My journey to Ethiopia was actually two journeys. I’ve already written about one, and the one I have yet to write about actually began on the Ethiopian Airlines jet that took me to Addis Ababa.
As soon as I boarded that jet, every time I would meet an Ethiopian, I would ask her (the stewardesses were all women) what her name meant. I did this consistently through the end of my travels. In this sense, my journey began with Mulubebet. As soon as she told me what her name meant, I knew that my Ethiopian language journey would be an interesting one.
Mulubebet means “full in the house,” and in Hebrew it would be Malebabayith. Many, if not most, Ethiopian names have some sort of Hebrew-like root. Take the late emperor, Haile Salassie. Haile means “strength” – as in the Hebrew esheth Hayil or “woman of valor.” Salassie means, of course, “trinity.”
I had already known that Addis Ababa means “new flower” in Amharic, and when I told the man sitting across from me (on the plane) that the first word Addis was clearly related to Hebrew hadash, and had lost the initial “H” sound (due to Amharic lacking any equivalent), the man enthusiastically agreed. “In Tigrinya (a related, more conservative, Ethiopian language) it’s hadish,” he said. As for the second word, Ababa, it also has a Hebrew equivalent (Song of Songs 6:11) Ibbe haNahal – “blossoms/sprouts of the brook.”
One popular Ethiopian name, Hiwot, means life. At the end of my stay in Addis Ababa, I visited a hospital by the name of Hiwot Ababa. It means “The Flower of Life.” In Hebrew, “life” is hayim. In Arabic, it’s hayat. In ancient times, some Semitic languages experienced a shift from w‘s to y‘s in many words. For the most part, Arabic escaped this fate, but Hebrew was greatly effected. The Biblical Hawa (“Eve” as in “Adam and Eve”) predates this shift. Today, some Hebrew speakers will name their daughter Hawa (pronouncing it according to the Ashkenazic tradition: Khava) and their son “Hayim.” They’re unlikely to realize that one version is an archaic form, while the other is a modern one, but that they essentially mean the same thing.
Another interesting Amharic word I heard is the word for cross (as in the symbol of Christianity). It’s “mesqʔele.” It bears no resemblance to the Hebrew word for cross: Tselabh. Most people would leave it at that. However, it’s not that simple; this Amharic word is essentially the same as the Hebrew word for weight (as in scales), which is “Mishqal.” A cross does look like a scale for weight measurement.
Israeli tourists, in Ethiopia, commented how similar Amharic is to Hebrew. There are a few common words that are obviously similar, or the same, such as the word bet, whose Hebrew version, bayith, also means house. The word bet is pretty much a catch-all for any structure, or office, in Amharic, and is very common. Toward the end of my visit, an old woman in Addis Ababa held out her hand to me and said imma miskena, which means “poor mother.” By coincidence, it’s exactly the same in modern Hebrew, imma (mother) having been borrowed from Aramaic (in Hebrew, the word is em), and miskena (poor) being original Hebrew. Hearing this, I couldn’t resist, and I gave her one Birr.
Though Amharic uses an entirely different alphabet than Hebrew, and it’s read from left to right, there is one similarity that struck me: It uses the Tiberian vocalization system!*
Granted, I’m exaggerating a bit here, but each Amharic base letter takes an appendage (or modifies its form in such a way) that indicates which vowel goes with the letter. In general, if the appendage is to the lower right (on the bottom), this means the vowel is a long “i” as in “keep.” If it’s on the upper right (on the top), then the vowel is “o.” If it’s in the middle, to the right, then it’s “oo” as in “zoo.” This should seem familiar to readers of Hebrew. As for the “ah” sound, it’s indicated with what looks like the addition of an Arabic alif into the letter (in other words, a vertical line). To illustrate, I’ll use the letter ቀ (a clicking unvoiced “k” sound followed immediately by a glottal stop):
As for the segol (the “eh” sound), it’s indicated by a larger appendage, which might be a simplification of three dots (which comprise the segol in Hebrew), as in:
Admittedly, it takes some imagination to see this pattern with other letters, but I don’t believe it’s coincidence either. Incidentally, the letter I used above is the same as Hebrew ק (qof) and it even retains the ancient form of this letter. Its ancient pronunciation is also preserved. It was interesting for me to hear people speaking, in everyday life, using the original/archaic pronunciation of this letter – or something very close to it. Most forms of both Hebrew and Arabic have lost it, replacing it with either a voiced “k” (כּ,ك), a hard “g” or a glottal stop.
The elements of Amharic, which are clearly of Semitic origin, do bear a strong resemblance to Hebrew, even more so than to Arabic. For example, in the previous post, I mentioned the ancient king of Kush, Tirhaka. We can more accurately spell it Tirhaqa. It contains the Hebrew root “RHQ,” which means “far” or “far away.” According to my Arabic dictionaries, Arabic doesn’t retain such a root at all, though the colloquial form ruh (go!) might possibly be derived from it. In contrast, Amharic has ruq for “far.” Since Amharic has no unvoiced h sound (h), it’s dropped; in Tigrinya (which more closely resembles the ancestral Semitic language Ge’ez), it’s rahuq.
Semitic languages do not often share the same words for colors. Presumably, the names of colors were derived from common items that had those colors. For example, the Hebrew word for “red”, adom, is derived from either adama (earth) or dam (blood) or both. The Arabic word, hamraʔ, presumably comes from an ancient word for wine. Hebrew probably derives its word for “white” from a word for “milk,” while Arabic derives its word for “white” from the word for “egg.” The Hebrew word for “green” (yaroq) comes from the word for vegetable.
What I found interesting about Amharic is that none of the names for colors bear any resemblance to those of other Semitic languages – except for one: Blue. The word is semayami, and it’s clearly derived from the word for “sky” (semay, which is essentially the same in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic).
Whenever Ethiopia became Semitic, all the other colors were already known, but not blue. The color blue was not known to the ancients. I’ll quote Radiolab:
Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.
See also here and here. The lack of blue, among the ancients, presented a challenge for Orthodox Jews; the Torah calls for a “thread of tekheleth” to be worn on the corners of one’s garments. Though tekheleth is often translated as “blue,” the matter remains a mystery.
Be it as it may, the original inhabitants of Ethiopia apparently had no word for “blue.” By the time they did recognize blue, they were already speaking a Semitic tongue, and they dubbed it “sky-color.”
The Amharic word for black “ttʔəqʔir,” is interesting, because it distantly resembles the Hebrew word for black, “shahor.” This word also reminds me of the Hebrew word for “hair”, se’ar, and its Arabic equivalent, sha’r.
Another interesting similarity is the Amharic plural form, which often involves adding the suffix otch to the end of the noun. The feminine plural form, in Hebrew, involves adding the suffix oth. Arabic has numerous plurals, but none of them involve adding such a suffix.
What about numbers? I think it’s fascinating that Amharic has (apparently) non-Semitic words for “one” and “two,” but from that point onward, it’s all Semitic – with the exception of “twenty,” and “thousand” (and “nine” is a bit far off too). Could it be that the original Ethiopians could only count to two, like the Pirahã tribe of Brazil? In that case, they might have used their words for “many,” and applied them to “twenty” and “thousand.” Here are the first few numerals in Amharic and, for reference, their Hebrew (feminine form) equivalents:
and – one ahat
hulet – two shetayim
sost – three shalosh
arat – four ʔarbaʕ
amist – five hamesh
sidist – six shesh
sebat – seven shebhaʕ
simint – eight shemoneh
zettʔeñ – nine teshaʕ
asir – ten ʕeser
haya – twenty ʕesrim
meto – hundred meʔa
shi – thousand elef
The words for “twenty” and “thousand” bear no resemblance to any Semitic numerals that I’m aware of. Obviously I’m missing something, so any help, from expert linguists, would be appreciated.
Amharic seems to have taken the Semitic word for “three”, and used it for “thirty.” The same is true for “forty,” “fifty,” “sixty,” “seventy” and “eighty.” What does this mean? This hints at something interesting in Ethiopia’s past. One possibility is that earlier Ethiopians already spoke a somewhat Semitic language before the arrival of the Aksumites, but this language had no words for numerals past “twenty.” When the Aksumites arrived, they applied the new words for 3-8 and applied them to 30-80.
On top of this ancient layer of kinship between Amharic and Hebrew, there is a more recent layer: The one that came on the wings of Christianity. Biblical names are popular among Ethiopian Christians, and some place names are based on the Bible.
Despite all these aforementioned connections with Semitic languages, I have reservations about calling Amharic fully Semitic. I’ll address this in a later post.
* This is interesting, because of Ethiopia’s historic close ties to Yemen, whose Jews had used the Babylonian vocalization system until very recently.