This exert is from the text "Amharic Verb Morphology: A Generative Approach" by Lionel Bender and Hailu Fulass. The introduction covers the origins and development of the Ethio-Semitic languages in what was probably the best theory arrived at at the time of publication (1978), and may still be the best so far. The book is also cited as a reference at the Library of Congress web pages on Ethiopia. The origins are given as "possible history", some of the theory will be most surprising if you have not encountered it before. Also note that the national census taken a few years after the publication of this text did show the numbers of people who speak a given language was quite different from estimates made prior to the census. I have omitted section 1.3 which does describe a little more history, but for the most part discusses the degree to which the Ethiopian languages are "Semitic" and means of measurement -this section became overly reliant on phonetic symbology to reproduce well here.

This is copyrighted material. Naturally, you may not redistribute in any form for profit. The authors and reference must be cited in any of your own work that refers to material in this posting. Typos herein are my own, from what I failed to clean up from OCR scans -sorry :(


by Lionel Bender & Hailu Fulass


1.1 The Linguistic Setting

All but a relative handful of Ethiopians are native speakers of languages of one genetic super-family: Afroasiatic. Updating my BBCF (1976: 16) figures, I estimate the number of speakers of non-Afroasiatic languages to be about 400,000 out of an approximate 1976 total of 28,000,000. Of the more than 98% who are first-speakers of Afroasiatic languages, about 13,000,000 speak Amharic or Tigrinya, two closely-related Semitic languages. Another 9,000,000 speak Oromo or Somali, two related Cushitic languages. These four account for nearly 4/5 of all Ethiopians. The remainder mostly speak demographically smaller Semitic or Cushitic languages, with about 1,500,000 others speaking languages of the Omotic Family. One Omotic language, Welaita (Welamo), with its many local varieties, approaches 1,000,000 speakers. Three Highland East Cushitic languages, Hadiyya, Kembata, and Sidamo, number more than 500,000 speakers each. The eight named languages might be considered the major Ethiopian languages: they account for about 5/6 of the total population, and no other language exceeds 500,000 speakers.

Not only are the languages spoken by most Ethiopians genetically related, but (as Ferguson 1970 and 1976 has shown) the phenomenon of diffusion of traits over a large area has resulted in even more sharing of common features than one would expect among languages of three coordinate branches of a super-family. In fact, the Afroasiatic languages of Ethiopia and adjoining countries constitute an impressive example of a language area, clearly set off from surrounding Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Kordofanian languages by the features identified by Ferguson. This phenomenon gives rise to a problem of cause and effect in discussing other-language influence on Amharic, as we shall see in section 1.3 below.

In order to keep the relationship of languages clear in what is to follow, simplified family-tree diagrams will be presented here. Names of languages and groups with Ethiopian representation are underlined.

                    Afroasiatic Superfamily
        |      |           |            |       |       |
      Chadic Berber Ancient Egyptian Semitic Cushitic Omotic
                                     ------- -------- ------

                         Semitic Family
        |                                            |
   East Semitic                                 West Semitic 
   (Akkadian)                                        |
                 |                                   |
           South Semitic                     Central Semitic
          _______|____________                 ______|_____
          |                   |                |           |
        South            Ethio-Semitic       Arabo-     Aramaic
        Arabian          -------------       Canaanite
        languages                         _____|______
                                          |           |
                                        Arabic    Canaanite
                                        ------   (Hebrew and
[[ Cushitic and Omotic Trees Omitted ]]
(Adapted from Hetzron l975)

      |                                            |
    North                                        South
  ____|___________                               __|_________
  |       |       |                   ___________|           |
Giiz      |       |                   |          |           |    
        Tigre  Tigrinya           ____|____   Others_1    Others_2
                                  |        |
                               Amharic  Argobba

(Adapted from Hetzron 1972)

1.2 The History of Amharic and Related Languages

A brief summary of a possible history of the origin and development of Amharic follows. For more details, see Bender forthcoming and the references therein.

In the first three centuries A.D., Semitic-speaking people were building a "South Arabian" (or "North Ethiopian") type of civilization in Eritrea, later centering about Aksum in Tigrai Province. As early as the middle of the fourth century, military expeditions may have reached the area later known as Amhara. By the mid-ninth century, a distinctive Amhara region was recognized. The conquering Semitic-speakers spoke a language which was perhaps only four to seven centuries removed from a common origin with Giiz, the classical language of the Aksum Empire and of Medieval Ethiopian religion and literature. This pre-Amharic may have been as similar to Giiz as Icelandic is to Norwegian, or even more so. But meanwhile an interesting process was taking place among the subjugated peoples. The military forces were drawn from a number of diverse ethnic groups: perhaps largely Agew, but with significant numbers of speakers of other Cushitic and Omotic languages -- they may have had Nilo-Saharan-speaking servants, slaves, and artisans. A lingua franca based on "Cushomotic" syntax (i.e., verb-final) and Semitic lexicon was being used for communication in the ranks and among many of the Agew peasants of Amhara.

This situation may have persisted for centuries, as have similar situations in the Caribbean and elsewhere. In short, a complicated diglossic situation had been created, with the ruling elite speaking a slowly changing Semitic tongue out of old Aksum, the military ranks using a creole based on Semitic (plus use of their own native tongues) and the peasantry using the creole and also Agew. As the Agew slowly began to fuse with their conquerors, and military and Orthodox Christian missionary campaigns extended ever further - west, south, and east, other linguistic groups were added to the creole brew and it was shifting, but ever based on Semitic lexicon and Cushomotic syntax.

An Agew dynasty known as Zagwe came to power after upwards of seven centuries of this diglossic situation. This may have meant a resurgence of Agew speech, but it also meant an acceleration of the process of the creole impinging on the "standard" Semitic language. By the four-teenth century, the standard itself would be as far removed in time from its common origin with Giiz as present-day English is from that of Alfred the Great. It seems that the creole displaced both the "standard" and Agew as the dominant language of the nascent state. This language is now by the accidents of history, a post-creole and the national language of Ethiopia. It is first attested in some fourteenth-century songs praising the kings at that time. The creole nature of the language of these songs has caused great difficulties to scholars, especially if one looks on the language as an orthodox linear ancestor of Amharic, as first suggested by Hailu Fulass.

Meanwhile, according to Hetzron 1972, a sister language to Giiz was diverging into two Northern languages, which unlike Giiz, are still spoken. Tigre was influenced by the Beja of one of the "barbarian" tribes whose onslaughts toppled Aksum. It is now spoken in northwest Eritrea by about 140,000 Muslim agricultural pastoralists. Tigrinya was influenced by the local Agew populations and is now the dominant language in Eritrea and Tigre Provinces, spoken by nearly 4,000,000 persons there and in urban settlements throughout Ethiopia. Tigrinya-speakers are mostly Orthodox Christians, but there is also a sizable number of Muslims (known as Jabarti) who are Tigrinya-speakers. Note that Tigre (actually Tigré a language of extreme northern Eritrea that Tigrai is a province in which Tigrinya (not Tigre) is spoken. In other parts of Ethiopia, Tigrinya-speakers are often called Tigres, after the former name of the province.

When Aksum was under pressure from the Beja and other invaders, he main retreat route was to the south. The southerners passed through Agew-gpeaking territory, and this meant Agew influence on the language also. The picture gets more complicated: a vanguard group went far south and this migration led to the eventual development of most of the "Gurage" languages, with Highland East Cushitic as main "sub-stratum". From an unspecified center further north, at a later date, another group moved southeast and split into two: one section went south and under Sidamo or Somali or other influence, gave rise to Harari and East Gurage languages. The other group remained in touch with the old northern civilization, and inherited it when the' northern empire collapsed. These were the people who brought Semitic speech to the Amhara region, as outlined above. Note that the above outline is quite controversial and that many problems remain to be resolved.

Amharic is spoken as a "mother-tongue" by about 9,000,000 persons. No one has made a scientific estimate of the number of non-native speakers of Amharic (of course the estimate would depend partly on how much competence is required for inclusion). A figure often mentioned is "half the total Ethiopian population": this would mean about 5,000,000 additional speakers. Amharic speakers are mainly Orthodox Christians, but the number of followers of other beliefs is significant, especially among non-native-speakers. As the national language, Amharic is spoken in every province, but the indigenous areas are those radiating out from the old province of Amhara in southwestern Wello to Wello, Begemidir. Gojjam, and into Shewa and Harerge. The question of other language influences on Amharic is the subject of the next section. Regional variation in Amharic is relatively slight b for such a far-flung language (see Hailu et al. 1976). There is a considerable body of literature.

Amharic does have one quite divergent dialect: Argobba. This is probably best considered as a Muslim dialect, spoken by perhaps 1-2,000 people in some villages on and below the eastern edge of the great central Ethiopian escarpment north-east of Addis Ababa. The Argobba community near Harer in eastern Ethiopia seems to have given up the dialect except in some songs, which are no longer well-understood (Sidney Waldron, p.c., 1975). Contrary to earlier reports, Argobba seems to be holding its own in its western area (Stitz 1975).

Gafat may still be spoken by a few old persons in the vicinity of the Blue Nile in southwestern Gojjam Province. Wolf Leslau was able to find four elderly informants in 1947. He places Gafat linguistically closest to some "Gurage" varieties, based on his work with informants and study of documents (Leslau 1945a, 1956).

Harari is spoken by about 15,000 of the Muslim inhabitants of the old walled city of Harer in the highlands of eastern Ethiopia. Harari shows Arabic influence, and as mentioned above, earlier "sub-stratum" influence, especially from Highland East Cushitic. Though Harer is an area of high multilingualism (Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Arabic) Harari is holding its own because of the extreme solidarity of the Harari community (Waldron 1975). There are sizable Harari settlements "outside the walls" in Harer and in other urban centers such as Addis Ababa and Jimma, and the total number of speakers may exceed 30,000. Harari is one of the remnants of a probable East Gurage continuum extending from the present East Gurage area south of Addis Ababa to Harer.

Aside from specific terms such as "North Gurage" and "East Gurage", Hetzron (1972: 6, 126 note 3) argues that Gurage makes sense only as a name for a group of persons speaking several Semitic languages in south-central Ethiopia. Most of these languages are spoken in a compact mountainous area in Shewa Province south of Addis Ababa. According to Hailu Fulass, most of the speakers are bilingual in their Gurage variety and Amharic. Some scholars have argued for a special Gurage link to the northern languages, but this is based on a few striking shared archaisms only (cf. Hetzron1972: 126, note 3) and some rather shaky historical peculation. Certainly the Gurage languages and Amharic) show great phonological deviations from the northern languages and from Semitic in general. The origin of the Gurage communities is an unsettled issue: there is good reason to believe that they are the outgrowth of ancient military colonies from the north, though some reject this (Hudson 1977). Many speakers of Gurage varieties are found in urban centers, especially Addis Ababa. The total number is hard to estimate: a 1976 figure of 1,000,000 may not be unreasonable. Speakers of Chaha and mutually intelligible varieties may exceed 100,000. Gurage peoples are about evenly divided between Orthodox Christian and Muslim, with traditional beliefs also still very much alive.