Ethiopia contains upwards of 80 distinct ethnic groups, and just about every one of them has its own language. For a traveler who is language-conscious, such as myself, this can be bewildering. At the same time, it’s refreshing; the Ethiopian government deserves praise for allowing local languages to thrive within its borders. Children are not forced to learn the “dominant language” at the expense of their native one. The result is that many local languages remain robust to this day, and one can hear people of all ages speaking them in their respective locales. I’ll quote Wikipedia:
Ethiopia’s population is highly diverse, containing over 80 different ethnic groups. Most people in Ethiopia speak Afro-Asiatic languages, mainly of the Cushitic and Semitic branches. The former includes the Oromo and Somali, and the latter includes the Amhara and Tigray. Together these four groups make up three-quarters of the population.
The country also has Omotic ethnic minorities who speak Afro-Asiatic languages of the Omotic branch. They inhabit the southern regions of the country, particularly the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region. Among these are the Welayta and Gamo.
Nilo-Saharan-speaking Nilotic ethnic minorities also inhabit the southwestern regions of the country, particularly in the Gambela Region. Among these are the Nuer and Anuak who are also found in South Sudan which borders the Gambela Region.
To illustrate the relationship between the various branches of the Afro-Asiatic language family, I’ll include a video from a man I very much respect. He calls himself “Ancient Semitic“:
And here’s another one, also from Ancient Semitic, illustrating the connection between most languages of this family:
Incidentally, it was a Jew who, in the 9th century, first recognized the link between the Hamitic branch (Berber) of this language family, and the Semitic branch: Yehuda ibn Kuraish. It bears noting that there is no consensus on where the Afro-Asiatic language family originated.
Although the most spoken language in Ethiopia is Oromo, it is Amharic that has the most official recognition. This has been a point of contention for Oromo speakers. Their frequent use of the Roman alphabet, instead of the Ethiopic Ge’ez-based alphabet, is a political statement. While driving through Oromo territory, I asked my driver about the use of the Roman alphabet on signs. His answer was somewhat evasive.
Speakers of Amharic take a lot of pride in their language. I had long conversations, with my drivers, about the differences between Eritrea and Ethiopia. My understanding is that the only real difference is that Eritrea was colonized by the Italians, while Ethiopia never was (though it was conquered by the Italians, who held on to it for 5 years at the beginning of WWII). Together, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and some surrounding areas make up the historic country of Abyssinia. In other words, Abyssinia is “greater Ethiopia.”
Ethiopians, like most of the rest of the world, are not very fond of the government of Eritrea, or the path it has taken. One Ethiopian derisively told me, when discussing language policy in Eritrea, “they don’t even teach their kids Amharic!”
As much as the Amhara love Amharic, they also revere Ge’ez; in fact, they consider Ge’ez to be their “ancestral language.” For Christians, their prayers, and their Bible, are written in Ge’ez. It’s a holy tongue to them, much as Hebrew is a holy tongue for Jews.
And yet speakers of Amharic don’t seem to have much respect for Tigrinya, which is far closer to Ge’ez than is Amharic. I find this odd, but there’s a parallel.
Askkenazi Jews consider Hebrew to be our “ancestral/sacred language,” and yet we hold Yiddish in much higher esteem than Arabic, even though Arabic is much closer to Hebrew than Yiddish is. Could it be that the reason the Amhara aren’t so fond of Tigrinya is that it sounds like Arabic, the language of Islam (with whom they fought wars in the past)? I hope some Ethiopians will stumble upon this blog and share their insights on this matter.
The message I got, over and over again in Ethiopia, is that the Ethiopians are a mixed people. My assumption was that this mixed people speaks a mixed language. If they represent a mix of Semitic-speaking Middle-Easterners (the Aksumites and maybe others) and native black Africans, we would expect that the more Middle-Eastern looking Ethiopians would speak the more purely Semitic languages, such as Tigrinya, while the Amhara, Oromo and other tribes, would appear more African. But this is not the case at all. I doubt that any visitor to Ethiopia would get that impression.
Why do I say that Amharic is “less Semitic” than Tigrinya? Firstly because much of its most basic vocabulary is vastly different from that of other Semitic languages. For example, “dog” is kelebh in Hebrew, kalb in Arabic, kelbi in Ge’ez – but wusha in Amharic. Furthermore, Amharic lacks some of the phonemes characteristic of most Semitic languages. I did find a reasonable account of the history of the Semitic Ethiopic languages here, and I’ll quote:
The Semitic conquerors of Abyssinia found peoples of two different races in the country where they settled: (1) African aborigines and (2) Kushites, a branch of the Hamitic family. Their languages were different from each other and, of course, different from that of the Semites also; some of them are spoken up to the present day. When the Semites first came and formed their literary language, they did not allow the languages of the country to influence their own speech very much; but gradually this influence grew stronger and stronger, and it is very evident in the modern Semitic languages of Abyssinia. An outline of the history of the Ethiopic language is as follows: Its oldest monument known so far is the Semitic part of the bilingual inscription of King `Ezana, which dates from the first half of the 4th century AD. Before that time Ethiopic must have been spoken, without doubt, but it was not written: Greek and Sabean were written instead. At the time of King `Ezana the knowledge of the Sabean language seems to have been very little; but Sabean script was still used. The Semitic part of the inscription just mentioned is in the Ethiopic language, but carved once in Sabean script and a second time in the native Ethiopic script which had been derived from the Sabean. In the first of these two “editions” two or three Sabean words are used instead of their Ethiopic equivalents. A few other ancient inscriptions found in the Aksumitic empire may also be dated from the same period.
I do find it hard to believe that the Semitic invaders had never encountered dogs prior to arriving in Ethiopia. Perhaps a better explanation is that the natives continued to use their own words for familiar animals. The animals that became familiar to them later on got Semitic names. The word for “horse,” for example, is feres, which is essentially the same in Arabic, and similar to the Hebrew word for “horseman.”
One way or the other, I consider Amharic to be a very beautiful language. Here’s something for those of y’all who have never heard formal Amharic being spoken:
My Amharic/Ge’ez studies continue, so I’ll surely have more to say on this topic in the future.