15 Facts About Ethiopian Amharic: Rastafarians, Semetic Languages and Pronouns

Ethiopian Amharic is the working language of Ethiopia in courts, legal documents, trade, with just under fifty million speakers of it as either a first or second language.

Though Oromo is the most common mother tongue in Ethiopia, Ethiopian Amharic wins out in number of speakers, especially because it is used in towns, cities, and other countries in the Ethiopian federation.

In fact, this language is the second-largest of all Semitic languages spoken in modern times, beaten out only by Arabic. It’s no surprise, then, that learning some facts and figures about it can help everyone!

A Few Facts about Ethiopian Amharic

1. There’s no universally agreed way to transliterate Ethiopian Amharic into English or Latin characters

Their script symbols, which read left to right, are more easily matched to sounds than letters.

2. Though Amharic is the working language of Ethiopia, it isn’t the only official language

It shares this honor with Oromo, Somali, Afar, and Tigrinya. Amharic is related to Ethiopic, which is the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical language.

3. Three million Ethiopian emigrants and their descendants in other countries speak Amharic as their first language

In particular, Ethiopian Jewish people, both in Israel and Ethiopia, use this language predominately over others.

4. Rastafarians consider Amharic a holy language

This Jamaican movement uses Amharic in many holy services and sacred practices worldwide.

5. The script, fidel, uses symbols which represent a consonant and a vowel

The consonant determines the shape of the letter, while the vowel sound modifies its shape. Like in Hebrew, Arabic, and other similar languages, some consonant letters make identical sounds as phonology has changed over the years.

6. Simple Amharic sentences use a subject + predicate formula

The English phrase “he is in school” is እሱ ትምህርት ቤት ውስጥ ነው, isu timihiriti bēti wisit’i newi. The word order translated literally means “<he [subject]> <school (lit: education-home) in is [predicate]>.” 

7. Unlike other major Semitic languages, Amharic is written and read left to right, like English and most other Latin languages

Arabic and Hebrew, for example, are written and read right to left.

8. As a Semitic language, Ethiopian Amharic ultimately descends from the Afro-Asiatic language family.

The descent of modern Amharic is as follows:

Afro-Asiatic languages (Malta, Horn of Africa, North Africa, Sahel, and the Middle East)
Semitic (West Asia, North Africa, Horn of Africa, Caucasus, Malta)
West Semitic (Middle East)
South Semitic (Yemen, Oman, Ethiopia, Eritrea)
Western Semitic (also known as Ethiopian Semitic)
South Ethiopic (Southern areas)
Transversal South Ethiopic (intersection of languages)
Amharic-Argobba (two major ethnic groups)
Modern Ethiopian Amharic

Interestingly (and quite sadly!), way back in the third step, the East Semitic languages have since become extinct. 

Amharic’s “sibling” is Argobba, which stems from the same parent language group. Meanwhile, its closest “cousins” descended from the Transversal South Ethiopic group are Harari, Silt’e and its dialects, and Zway.

9. The Amharic script is called Ge’ez and is used by several Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages

Ethiosemitic languages are the most common, but Ge’ez script is also used in Cushite languages and Nilotic languages.

10. Amharic verbs must agree with their subjects in several ways

Adjective words need to match the grammatical person, number, and gender of the subject in question. Gender markers in adjective-subject only apply in second and third person.

11. The language uses suffixes to indicate an object pronoun

If a sentence said “I heard Abal”, the more literal translation of the Amharic equivalent would be “<Abal [in accusative form]>, <I heard> <him [suffix]>.”

12. Suffixes can also indicate whether a sentence is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing by using slightly different after-words for the same sentence.

The English sentence “I shut the door for Abal” and “I shut the door on Abal” (one of which is helpful, the other of which is rude!) are translated the same way except for the final suffix.

In this example, the literal translated structure would be “<For Abal> <door [in definitive accusative form]> <I opened> <for him[suffix]>” for the former, and “<On Abal> <door [in definitive accusative form]> <I opened> <on him[suffix]>”

13. Amharic drops independent pronouns (I, he, she, you, etc.) in most conversation and writing.

They are only used when emphasis must be placed within the sentence. The un-emphasized “I spoke to her” would be አናገርኳት (ānagerikwati), which contains suffixes for both “I” and “her”. However, “I spoke to her,” emphasizing who was spoken to, would be እሷን አናገርኳት (iswani ānagerikwati), while “I spoke to her”, emphasizing who spoke, would be እኔ አናገርኳት (inē ānagerikwati).

14. There are primary and derived nouns in Ethiopian Amharic

This means that some nouns have words of their own, while others are made up of other noun parts. One of the most prominently quoted examples of this is the translation of the word “pedestrian”, እግረኛ (igirenya). This is derived from the word “foot” or “leg”, which is እግር (igiri).

15. There are two genders in Ethiopian Amharic, masculine and feminine, and they’re marked in several different ways

GenderIndicated by…
MasculineDefault state
Femininet suffix (old fashioned and now rare). Still used for words ending in –awi in the masculine form and some others.
-it suffixes with masculine equivalents. These are used to feminize words like child (boy) and girl and elder (default male) and old lady.
-it suffixes without masculine equivalents. Some words like spider are always followed by a feminine suffix marker. However, some –it suffixed words are still counted as masculine.
<Noun><female suffix><Definitive> is used to indicate a small size. Even if biological or grammatical gender is masculine, a feminine marker describes things that are small or delicate.
<Noun><female suffix><Definitive> is also used in cases where a speaker wishes to express gentleness or tenderness.

Final thoughts

Language is integral to culture, and Ethiopian Amharic is no exception. A language of an ethnic group and the lingua franca of an entire country, Ethiopian Amharic plays an essential role in global culture. The best way to learn about a people is to learn about their language!

Leave a Comment