How Hard is Ethiopian Amharic to Learn?

Ethiopian Amharic is a fascinating language. It combines a complex abugida writing system with a beautiful and poetic mode of speech. It is one of a few popular Semitic languages commonly spoken today. But, the question is how hard is Ethiopian Amharic to learn?

Well, with its difficult writing system and a kinda complex grammar i’d say it is a hard language for an English speaker to learn.

  • Vocabulary – If you have a background in Arabic then you will have an advantage picking up new words. There are some Italian and English loan words but not a significant number. So your average native English speaker is starting from scratch.
  • Grammar – The biggest issues are going to be the s-o-v word order and the heavy use of prefixes and suffixes. Take verb tenses. Different tenses can have both a specific prefix and suffix for each subject of the sentence.
  • Speaking/Listening – Beginners to the language have an issue with the glottalic consonants however this issue shouldn’t stop speakers from being understood. It is rather a minor pronunciation problem that will improve over time.
  • Writing/Reading – The Amharic writing system is called fidäl. It has 33 base syllable characters and then 6 more groupings of these 33 with each grouping denoted with a slight stroke variation to the original character. This is admittedly a lot to take in for a beginner. If you are familiar with this type of abugida writing system where a character represents a consonant-vowel sound then you should be better prepared. Nevertheless, it isn’t anywhere near as complex as Chinese or Japanese so give it a few weeks of your time and you should be using it just fine.

Lets dive in further now to answer the question of difficulty in more detail.

How Hard Is Ethiopian Amharic to Learn Really?

— Vocabulary

Ethiopian Amharic vocabulary is strongly linked with Arabic and Cushitic languages with Italian and English making an appearance in the later history of the language. As such, there are many words from Arabic that share a similar root in Amharic. A few examples of these follow.

  • Thursday — ሐሙስ (hamus) — for which the Arabic is الخميس (khamīs)
  • Oil — ዘይት (zäyt) — الزيت (az-zayt)
  • Minute — ደቂቃ (däk’ik’a) — دقيقة (daqīqa)

The Italians had a strong influence over Ethiopia in the early 20th century so there are a few words borrowed from Italian.

  • Candy — ከረሜላ (kärämela) — from the Italian caramello
  • Flag — ባንዴራ  (bandera) — bandiera
  • Cheese — ፎርማጆ (formaǧo) — formaggio

And as is often the case with many world languages, there are a few from English.

  • Hardware — ሃርድዌር  (hardwer)
  • Traffic — ትራፊክ  (trafik)
  • Jeans — ጂንስ  (ǧins)

So, what does this tell you. You can pick up a few easy words if you speak Italian and English, but if you speak Arabic you are going to have a significant advantage. If not, then you have to put in the time and effort to build your vocabulary from scratch.

— Grammar

The major issues with Amharic grammar are going to be s-o-v order, the verb affix combination changes and the irregularity of many of the verb changes. All of these are going to mean you have to sit down and memorise lots of subject-tense verb combinations.

  • Word Order – Ethiopian Amharic usually has a subject-object-verb word order. This is of course different from the English subject-verb-object word order.
  • Articles (a, an, the) – There are no indefinite articles (a, an) but there are definite articles (the) and these are denoted through a suffix on the noun.
  • Pronouns – There are different pronouns for male, female and polite you/he/she/it.
  • Nouns – The plurality is very often described by the context, however you can add a suffix to make it clear. Thankfully there is no case system.
  • Prepositions – What would be prepositions in English can go before or after the noun and are pretty easy to use.
  • Adjectives – Adjective go before the nouns that they describe.
  • Verbs – In Amharic there is base verb to which you can attach prefixes and suffixes in order to denote tense, subject and so on. So, in other words, there are lots of affix and vowel additions made to the verb stems and there are often irregular. So, it is a case of sitting down and learning the most important forms first and then practising.
  • Auxiliary and modal verbs  – The modal or auxiliary is placed after the main verb in the form — main verb infinitive + changed modal/auxiliary. Pretty simple.
  • Negatives – There isn’t word for no in Amharic, rather you have to change the prefixes and suffixes in order to negate the verb.
  • Questions – There are a number of questions words you can put to use and upward intonation on the end of statement denotes a question.

— Speaking/Listening

The major pronunciation issue with Amharic is going to be learning the glottalic consonants. However, you will find that if you stick to the non glottalic pronunciation of a word, it would be rare for you to change the meaning to another word and be misunderstood.

  • Consonant sounds – There a quite a few different consonant sounds in Amharic compared to English, in particular there are glottalic consonants which are made by tightening and releasing the space between the vocal chords.
  • Vowel sounds – There are 7 vowel sounds in Amharic. These are not too different from sounds produced in English.
  • Stress – Stress doesn’t play a part in the meaning of a word in a sentence and stress should be equally applied to each syllable.
  • Intonation – As we mentioned in the grammar section, a statement can be turned into a question with an inward intonation at the end of the sentence.

— Writing/Reading

Amharic is written in a script called fidäl. This was in turn adapted from the old language of Ethiopia called Ge’ez. The script is actually used to write in a few of the local regional languages like Tigrinya and Tigre.

In brief there are 33 base characters which represent a consonant or null consonant with the eu vowel. There are then 6 more lots of the 33 base characters for the 6 other vowels. The base character is maintained with additional stroke marks to denote each type of vowel change.

So, for example the following 7 characters ሐ ሑ ሒ ሓ ሔ ሕ ሖ have a fixed consonant h but represent the different vowel endings of e/ä u i a ē ə and o. So, the sounds he/hä hu hi ha hē hə and ho. There will be symbols for all 33 base consonants and this will change in a similar manner to denote the different vowel ending.

My hovercraft is full of eels – የኔ ማንዣበቢያ መኪና በዓሣዎች ተሞልቷል

The writing is written left to right as in English. Be aware that in Amharic there are a number of different ways to transcribe into a roman/latin alphabet without one specific one being universally agreed upon.

Why Learn Ethiopian Amharic?

So, we have looked how hard Amharic is but, why learn Amharic?

  1. It is the only African language with its own distinct script. The fidäl writing system is unique and very interesting. It used a abugida script which means that consonant-vowel combinations are expressed with one distinct character. You can spend hours discovering this beautiful script.
  2. It is the 2nd most popular Semitic language. With over 22 million speakers this language is a good place to start if you are hoping to take on a Semitic language.
  3. If you have an interest in reggae music then Amharic is an interesting language to learn. The Rastafarian movement believes Amharic is a sacred language and a lot of reggae songs are sung in Amharic.
  4. If you go to Ethiopia you will quickly find that many languages are spoken in the country however, Amharic is usually the 1st or 2nd language for the vast majority of people living in towns and cities so it is the most practical language to learn to get around.

If that isn’t motivation, I don’t know what would be.

Ethiopian Amharic Facts

Who speaks Amharic language?

Amharic is indigenous to the country of Ethiopia and is the most widely understood language in the country. It is the main language of culture, media, government and business. It was originally the mother tongue of the Amhara people who came from the north-west of Ethiopia. From there it spread across the country and in the capital Addis Ababa it is the dominant language.

How Old Is Amharic Language?

Initially the Ge’ez language began to emerge around the 1st millennium BC when the peoples of the regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea began trading with the people of the Arabian peninsula. From Ge’ez came the distinct writing system used in Ethiopia but it wasn’t until the 10th century AD that the spoken Amharic became the dominant spoken language.

During the colonial period Ethiopia was able to defend itself and maintained its linguistic heritage for much of this time aside from a brief  invasion by the Italians in the 1930s. Consequently, the linguistic tradition has been maintained until the modern day.

Why Is Amharic the Official Language of Ethiopia?

Amharic is the official language because it is spoken by the largest number of people in Ethiopia either as a 1st language (21.6 million) or as a 2nd language (4 million). There are around 80 different language spoken across Ethiopia so it is probably a good idea to have one central language in which to do business, communicate, conduct governmental affairs and so on.

What Language Is Similar to Amharic?

Amharic is a Semitic language along with Arabic, Hebrew and Assyrian. It belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is similar to the Ge’ez the language of the Ethiopian orthodox church as well as other local language like Tigré and Tigrinya.

Sample of Ethiopian Amharic

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