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Definition: Amharic from The Macquarie Dictionary

one of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, spoken by the inhabitants of the former kingdom of Amhara.

Summary Article: AMHARIC
From Dictionary of Languages
14,000,000 SPEAKERS


About two thousand years ago a gathering, habashat, of speakers of an early Arabic or South Arabian dialect crossed the Red Sea and founded a kingdom in modern Eritrea and Ethiopia. Their language was ETHIOPIC. Splintered by the very difficult communications in this mountainous country, the earliest Ethiopic has divided into several daughter languages, of which Amharic is the most important – it is the national language of modern Ethiopia.

The country used to be called by outsiders Abyssinia (from habashat): Christian Tigrinya speakers are still called habesh in Eritrea (Muslim Tigrinya speakers reject the name ‘ha-besh’ and may be called Jabarta). Amharic is called by its own speakers Amərinnya, a name derived from the district of Amhara, apparently the historic centre of the language. Tigrinya (sometimes written Tigriña, or with the Italian spelling Tigrigna) is similarly in origin the language of Tigre province.

Thus Amharic is one of the SEMITIC LANGUAGES like Arabic and Hebrew. Originally a minor dialect of a region south of Axum, Amharic could claim to be the ‘Language of the King’ since the accession of the Solomonid dynasty in the 13th century, a crucial lifting of its status.

By the 17th century Amharic was a language of everyday communication, and particularly of the army, throughout the Christian empire of Ethiopia. Its spread was accelerated by the considerable use of and trade in slaves in traditional Ethiopia: the slaves were drawn from peoples of southern Ethiopia of various mother tongues, so slaves and owners necessarily used Amharic as a lingua franca. Thus it was the language in which the Jesuits made their short-lived attempt to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. This was a calculated break with tradition, for classical Ethiopic was (and to some extent still is) the language of the established Ethiopian Christian church.

Amharic literature goes back to the royal praise poetry of the 14th century. Ethiopic, however, remained the language of literature and education until the 19th century. Even nowadays, educated speakers of Amharic use a form of speech which is much influenced by the classical language.

As the language of the modern central government, Amharic continues to gain ground as the everyday language of the capital, Addis Ababa, though the native language in the country round about is OROMO. Amharic also serves as a lingua franca in Ethiopia generally. The total of speakers who use the language regularly may be as high as 30,000,000.

Amharic still has a mainly Semitic vocabulary. As with Arabic, Amharic word structure is largely based on consonant-only roots, with inserted vowels marking number, tense and other grammatical features. Naturally there are loanwords from Cushitic languages, such as wəshsha ‘dog’, səga ‘meat’, and from modern European languages, bolis ‘police’ from French, tayp ‘typewriter’ from English, fabriqa ‘factory’ from Italian. Ethiopia was under Italian rule from 1935 to 1941.

Amharic is written in Ethiopic script, which, like Indian scripts, combines a consonant with a following vowel in a single complex symbol. The first box contains one-seventh of the full Amharic alphabet table, showing the consonant letters combined with the vowel ä. For a table of numerals see TIGRINYA.

  • Based partly on works by M. L. Bender, including Language in Ethiopia ed. M. L. Bender and others (London: Oxford University Press, 1976)
Amharic, TIGRINYA and Tigre on the map

The modern Semitic languages of Ethiopia are AMHARIC, Harari (13,000 speakers in the city of Harar), East Gurage (200,000 speakers), West Gurage (500,000 speakers), Soddo or Aymellel or Northern Gurage (100,000 speakers), Tigre and TIGRINYA.

There is relatively little dialect division in Amharic, though dialects of Shoa and Gojjam provinces are distinguished. The dialects of the old capital, Gondar, and the new capital, Addis Ababa, are both prestigious.

The heartland of Tigrinya speech is the highlands of southern Eritrea, and Tigre province across the Ethiopian border. Tigrinya is also dominant, serving as the national lingua franca, in the cities and towns of the Eritrean coast.

There are two dialects of Tigre, which may have about 100,000 speakers. The Southern or Highland dialect is spoken by the Mensa, Ad Timaryam and Ad Tekla tribes and most of the Red Marya. The Northern or Lowland dialect is spoken by the Habaab and Black Marya. This is the dialect in which the Beni Amir of Eritrea and Sudan are now bilingual (see BEJA).

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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