|Region||Southern Omo Zone, Southern Region|
Ongota (also known as Birale, Birayle) is a moribund language of southwest Ethiopia. UNESCO reported in 2012 that out of a total ethnic population of 115, only 12 elderly native speakers remained, the rest of their small village on the west bank of the Weito River having adopted the Tsamai language instead. The default word order is subject–object–verb. The classification of the language is obscure (Sava & Tosco 2015).
Oral history of the Ongota tells that they originated from a number of different populations from Dikinte, Maale and Arbore among others. During a stay in Maale territory, which today lies at their north, the collection of clans were chased south due to their hunting of Maale livestock. They followed the banks of the Weito River until they reached the Arbore, where they were turned away back north and settled where they are today. This account differs from that of the Maale, who claim that the Ongota were originally a part of the Maale who migrated and did not return.
Ongota has features of both Afroasiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages that confuse its classification, and linguists and anthropologists have been unable to clearly trace its linguistic roots so far. Savà and Tosco (2007) claim that Ongota's morphology is Ts'amakko and that ~50% of the lexicon can be connected to Ts'amakko roots. They also report that Aklilu Yilma of Addis Ababa University considers Ongota to be a pidginised creole. They state that this "conclusion is strengthened by a local legend stating that Ongota originated from a multiethnic melting pot." They further report that Lionel Bender considers Ongota to be Cushitic, Václav Blažek (1991, 2001, and forth.)[full citation needed] Nilo-Saharan, and Cushiticist Maarten Mous (2003)[full citation needed] mentions it as a language isolate. Savà and Tosco (2003, 2007), themselves, believe it to be an East Cushitic language with a Nilo-Saharan substratum—that is, that Ongota speakers shifted to East Cushitic from an earlier Nilo-Saharan language, traces of which still remain. Fleming (2006) considers it to be an independent branch of Afroasiatic. Bonny Sands (2009) believes Savà and Tosco's proposal to be the most convincing proposal. Sava & Tosco (2015) leave it unclassified, possibly an isolate but possibly so affected by superstrate influence that the original affiliation of the language has been obscured.
The main mechanism behind the decline of Ongota is marriage with other communities. In a brief expedition in the early 1990s, a number of researchers made the observation that many Ongota men married Tsamakko women. The child would grow up speaking only the mother's language, but not the father's. (Mikesh, P. et al., 1992–1993) This trend has continued through the recent years.