. Its main exports were potash, salt, and other kinds of mining products. It also housed some sulphur mines, although they are all closed today. In fact, Dallol had been classified as a ghost town, and it is so isolated, that it is accessible only by off-road vehicles or by camel. The closest villages could be unmarked on mapping applications, although some leads might point to Handeda.

Dallol is located in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, the home of the Afar people, who number around 2.5 million in Ethiopia, 500 000 in Djibouti, and 750 000 in Eritrea as of 2022. This people group is also known as the Danakil, Adali, or Odali, although I am unsure if these names are exonyms and could be pejoratives. A majority of the Afar people speak the Afar language, an Afroasiatic language in the Cushitic branch that is more closely related to the Saho language in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.

Although many languages in Ethiopia are written using some form of the Ge’ez script, such as Amharic and Tigrinya, Afar is now written using the Latin alphabet. Although it used to be written with the Ge’ez script like the other languages of Ethiopia, it was also transcribed using the Arabic script. Its orthography today was formalised back in the 1970s, known as the Qafar Feera. Since then, linguists, writers, and members of various communities and institutions have been working together to further develop the orthography of Afar.

The sounds of Afar kind of remind me of Arabic. The lack of the “p” sound, and the presence of pharyngeal consonants like the voiceless pharyngeal fricative sound “Δ§”, and the glottal stop, are pretty much the main features that I found are similar to Arabic and more of a subset of the sounds in say, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Oromo. There are five vowels distinguished by vowel length, and there are certain word stress rules, even though the predominant stress pattern is word-final.

What do I mean by these word stress rules? For sentences with verbs that are affirmative, the final vowel is aspirated (puff of air with articulation) and stressed (more emphasis on the syllable or vowel). For interrogative verbs, the final vowels of these verbs are lengthened and stressed, while in negative verbs, the final vowels are not aspirated nor stressed.

Afar has a rather interesting set of grammar rules. From the French resource I have found, Afaraf, it seems that there are six patterns of forming the plural, which are formed by changing the endings of the singular to suffixes. But there are some irregular plurals typically of people and some animals, which have entirely different words for the plural form. Compare numu (man) and labha (men), and awka (child) and urru (children).

Like many Afroasiatic languages, Afar has two grammatical genders distinguished by the phonological endings. Of course there are some exceptions, but identifying which nouns are exceptions could get a little challenging at times. Adjectives are conjugated by number and grammatical gender, but verbs only conjugate by number and person. Lastly, Afar is a subject-object-verb language, putting its sentence or clause structure quite similar to languages like Korean and Japanese.

While Dallol has long since fallen into abandonment and disrepair, the Afar language still thrives where it is spoken. Being recognised as a national language in Eritrea and Djibouti, and an official working language in Ethiopia, Afar is one of the languages broadcasted by various media outlets like radio stations. However, Afar speakers in Eritrea prefer to use Arabic as the language of instruction in schools, which could undermine the transmission of the Afar language in a more or less standardised education setting. Today, searching up Dallol would lead you to the impressive hydrothermal system sharing the same name with the ghost town, known for its unearthly appearance and its resemblance to the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. And like the ghost town, Dallol’s ponds are remarked to be lifeless.

Further Reading

Afaraf (In French):


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