Amharic – A Semitic language of Ethiopia
September 11, 2019
What was today’s topic? I forgot. Oh, right! Hebrew! No, uh, Arabic! Oh, right, I’ve heard of that one. What was it, uh – American? Hello everyone. Welcome to the LangFocus channel, and my name is Paul. Today’s topic is the Amharic language, or “Amarennya” as it’s known in Amharic. Amharic is one of the major languages of Ethiopia, and it’s the official working language of the Ethiopian federal government. Regional and local authorities are free to choose their working language in Ethiopia but Amharic is the working language of several regions. According to the 2007 census, it’s the native language of 22 million people, or around 30% of the population of 74 million. But over the last 10 years the population of Ethiopia Is thought to have surpassed 100 million and the number of native Amharic speakers is probably over 30 million. But Ethiopia is a country where many people are multilingual, and millions more people speak Amharic as a second language, especially in cities and towns. Amharic is a member of the Semitic language family, which also includes Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and the Tigre and Tigrinya languages, which are spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea. All Semitic languages developed from the theoretic Proto-Semitic language. The Ethiopic, or Ethio-Semitic, languages are part of the South Semitic branch, and the most common theory is that all Ethiosemitic languages, including Amharic, developed from a common Proto-Ethiosemitic language. This Proto-Ethiosemitic Language is thought to have developed from the language of migrants from southern Arabia, presumably Old South Arabian languages. These migrants intermixed with the native people, who spoke Cushitic languages, and Proto-Ethiosemitic arose. This language was a direct descendant of the language of the migrants. From this Proto-Ethiosemitic language, two branches developed: the Southern branch, which includes Amharic, and the Northern branch, which includes Tigre, Tigrinya, and Ge’ez, the oldest attested Ethio-Semitic language, and the one that became the official language of the Aksumite Empire and remained the official literary language in Ethiopia until the 19th century. Some believe in that theory of migration from southern Arabia, but some believe that Amharic developed from a Semitic language that had existed in the area before that migration. And in recent years, another theory has arisen: that Amharic is actually a creole that arose from contact between Semitic-speaking officers and Cushitic-speaking soldiers in the Aksumite Empire after the 4th century. But this theory is hotly contested and is not the general consensus. The earliest known Amharic writing is from the 13th Century, even though it was mainly a spoken language at that time. This was the time of the Solomonic dynasty, when King Yakuno ‘Amlak made Amharic the spoken lingua franca of the Ethiopian court, and it became known as the language of the king – “leshana negus”. Ge’ez, the language of the previous Aksumite rulers, continued to be used as the language of literature – “leshana sehuf”. This resulted in a diglossic situation that would last for centuries, with Ge’ez being used for literature and in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Amharic being used in speech. In the 15th century, under the rule of Zara Yaqob, troops who collected taxes for the king likely brought Amharic into other regions further south. In the mid-19th century, Amharic began to replace Ge’ez as the literary language. Case in point: the Ethiopian emperors Tewodros II and Menelik II had their chronicles written in Amharic rather than Ge’ez, which had been used for previous emperors. Under Menelik II, Ethiopia grew into something resembling its current borders. Amharic became the de facto official language, and Amharic-speaking officials were responsible for the newly incorporated territories. The spread of the printing press in the 19th and 20th centuries contributed further to the spread of Amharic as, in the 20th century, most new print materials, including the first newspaper, were written in Amharic rather than Ge’ez In the early 20th century, Italian, French, and English were used as the main languages of school instruction, but then, in 1944, Amharic became the sole language of instruction in primary schools, under the rule of Haile Selassie. He then made Amharic the official language of Ethiopia in 1955. During the socialist government known as “the Derg”, from 1974 to 1991, increased development, urbanization, and an increase in the number of public schools and adult literacy programs caused Amharic to spread even more. But still, Amharic was much more widely spoken in towns and cities, and not as widely spoken in rural areas, except in its original native regions. After 1991, language policies were changed to give more influence to the other languages of Ethiopia, and there are over 80 of them. Currently, regional and local authorities can choose their own working language, and their own language of primary school education. But Amharic remains the most widely spoken lingua franca, with a large proportion of the urban population throughout the country being able to speak Amharic. So what is Amharic like? First of all, what’s this interesting script that Amharic is written in? Well, that’s actually the Ge’ez script, which is used not only to write the Ge’ez language, but also Amharic, Tigrinya, and others. The Ge’ez script is an abugida – each character represents a syllable, and consists of a consonant as its major component, plus an attached ligature or other modification that represents a vowel. In Amharic, this Ge’ez-based writing system is called “fidal”. In Amharic, there are plain consonants, similar to most of the consonants in English, and there are glottalized consonants, (or “ejective consonants”). Glottalized consonants are produced by closing and reopening the glottis – the space between your vocal cords – while making the consonant sound. When transliterated using Latin characters, they usually have a dot underneath them to distinguish them from their non-glottalized equivalents. Let’s compare a plain consonant with its glottalized equivalent. Also, notice the doubled consonant. All consonants can be short or long, long meaning that the consonant is doubled – double in length. The distinction between short and long consonants is important, because sometimes the meaning of words is distinguished by the length of the consonant. For example: “ala” – this means “He said.” “alla” – this means “There is.” “wana” – this means “swimming”. “wanna” – this means “important”. So in both cases the length of the consonant distinguishes the meaning of the words. Doubled consonants are not distinguished in writing, but in context Amharic speakers have little trouble with that. Sentence Structure First, let’s look at an equational sentence using the verb “to be”: “legu acher naw” – this means “The boy is short.” Word for word, it’s “boy-the short is”. “-u” is a definite article. “leg” is “boy”. “legu” is “the boy”. Notice that the verb “to be” is at the end, and the adjective comes before it. Amharic is a verb-final language, so in predicative sentences the word order is SV or OV or SOV. Of course, some sentences have no object, just a subject and an intransitive verb. For example, “legu waddaqa” – this sentence means “The child fell.” Word for word, it’s “child-the he fell”. So this is the subject, and this is the verb. And here’s a sentence that does have a direct object: “addannu anbassa gaddala” – it means “The hunter killed a lion.” Word for word, it’s “hunter-the lion he killed”. Here’s the subject, the object, and the verb. Something we can add to this sentence is the optional direct object marker – “addannu anbassan gaddala”. If you use the direct object marker, then it’s also possible to place the object at the beginning of the sentence, making it OSV. “anbassan addannu gaddala” And now let’s try adding an adjective to this sentence: “addannu telleq anbassa gaddala”. This sentence now means “The hunter killed a big lion.” And you can see that the adjective is placed before the noun. The previous sentences all have an explicit subject, but there can also be no explicit subject. For example, this sentence meaning “He opened the door.” – “barrun kaffata” Word for word, it’s “door-the (direct object marker) he opened”. No explicit subject is necessary here, because we know from the form of the verb that it refers to the third-person masculine singular “he”. So this sentence is just OV, Object-Verb. And that brings us to verbs. Similar to in other Semitic languages, the verb consists of a stem and suffixes which indicate the person, gender, and number of the subject. Let’s take a look at this example verb, meaning “to break.” Here’s the stem of the perfect form, and the suffixes placed after the stem tell us about the doer of the action. Now let’s look at the imperfect form. Based on this stem: The Root System Let’s take a look at the stems of the perfect form and the imperfect form again, and let’s focus on these letters here. Similar to in other Semitic languages, Amharic uses a system of root letters and templates, into which the root letters are inserted. Roots consist of consonants – commonly 3, but it can also be 2, 4, or 5 – and they are placed into templates, consisting of a vowel pattern as well as some consonantal affixes. The root gives us the core meaning, and the template gives us grammatical information and more specific information about the meaning. Notice that with this verb, the second root letter is doubled, or geminated, in the perfect form. This is true for some verbs, but not for others. Those are a few of the important features of Amharic. Let’s look at a few more example sentences, and see what else we find. Here’s a sentence meaning “We must go today.” Word for word, it’s “today to go we must”. In this sentence we see a modal verb meaning “must”. Just like other verbs, this modal verb is conjugated for the subject, in this case, “we”. The modal verb comes at the end, and before that, we see the main verb, meaning “to go” in its infinitive form. Another sentence. This means “Where can I find a doctor?” Word for word, it’s “doctor where is found”. The word “hakim” is the same as the Arabic word for “doctor”, and I would guess that this is a loan word. This word means “where”. Question words usually come directly before the verb, and you can see that the object of the verb comes first. This is an imperfect verb, with these root consonants. The affixes show that this is the third-person singular form. And on to the next sentence. This means “I’ve lost my car keys.” Word for word, it’s “of car my key have been lost to me”. This pattern here, “of + a noun + another noun”, is a typical way of showing possession or connection between two nouns. And this is a verb with these two root consonants, which mean “to lose”. But this particular verb template makes it reflexive, or intransitive, so it means “to be lost”. This is the conjunct form of the verb, which can be used like the present perfect in English, and this ending here means something like “happened to me”, showing that the speaker is affected by the action. Notice that in this sentence, the word for key is singular. Plural can often be understood from the context, even if you use the singular form, but we can also use an explicit plural form. Again, this means “I’ve lost my car keys”, but here you can see that a plural ending has been added to the word for “key”. But it’s not entirely necessary to use the plural form. You can use the singular form, and, in context, it should be clear whether you’re talking about just one or many. And on to the next sentence. This means “We love Ethiopian cuisine.” Word for word, it’s “of Ethiopia food we love” Again, we see that pattern showing possession or relationship between two nouns. And here we see the imperfect form of the verb meaning “to love”. Here’s the stem, and here are the affixes telling us that this is first-person plural – in other words, the “we” form. And one more sentence: This means “I didn’t break the vase”. Word for word, it’s “vase the I broke (negative conjugation)”. In Amharic, there’s a special negative perfect form of verbs. The negative form is made by adding this prefix and this suffix to the regular perfect form. And here’s the word for “vase”, and here the definite article suffix. But since it’s following another vowel, it’s written as “w” rather than “u”. As a Semitic language, Amharic has some vocabulary that overlaps with other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic. Some of these similar words are loan words from other languages like Arabic or Ge’ez, but some are cognates that developed from a common ancestor as the words in other Semitic languages. And sometimes it’s hard to know if the word is a loan word or an original cognate. For example, the word we saw before which means break – “sabbara” – the same third-person perfect form in Hebrew would be “shavar”. And in Hebrew sometimes the second root letter, like a “v” sound, is doubled and pronounced like a “b” sound, which makes the similarity even more obvious. And we also saw the word “to kill” – “gaddala”. This is the third person perfect form. In Hebrew, it’s “qatal”, meaning “to slay,” or “to kill”. In Arabic, it’s “qutila”. The consonants here are not exactly the same, but I think there’s a connection between the “g” sound in Amharic and the “k” or “q” sounds in the other languages, and I think there’s a connection between the “d” and the “t” sounds in the other languages. Another example – the word for “bury”: “qabbara”. In Hebrew, it’s “kavar”, and in Arabic, “qabara”. In Amharic, the verb meaning “to hear” is “samma”, and this is the third-person perfect form meaning “he heard”. In Hebrew, it’s “shama'”. In Arabic, it’s “sama3”. In Hebrew and Arabic, there’s an extra root letter that was lost in the Amharic word, and it has mostly become silent in modern Hebrew. But it’s still written. In Amharic, the word for “eye” is “‘ayin”. In Hebrew, it’s “‘ayin”. In Arabic, it’s “3ayin”. I would love to be able to say that the English word “eye” is related to those, but it’s not. Another one: in Amharic, there’s “bet”, which means “house”. In Hebrew, it’s “bayit”, but when it’s used in a compound word with another noun it’s pronounced “beit”, like in “beit sefer”, the word for school. In Arabic, it’s “beit” or “bayit”. But the amount of vocabulary that Amharic has in common with Hebrew and Arabic might be less than you’d expect. That’s partly because a lot of the vocabulary is of Cushitic origin, as much as 30%, and other vocabulary is unique to Amharic or to Ethiosemitic. Amharic is a very interesting language, and it’s a language with clearly Semitic features, including the verbal system and the root system using consonantal roots and inserting them into templates. Those are things I’m familiar with from other Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic. And that includes some of the vocabulary we just looked at a second ago. But some elements are quite different from other Semitic languages, such as its SOV word order. Amharic is a language that I would love to dig into more in the future at some point. In my last video, on Japanese, I forgot to ask a question of the day, so today I’m not going to forget. Here is the question of the day: For speakers of Amharic: How widely is Amharic spoken in your area and your community? And if you’re an immigrant from Ethiopia living somewhere else in the world, what language do members of your community normally speak with each other? And for speakers of other Semitic languages: Have you noticed the similarities between Amharic and your language? What sorts of similarities have you noticed? Be sure to follow LangFocus on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And once again I want to say thank you to all of my Patreon supporters, especially these wonderful people right here on the screen, for their monthly pledges. Thank you for watching and have a nice day.