Ethiopia also known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia officially is a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. Having a total area of around 1,100,000 square kilometers, Ethiopia boasts not just a diverse landscape but one that’s full of cultural heritage.

It is home to more than 123.5 million inhabitants making it the 12th most populous country in the world and is second most populous in Africa after Nigeria. The capital city of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa, which is the cultural, commercial, political, and economic hub of the country.

It is a multi-ethnic state that has over 80 different ethnic groups. Each ethnic group has its own Ethiopian language and offers unique traditions and customs. This multiculturalism only adds to the vibrant allure of the country. Also, it promotes a spirit of harmony and unity in the midst of diversity.

Religion is also an important part of the Ethiopian society. The majority of people there practice Christianity and Islam as their main faiths and religions. Ethiopian Christianity is one of the oldest branches of the Christian faith, having its unique practices and traditions. On the other hand, Islam in Ethiopia has a long history, especially if you go to regions like Harar. Ethiopia’s coexistence of Islam and Christianity is also a great testament to the nation’s religious tolerance and intercultural peace as well as Ethiopian Language.

Table of Content

  1. Impact of Famine on the Ethiopian Language
  2. Languages in Ethiopia
  3. Characterized Languages area for Ethiopian languages
  4. Ge’ez – One Writing System for All
  5. What Language do Ethiopian Speak?
    1. The Special Status of Amharic
    2. Oromo Language
      1. Writing System
    3. Somali Language
    4. Wolaitta language
    5. Tigrinya
    6. Afar Language
  6. Final Words

Impact of Famine on the Ethiopian Language

Ethiopia has had a severe problem with food shortages and water droughts. This has drastically affected the progress of Ethiopia Language. The main reason for this, as the locals would say, is political instability and corruption. Moreover, the weather is not too kind to the Ethiopians either. Though sources of clean water do exist in places, the technology required to preserve and distribute them does not. Obviously, when people are struggling to survive, languages do not flourish. They require the attention of writers, poets, and youngsters willing to take it to the next level. Honestly, when life is good language learning and transitioning are effortless. It is constantly evolving in a positive manner. If you watched the latest Queen movie about Freddy Mercury’s life depiction, you can see the final concert was called African Aid. This was primarily done to help the Ethiopians raise enough money to survive.

Languages in Ethiopia

There are more than 90 languages that people in Ethiopia speak. Ethiopia official language consists of the Afro-Asiatic language of Cushitic or Semitic branches. It also includes Oromiffa which the Oromo and Somali people use. Somali people speak Somali. As per the census conducted in 1994.

77 Ethopia official languages were spoken locally. Most of these languages belong to the Afroasiatic family (Semitic and Cushitic languages: Omotic languages are also popular however their classification as Afroasiatic languages remains controversial).

Moreover, people also actively speak the Nilo Saharan language family and the government calls it “Nilotic”. Scholars and linguists find Nilotic uremic languages, Gumuz languages, and Koman languages quite different which are those spoken in Ethiopia.

Of all the languages that people commonly speak in Ethiopia, 91 of these are living and 1 is extinct. Breaking these down further 41 of the living languages are institutional, 14 are developing currently 18 are vigorous and 8 of these are in the red zone for getting extinct and 5 of these are near extinction.

Characterized Languages Area for Ethiopian Languages

Charles A. Ferguson, the world’s renowned linguist actually proposed the language area, it characterized and shared grammatical and phonological features back in 1976. The sprachbund (a linguistic area) also includes the Afroasiatic languages of Ethiopia.

However, it does not include Nilo-Saharan languages. It was only in 2000 that Mauro Tosco went on to question the validity of Ferguson’s original proposal.

Though there is not much agreement by scholars on this however the intervention of Mauro has weakened Ferguson’s original claim.

English is one of the most spoken languages that are common in this region and also a medium of instruction in secondary schools and institutes.

Initially, it was Amharic which was the Ethiopia language of primary school institutions. But various local languages such as Oromo and Tigrinya have replaced this now in a lot of areas.

After Derg failed in 1991, that was a military junta used to rule over Ethiopia. In 1995, the constitution of Ethiopia granted ethnic groups the right to develop their Ethiopia official languages. The constitution also encouraged them to establish first-language primary education systems. This emerged as a marked and developed change in the policies of previous governments in Ethiopia.

Ge’ez – One Writing System for All

When it comes to writing systems, the principal orthography is the Ge’ez script in Ethiopia. It remained as an abugida or pseudo-alphabet for a lot of other countries languages. It was also the primary writing system for Afan Oromo for ages until 1991.

The Ethiopic script came into practice in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE as an abjad in order to transcribe the Semitic Ge’ez language. The serving liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox and catholic churches.

Many other Ethiopian communities have used different writing systems over the years. It also included speaking of Ethiopian languages spoken by Muslim populations and another script Sheikh Bakri Sapelo’s script for the Oromo language.

These days a lot of languages including Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo Saharan are in the written form in the Roman and Latin scripts.

What Language do Ethiopian Speak?

As per the Ethnologue, the major first languages in Ethiopia are:

  1. Amharic
  2. Oromo
  3. Somali
  4. Wolaytta
  5. Tigrinya
  6. Afar

Arabic which comes from the Afroasiatic language family is also one of the languages that Ethiopians speak. Also, a lot of Muslim Ethiopians can speak Arabic because of their religious background.

Moreover, English is also one of the most widely common languages in Ethiopia and several schools teach it in Ethiopia. There are five languages now which hold the status of official language and these are Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Afar, and Tigrinya.

1. The Special Status of Amharic

Amharic is one of the official languages of Ethiopian courts, and the armed forces, trade. And everyday communication also happens in the same language. The practice remained till the 12th century. Although till 2020 it was the only Ethiopian working language of the federal government.

However, it is the most common language among Ethiopian residents. As of 2018 Amharic language had around 31.8 million speakers with more than 25 million speakers of the secondary language.

Additionally, more than three million emigrants outside of Ethiopia speak Amharic. Most of the Ethiopian Jewish communities in Israel and Ethiopia speak this language too.

This language also got its place in one of the 6 non-English languages in the Language access act of 2004 in Washington DC and which allows services and education in Amharic.

Interestingly this language is considered a holy language by the Rastafari religion and its followers use it all over the world.

2. Oromo Language

The Oromo language has more than 37.4 million people who speak it as their first language. That implies that it has more native speakers who are more than other Ethiopian languages. 33% of the population of Ethiopia speaks this language.

Oromo is more like the lingua franca of not only Ethiopia but the Horn of Africa widely. Oromo is also part of primary education in a lot of states.

This language even managed to flourish despite bearing the bans imposed by emperor Haile Selassie who was the ruler of the country from 1930 to 1974. He banned the use of Oromo in education, administrative matters, and even in daily and day-to-day conversations.

2.1 Writing System

The Latin alphabet is used to write Oromo and it is called Qubee which became part of the writing system formally in 1991. Multiple variants of Latin-based orthography had been used previously and most of these Oromos speakers used these patterns outside Ethiopia by the late 1970s.

After the formal adoption of Qubee, it is also reported that a lot of other texts were also used to write the Oromo language between 1991 and 1997 and it was more work than done in the previous 100 years.

Another script named Sapalo is also considered an indigenous Oromo script. This was invented by Sheikh Sapalo during the late 1950s and they were using it underground.

This script though has a clear influence from Ge’ez and Arabic script, however, the structural and organizational influences are quite clear but it still managed to shine as a graphically independent creation that has been designed for Oromo phonology in particular. It is alphasyllabic in nature however, lacks the inherent vowel which is usually present in such systems.

3. Somali Language

There are around 6.7 million first-language speakers of the Somali language in Ethiopia. This language is popular in the country, Djibouti, and surrounding.

It has its speakers mainly in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country with the land border between Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.

Somali is an Afroasiatic language that comes from the Cushitic branch. Somali is popular as the mother tongue among the greater Somali and Somali diaspora.

Also, it is one of the official languages of Ethiopia Somalia, and enjoys a national language status in Djibouti and Kenya.

This language which is considered small relatively is officially written in Latin Alphabet although Arabic and other Somali scripts such as Osmanya and Borama scripts have also been found used informally.

The Somali language has a lot of varieties. It is mainly divided into three groups

  1. Northern,
  2. Benadir
  3. Maay

The northern variant of Somali also known as Nom is the main feature that forms standard Somali. More than 85% population speaks this language and it has also managed to spread in almost major parts of Somalia.

The root cause of this stretching all over the world is due to southward population movements over the past ten centuries from the Gulf of Aden.

Northern Somali further has the following three dialects:

  1. Northern Somali proper
  2. Darod group
  3. And lower Juba group

Benadir or Coastal Somali is common on the central Indian Ocean seaboard which includes Mogadishu. It comprises a relatively small group. This dialect of Somali is quite mutually intelligible with northern Somali.

This language has five vowels and 22 consonants.

Arabic script Wadaad writing has been used for centuries to write Somali alongside the Latin script.

4. Wolaitta Language

This is another popular language in Ethiopia. It is a north Omotic language that comes from the Omoto group and they speak it in the Wolayita zone and also in a few parts of the southern nations, nationalities, and Ethiopia. Welayta people speak it as their native language.

The scripts of the Wolaitta language have been found and existed since the 1940s. It was when Sudan’s interior mission worked on devising a system for writing it. This writing system got a revision later by the team and Dr. Bruce Adams was leading the team.

They contributed and completed the new testament in 1981 and the whole bible in 2002. Wolaytta people are fond of using a lot of proverbs while speaking their language and the Academy of Ethiopian Languages published a huge collection of them in Ethiopian script in 1987.

5. Tigrinya

Tigrinya has had its presence in Ethiopia for a long time. however, it was only in 2020 and afterward, this language became an official language of the country. It has 6.4 million speakers. The language has multiple dialects and due to this none of these is a standard Tigrinya dialect.

It is the Ethiopian Semitic language and it is most common in Eritrea and the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The diaspore of these regions all over the world speaks this language.

This language is different from the Ge’ez language in having phrasal verbs and in terms of word order too. It has the practice of placing the verb at the end rather than putting it first.

Talking about the Tigrinya literature, it remained under the great influence of Ge’ez. Ge’ez worked as a literary medium in Ethiopian culture and was more likely due to simple structure until recent times.

The ancient example of written Tigrinya is a text that came on the scene in the district of Logosarda, Debub Region in southern Eritrea.

Arabic and Triginya were two of the official languages of Eritrea during its short-lived federation with Ethiopia. However, in 1958, the Southern Ethiopic language Amharic replaced it. Trigniyan regained its status as a working language in the country after its independence in 1991. However, national-level recognition came in 2020 when the country declared Trigniyan as the official language.

In written form, Tigrinya uses the Ge’ez script which has its roots in the Semitic Ge’ez language. However, its Ethiopic script is Abugida. Each symbol represents consonant and vowel syllables. These symbols are organized into a group of similar symbols based on consonants and vowels. It has seven vowels.

6. Afar Language

Afar likewise Trigniya got the status of official language in Ethiopia in 2020. It has more than 1.8 million native speakers. This language has been classified with the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family.

Afar is a lowland east Cushitic language, having its usage in Djibouti and Eritrea along with Ethiopia. People call it Afar, Af Afaraf, and Qafar. The closest relative of this language is the Saho language.

The main word order of the Afar language like other Cushitic languages is subject-object-verb.

Ethiopian speakers of the Afar language write it in the Ge’ez script. However, in other areas, this language has been written in Latin script. When it comes to transcription, Afar makes use of the Arabic script.

During the early 1970s two nationalists and intellectuals Dimis and Redo worked on forming an Afar alphabet which we refer to as Qafar Feera. Its orthography is mainly based on the Latin script.

Final Words

Ethiopia is a landlocked state in the Horn of Africa. It is the second most populous country in Africa and the 12th most populous country in the world. It has five official languages which include Amharic, Omoro, Afar, Tigrinya, and Somali. These languages have their own origins, writing systems, and recognition worldwide. Most of these practice Latin script and the Ge’ez writing system.

Read More:

  1. Business Translation: Doing Business in Africa
  2. What is the Least Spoken Language in the World?
  3. What Language is Spoken in Egypt
  4. Translation Theories – Eugene Nida and Dynamic Equivalence
  5. How Many Languages are Spoken in India