Language Profiles Part 2: Amharic

I guess these profiles are going in a quasi-alphabetical order! Last week, I wrote about some cool features of Arabic; today, I’m going to talk about another grade “A” language: Amharic.

You may not have heard too much Amharic in your daily life (unless you know people with ties to Ethiopia or Eritrea), and unlike Arabic, there aren’t very many Amharic loanwords or influences in English, but here’s one instance where you may have heard it:

Towards the end of the video, you can hear the singer The Weeknd (né Abel Tesfaye) singing in Amharic, which is, in fact, his first language. The Weeknd/Abel Tesfaye was born in Canada to Ethiopian immigrant parents, and grew up speaking Amharic with his grandmother. Tesfaye has been credited with introducing Amharic and Ethiopian musical styles to a wider audience, and is held up as an occasionally controversial (he’s best known for very sexually charged songs) but ultimately positive and prominent representation of the East African diaspora. You might say that The Weeknd made Amharic cool, but as you’ll soon see, it’s been cool for centuries.

Amharic is the majority language of Ethiopia, spoken by about 25 million Ethiopians as a mother tongue, and is spoken by many members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora communities in Canada, the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. It is written in the Ge’ez script (which I talked about in the post about liturgical languages), and has multiple dialects; the standard, like many languages, is based on the speech in and around the national capital, which is Addis Ababa.

If you’ve ever walked past or gone to an Ethiopian restaurant or seen some of those amazing illuminated manuscripts I mentioned in my last post, you might have seen written Amharic (the Ge’ez script). It’s a very unique and fascinating writing system. If you still don’t know what it looks like, here’s a sample taken from Wikipedia’s page on Amharic — the typewritten lyrics of the Ethiopian national anthem:

 

Ethiopian anthem (since_1992) in amharic
Photo Credit: Wikipedia (wikipedia.org/Amharic)

The kind of writing system that Amharic uses is called an Abugida (in fact, the word “Abugida” is just the first four letters of the script). Each symbol is a consonant plus a vowel, and diacritics modify the symbol to make different consonant + vowel syllables. So one symbol might represent the sound “ha”, and changing certain parts of the symbol will change the sound to “ho” or “hu”. Other Abugida writing systems include Burmese, Thai, Lao, Tibetan, Bengali, Devanagari (a script used to write Hindi and many other South Asian languages), and some indigenous languages of North America, such as Cree and Inuktitut. I find it very interesting that, if Omniglot is entirely correct, Ge’ez script is one of very few Abugida systems (that is still in use today) used outside of Southeast/South Asia and North America. The only other African Abugida I could find on Omniglot was a relatively recent Abugida system developed in Malawi.

If you’re familiar with Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, you might pick up a few (though not many) similar words in Amharic, since it is in the same language family (but a more distant cousin). Compare the Amharic bet (house) to the Hebrew bayit and the Arabic bayt. Still, as you heard in the video of The Weeknd’s performance, Amharic sounds very different from its Semitic cousins, and it’s definitely not mutually intelligible with them. It’s a language all its own.

Amharic’s literary and musical traditions, unique writing system, and ties to one of the oldest civilizations/independent countries on earth make it a language you’ll want to learn for more than a Weeknd.

I sincerely apologize for that horrible pun, but I just couldn’t resist.

Sources

Amharic. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amharic

Ager, Simon. (2016). Ge’ez Script. Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ethiopic.htm

Ager, Simon. (2016). Syllabic Alphabets. Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/syllabic.htm

Giorgis, Hannah. (2015). The Weeknd’s East African Roots. Pitchfork. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/793-the-weeknds-east-african-roots/

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