Ethiopian Languages and Their Whereabouts

Ethiopia also known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia officially is a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. It has a total area of around 1,100,000 square kilometers.

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 of Ethiopia is Addis, Ababa.

It is a multi-ethnic state that has over 80 different ethnic groups. The main faiths and religions which are practiced in Ethiopia are Christianity and Islam.

Table of Content

Languages in Ethiopia

There are more than 90 languages which are spoken in Ethiopia. The majority in Ethiopia speak the Afro-Asiatic language of Cushitic or Semitic branches. It also includes Oromiffa which is spoken by the Oromo people and Somali. Somali people speak Somali. As per the census conducted in 1994.

77 languages were spoken locally. Most of these languages come from the Afroasiatic family (Semitic and Cushitic languages: Omotic languages are also spoken however their classification as Afroasiatic languages remain controversial)

Moreover, Nilo Saharan languages are also spoken by the people and 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 when Mauro Tosco went on to question the validity of Ferguson’s original proposal. 

Though there is not much agreement by the 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 language of primary school institutions but it has been replaced now in a lot of areas where local languages are spoken such as Oromo and Tigrinya.

After Derg failed in 1991, that was a military junta used ruled over Ethiopia. It was in 1995 that the constitution of Ethiopia granted ethnic groups the right of developing their languages and 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 has been employed as an abugida for a lot of other country’s 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 have been written in the Roman and Latin scripts.

Official Languages of Ethiopia 

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 are spoken in Ethiopia. Also, a lot of Muslim Ethiopians can speak Arabic because of their religious background.

Moreover, English is also one of the widely spoken languages in Ethiopia that is also taught in several schools 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 are also carried out 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 which is spoken in Ethiopia. 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.

Writing System

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 spoken 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 is treated as a national language 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 is further divided into three dialects which are

  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 known as 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 was spoken in Ethiopia for a long time however it was only in 2020 and afterward this language got official status in the country. It has 6.4 million speakers. It has multiple dialects and due to this none of these has been accepted as standard Tigrinya dialects.

It is the Ethiopian Semitic language and it is most commonly spoken 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.

Tigrinya literature has been greatly influenced by the 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 has been discovered 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 it got replaced with the Southern Ethiopic language Amharic. Trigniyan regained its status of working language in the country after its independence in 1991 until 2020 when it was declared the official language and recognized on the national level.

Tigrinya is written in Ge’ez script which is originally developed from Ge’ez. However, its Ethiopic script is abugida. Each symbol represents a 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 and it is spoken in Djibouti and Eritrea along with Ethiopia. This official language of Ethiopia is called afar, Af Afaraf, and Qafar by its speakers. 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. Afar is also often transcribed while using Arabic script.

During the early 1970s two nationalists and intellectuals Dimis and Redo worked on forming an Afar alphabet which is known 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. 

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