An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. In Ethiopia and Eritrea there are approximately eighty languages spoken by nearly 100 million people, the majority of which belong to three families of the Afro-asiatic phylum, namely, Semitic in the center, north and west, Cushitic in the east and south and Omotic in the southwest. Besides, in the west and southwest, a number of languages belong to various families of the Nilo-Saharan phylum, genetically distinct from Afro-asiatic. The Ethio-Eritrean languages share a number of phonological, grammatical and lexical traits. Some of these features are genetic and others have been acquired by contact and diffusion among languages for long periods of time.

Families and Languages. About twenty Semitic languages are spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia. They were, probably, introduced into these areas by Semitic-speaking peoples from South Arabia (now Yemen) who traversed the Red Sea and arrived in the Horn of Africa around 1000 BCE. There, they entered into contact with, and were influenced by, Cushitic speakers. Ge’ez is the oldest recorded Ethio-Semitic language and, though now extinct, it is still used in the Christian liturgy of the Ethiopian Church. Amharic, spoken by around 24 million people in the central and northwestern parts of Ethiopia, is the official language of the country. It developed as a lingua franca for trade and everyday communication since the 17th century and nowadays it is used nationwide in public education. Other major Semitic languages in the region are Tigre, spoken by 1.2 million people in northern Eritrea, Tigrigna (also spelled Tigrinya), spoken by about 7.7 million people in the north of Ethiopia and southern Eritrea, and Gurage, a diverse group of languages of southwestern Ethiopia, with around 1.9 million speakers, that have not been properly studied.

  1. Map of Ethiopian and Eritrean Languages (click to enlarge it).

The largest Cushitic languages are Oromo and Somali. Oromo is spoken by around 27 million Ethiopians, particularly in the Oromo region, the biggest of the nine ethnically-based administrative divisions of the country which extends over most of the south and center. Somali is spoken in southeastern Ethiopia by 5.7 million and in Somalia by a further 9 million. Other Cushitic members, with at least 1 million speakers each, are Afar, Beja, Sidamo, Hadiyya, and Gedeo, the last three located in southwestern Ethiopia; Afar is predominant in the northeast of Ethiopia and southeastern Eritrea while Beja is spoken at the western end of Eritrea.

Omotic languages, with more than 6 million speakers, are indigenous to Ethiopia and are found in the southwest, around the river Omo. There are two main groups, Ometo and Gonga. The Ometo group includes, among others, Wolaytta and Gamo with 1.8 and 1.2 million speakers, respectively. The main Gonga language, with about 1 million speakers, is Kefficho.

    The Nilo-Saharan languages spoken in Eritrea are Nara and Kunama, the latter extending into northern Ethiopia. Gumuz, Berta and Koman are on the western border of Ethiopia with Sudan. Nuer is spoken mainly in Sudan but also in the southwest of Ethiopia. Anuak, Majang and Me'en are found near the southwest border with Sudan. Neither language has more than 200,000 speakers.


  1. Phonology

  2. - The lack of P-sound. In the North and East zones of Africa, the absence of [p] is many times more frequent than in other parts of the world. This is also a characteristic of the Ethiopian languages, including all major groups (Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic) where f replaces p as the counterpart of b.

  1. - The presence of ejectives. Glottalized consonants, called ejectives, are a major feature of eastern Africa and these sounds are widespread in Ethio-Eritrean Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic languages where they contrast with the voiceless and/or voiced series of non-glottalized consonants.

  1. - The implosive ɗ. In Ethiopia, the Omotic languages Kullo and Wolaytta, the Cushitic languages Oromo, Somali, Sidamo, Rendille, and Nilo-Saharan Berta, have this single implosive sound.

  1. - The loss of pharyngeal fricatives may be considered a limited areal feature. Pharyngeal fricatives are a genetical trait of Afro-asiatic and are preserved in some Semitic and Cushitic languages of the region, but have been lost or reduced in most of those of central Ethiopia. For example, they are present in Semitic Tigre and Tigrinya but not in Amharic, in Cushitic Somali but not in Oromo.

  1. - The occurrence of consonant gemination (double consonants) is widespread in both the Afro-asiatic and the Nilo-Saharan phyla.

  1. - The presence of tones. Most Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal as well as Cushitic and Omotic. As Proto-Afro-asiatic was probably non-tonal, Cushitic and Omotic must have acquired their tones through contact with Nilo-Saharan.

  1. Morphosyntax

  2. - Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order is widespread in the region. It contrasts with the SVO order of Afro-asiatic languages outside Ethiopia and Eritrea (Berber, Egyptian, Chadic, non-Ethiopian Semitic). There are several features associated with it: adjectives precede the nouns they modify, possessor precedes the possessed, dependent clauses precede main clauses and main verbs precede auxiliaries, occurrence of postpositions.

  1. - Converbs are verbs that frequently have a reduced inflectional morphology and are used in dependent clauses to express an action preceding the action of a following verb.

  1. - Compound verbs are formed by an invariable noun-like component, which determines the lexical meaning of the compound, and an inflected form of a semantically colorless verb like ‘say’ or ‘do’.

  1. - Quotation marked by the verb ‘to say’. A clause, which seems to be a direct quotation, is followed by the verb 'to say'. But often, this construction is an expression of intention or manner not implying any actual quotation (Saying, "I' ll study English", he enrolled into the school = He enrolled into the school to study English).

  1. - Singular used with numbers. Even when languages have the category of plural in nouns, the plural is not employed with numerals or words of quantity.

  1. - Independent and subordinate forms of the imperfective. The imperfective, referring to the present time or to the future, has one form to be used in main clauses and a different form for subordinate clauses.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'The Ethiopian Language Area'. C. A. Ferguson. In Language in Ethiopia, 63-76. M. L. Bender, J. D. Bowen, R. L. Cooper & C. A. Ferguson (eds). Oxford University Press (1976).

  2. -'Ethiopia'. J. Crass & R. Meyer. In A Linguistic Geography of Africa, 228-250. B. Heine & D. Nurse (eds). Cambridge University Press (2008).

  3. -'Is there an Ethiopian language area?'. M. Tosco. In Anthropological Linguistics 42.3, 329–365 (2000).

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Languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea

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