An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Afroasiatic, Semitic, Southwest Semitic, Ethiopian, South Ethiopic, Transversal. Other Transversal languages are Argobba, Selti, Harari and Zay.

Overview. Amharic is the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic and the largest language of Ethiopia. Semitic languages were introduced into Ethiopia by migrants from Yemen who crossed the Red Sea in the first millennium BCE where they entered in contact with Cushitic speakers. The earliest records of Ethiopic Semitic are in Ge'ez, the classical language of Ethiopia spoken once in the Christian kingdom of Aksum until medieval times. While Ge'ez was preserved for written communication and as a liturgical language, one of its descendants, Amharic, developed as a lingua franca for trade and everyday communication since the 17th century. Amharic has been greatly influenced by Cushitic languages, such as Oromo, not only in its lexicon, but also in syntax and typology.


Most Amharic speakers live in Ethiopia but there are emigrants in Egypt, Israel and USA. Within Ethiopia, Amharic has a strong presence in the Amhara region (situated in the north) and in the capital Addis Ababa. Its distribution in the nine ethnically-based administrative regions and two chartered cities is listed in the table to the right. Column A shows the number of Amharic speakers as a percentage of the total universe of Amharic speakers of Ethiopia; column B shows the number of Amharic speakers as a percentage of the total number of inhabitants in each region.

  1. Cities are marked by *

  2. S.N.N. P. = Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples.

Speakers. There are about 24 million native speakers of Amharic and about 10 million second-language speakers. Nearly all of them live in Ethiopia while some small minorities have migrated to USA (85,000), Israel (40,000) and Egypt (5,000).

Status. Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia. In the 20th century and until 1974, it was promoted by successive governments as the only Ethiopian language used in state education and the media.

Varieties. Amharic has few varieties because the dialect of Addis Ababa has been established as the standard language of the whole country.

Oldest Documents. The oldest extant records in Amharic are songs and poems dating from the 14th century, time of the rise of the Amhara dynasty.    


Syllable structure: is (C)V(C)(C), with no more than one consonant permitted in syllable onset position, and no more than two in other positions. A long consonant counts as two.

Vowels (7): The vowel system is remarkable by the occurrence of three central vowels and, also, by its simmetry.


Consonants (31). Obstruent consonants (stops, affricates and fricatives) may exhibit a three-way contrast at the same point of articulation between voiceless, voiced and glottalized. The latter, called sometimes ejectives, produce a sharp sound and are analogous to the emphatic consonants of Arabic and other Semitic languages. Another distinctive trait of the consonantal system of Amharic is the existence of labialized gutturals. All consonants, except h and the glottal stop, may occur in a long or geminated form.


Stress:  is very weak and generally falls on a final closed syllable or, otherwise, next to the last one.

Script and Orthography

The first Ethiopic script was conceived for Ge'ez around the 4th century CE. It was based on the South Arabian consonantal alphabet of Yemen. The Amharic script called fidäl ('letter'), containing 33 basic symbols, is an offshoot of it. In contrast to other Semitic languages, it is written from left to right and vowels are represented, though not as an independent form. For this reason, it is considered, by many, to be a syllabary rather than an alphabet. Each of the 33 graphs has seven shapes, one for each of the seven vowels of Amharic.

Long and short consonants, which are contrastive between vowels and at the end of words, are not differentiated in the script. Because of mergers of formerly distinct sounds whose different graphs persist in the writing system, four consonants have more than one graph: [ʔ] has 2, [h] has 4, [s] has 2, [s'] has 2. Another consequence of sound merger is that the two symbols for the glottal stop in the first column carry an [a] sound instead of [ə] and the same happens with three of the four symbols for [h]. The graphs in the 6th column may be read with a vowel sound or without it.

There is no standard transliteration system. The two main ones are the BGN/PCGN (shown first) and the EAE developed by Ernst Hammerschmidt (shown after it). Equivalents in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) are shown between brackets. Vowels are shown in the EAE system with their IPA equivalents.

With some consonants of the 1st column (marked with an asterisk) the vowel is pronounced [a] instead of [ə].

Labiovelars are represented by additional vowel symbols attached to the corresponding non-labialized consonant signs (they have only five vowel forms):

Morphology. Amharic has a complex inflectional morphology, particularly for verbs, employing not only prefixes and suffixes but also modifications of the typical Semitic consonantal root-and-pattern type (we use the EAE transliteration system in the examples).

  1. Nominal. Nouns and adjectives are inflected for case, number and definiteness.

  1. case: Amharic has, like most Semitic languages, a rudimentary case system. The subject is unmarked. A definite direct object is usually marked by the suffix -n, which is attached to the noun after the marker of definiteness. The genitive is marked with the particle yə- prefixed to the noun or to an attributive adjective. Other case relationships are marked by affixes and/or adpositions. 

  1. gender: masculine, feminine. Nouns are masculine or feminine because of natural gender or by convention. Most inanimate nouns are masculine. Gender is not formally marked on nouns but is manifest in concord with the singular second and third persons of the verb, in demonstratives and in the definite article. The Semitic feminine ending in -t appears in certain words.

  1. number: singular, plural. Like other South Ethiopic languages, Amharic has  lost the broken plurals common in other Semitic languages and preserved  in North Ethiopic languages such as Ge’ez and Tigrinya. The plural is usually marked by the suffixes -očč, -yočč (for nouns ending in i or e), or -wočč (for nouns ending in w or u). Some irregular plurals are formed with the suffixes -at and -an.

  1. definiteness: is marked by suffixes, -u for masculine nouns (-w after vowels), and -wa for feminine nouns (or sometimes -itu). The possessive and definite suffixes are mutually exclusive. The numeral one (and) functions as an indefinite article singular and when repeated (andand) as an indefinite article plural.

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, reflexive.

  1. Personal pronouns are generally used as bound forms (clitics) rather than independent forms. Clitic forms exist for direct object and as possessives.  Second and third singular pronouns distinguish gender and politeness.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns distinguish two deictic degrees (near and far), as well as number and gender in the singular:

  1. The interrogative pronouns are man (‘who?’) and mən (‘what?’). Other question-words are: mäče ‘(when?’), yät (‘where?’), yätəññaw (‘which?’), sənt (‘how much?’), lämən (‘why?’), əndämən (how?) and əndet (‘how?’).

  1. Reflexive pronouns are formed as possessives of ras (‘head’). For example, ras-e (‘myself’).

  1. Verbal. Amharic has a complex verbal morphology, using prefixes, suffixes and changes in the vowel pattern of the stem. The verb is inflected for voice, tense-aspect-mood (TAM) and person. The verbal complex may also contain pronoun object markers. There are affirmative and negative conjugations, and different conjugations for verbs in main clauses and subordinate clauses. The verb root is in most cases triconsonantal, but it can be biconsonantal or tetraconsonantal. The citation form is the 3rd person masculine, singular, of the perfect tense.

  1. person and number: the Amharic verb distinguishes three persons, two numbers (singular and plural) and gender (in the 2nd and 3rd persons of the singular).

  1. voice: active, causative, passive/reflexive. The active voice is unmarked. The other voices are marked with suffixes: the causative with -a in intransitive verbs and -as in transitive verbs, the passive/reflexive with -t(ä).

  1. tense-aspect-mood (TAM): perfect, simple imperfect, compound imperfect, jussive-imperative, conjunct.

  2. The perfect and conjunct are suffixal conjugations while the imperfect and jussive use both prefixes and suffixes. Besides, each TAM has its own stem with a distinctive vowel pattern.

  3. The perfect indicates a completed action and usually refers to the past. The imperfect indicates an incomplete action and serves to express the present or future (thus, it is also called non-past). The imperfect has a simple and a compound form. The simple imperfect is used in subordinate clauses and for negative verbs in main clauses. The compound imperfect is used in main clauses for affirmative conjugations.

  4. The jussive expresses a wish or polite command or request (similar to the use of ‘let’ in English); in the 2nd person it is replaced by the imperative. The conjunct indicates that an action precedes the action of the main verb; it can also be used as a main verb to express a past event that affects the present (equivalent to the English present perfect). We show below the conjugation of the verb säbbärä (‘to break’):



  1. black: stem; blue: suffix markers, red: prefix markers, brown: negative markers, orange: auxiliary verb.

  1. A relative perfect can be made by prefixing yä- to the perfect.

  2. The compound imperfect is formed with the auxiliary verb allä (‘there is’) suffixed to the stem + the personal endings of the perfect.

  3. The perfect, simple imperfect and jussive have negative forms. The perfect negative (shown in the table) is formed by adding the prefix al- and the suffix -mm to the perfect stem (if it follows a consonant the suffix is -əmm).

  4. The simple imperfect has a negative form for main clauses and another one for subordinate clauses. In main clauses it is formed by adding the prefix a- and the suffix -(ə)mm to the simple imperfective stem. The subordinate negative imperfect is used with a conjunction or a relative marker and -(ə)mm is omitted.

  5. The jussive has also a negative form prefixed with a-. The imperative has 2nd person jussive stems without prefixes and with an epenthetic vowel: səbär (2ms), səbäri (2fs), səbäru (2p).

  6. The conjunct forms shown in the table are those used when it accompanies a main verb. When the conjunct is the main verb it requires the auxiliary verb suffix -allä. The conjunct lacks a negative form.


  The usual word order of Amharic is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). However, if the object is topicalized it may precede the subject (OSV). Noun phrases are head-final with adjectives and other modifiers preceding their nouns. Prepositions, postpositions or a combination of both are used to indicate syntactical relations, revealing the mixture of Semitic and Cushitic traits.

   Interrogative pronouns are placed immediately before the verb. Yes-no questions are posed by rising the intonation or less often by using a general question word (ənde or wäy) at the end; sometimes by attaching the suffix -nə to the last word of the question. Coordination is made with the suffix -nna attached to the penultimate noun (bal-ənna mist = husband and wife). Subordinate clauses precede main clauses. In relative clauses is prefixed to a verb in the past, and yämm is prefixed to a non-past verb. Focus marking by cleft constructions involving the copula are frequent.


Amharic has many loanwords from Cushitic, constituting up to 25 % of its vocabulary. It also borrowed from Ge'ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Basic Vocabulary (in EAE transliteration system with double consonants indicated)

one: and

two: hulätt

three: sost

four: aratt

five: amməst

six: səddəst

seven: säbatt

eight: səmmənt

nine: zäṭäññ

ten: ässər

hundred: mäto

father: abbat

mother: ännat

brother: wändəmm

sister: ähət

son: wänd ləǧ

daughter: set ləǧ

head: ras

face: fit

eye: ayn

hand: äǧǧ

foot: ägər

heart: ləbb

tongue: məlas

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati


Further Reading

  1. -'Amharic and Argobba'. G. Hudson. In The Semitic Languages, 457-485. R. Hetzron (ed.) Routledge. (1977)

  2. -'Amharic'. G. Hudson. In The World's Major Languages, 594-617. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  3. -Reference Grammar of Amharic. W. Leslau. Otto Harrassowitz (1995).

  4. -Introductory Grammar of Amharic. W. Leslau. Otto Harrassowitz (2000).

  5. -Colloquial Amharic. D. Appleyard. Routledge (1995).

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