Ethiopian Languages

Ethiopia, like most countries in Africa, is a multi-ethnic state. Although the original physical differences between the major ethnic groups have been blurred by centuries, if not millennia, of intermarriage, there remain many who are distinct and unique.


Ethnic differences may also be observed from the great variety of languages spoken in the country, of which there are an astonishing eighty-three, with 200 dialects. These can be broken into four main groups: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan.


The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are related to both Hebrew and Arabic. The Ethiopian languages of this family are derived from Ge’ez, the language of the ancient Axumite kingdom, which was also the language of the country’s literature prior to the mid-nineteenth century, as well as parts of most present-day church services.


Ethiopia’s Semitic languages are today spoken mainly in the north and centre of the country. The most important of them in the north is Tigrinya, which is used throughout Tigray.


The principal Semitic language of the north-western and centre of the country is Amharic, which is the language of Gondar and Gojjam, as well as much of Wollo and Shewa. Moreover, Amharic is also the official language of administration, and the language of much modern Ethiopian literature.


Two other Semitic languages are spoken to the south and east of Addis Ababa: Guraginya, used by the Gurage in a cluster of areas to the south of the capital, and Adarinya, a tongue current only within the old walled city of Harar and used by the Adare, also known as Harrari, people.


The Cushitic languages, which are less closely related than the Semitic, are found mainly in the south of the country. The most important tongue in this group is Afan Oromo. It is used in a wide stretch of country, including Welega and parts of Ilubabor in the west, Wollo in the north, Shewa and Arsi in the centre, Bale and Sidamo in the south, and Harerge in the east.


Other Cushitic language in the area comprise Somalinya, which is spoken by the Somali in the Ogaden to the east, as well as in the neighboring Somali Republic and part of Djibouti, and the Sidaminya language, used in part of the Sidama region. Cushitic languages, however, are also used in the north of the country, namely Afarinya, spoken by the Afar of eastern Wollo and the northern half of the Djibouti Republic; Saho, in parts of Tigray; and Agawinya, in small pockets in different parts of western Ethiopia.


The Omotic group of languages, which comprise considerably fewer speakers than either the Semitic or the Cushitic, are spoken the south-west of the country, mainly in Gamo Gofa. They have been given the name in recent years because they are spoken in the general area of the Omo River.


The Nilo-Saharan languages, largely peripheral to Ethiopian civilization, are spoken in a wide arc of the country towards the Sudan frontier. They include, from north to south, Gumuz in Gondar and Gojjam, Berta in Welega, and Anuak in Ilubabor.