What language do they speak in Ethiopia? Is there an official language of Ethiopia? Is Ethiopia Amharic the country’s main language? With 86 different languages and as many as 200 dialects, there’s plenty to say about Ethiopian language. Read on to discover answers to these questions and many, many more.
In Ethiopia language is a fascinating topic. It’s one I’ve been exploring in detail recently, so writing about my findings seemed like a good way to share my linguistic journey. Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. It shares land borders with Somalia, Somaliland, Djibouti, Kenya, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan, so many of its languages and dialects flow into and out of these countries.
In total, there are languages in Ethiopia, according to Ethnologue. 41 of those languages are classed as institutional, while 14 are developing and 18 vigorous. Ethiopia also has eight languages that are in danger of extinction and five that are close to it. The Ongota language spoken in southwest Ethiopia, for example, had just 12 elderly native speakers back in 2012, according to UNESCO (Ongota speakers have instead adopted the Tsamai language).
Africa's second largest country by population, Ethiopia is home to some fascinating linguistic diversity. Broadly speaking, languages in Ethiopia can be classified within four major language groups, though the country is also home to several unclassified tongues.
The four main language groups in Ethiopia are Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. These fit within two wider groupings of the language family tree.
Ethiopian languages that sit within the Afroasiatic brands of the family tree include the country’s Semitic and Cushitic languages, as well as its Omotic languages, though there is some debate around the classification of the latter (more on that below).
Ethiopia’s Semitic languages include:
• Chaha group languages, including Chaha, Muher, Ezha, Gumer and Gura
• Inor group languages, including Inor, Enner, Endegegna, Gyeto and Mesemes
• Silt'e group languages, including Silt'e, Ulbareg, Enneqor and Walane
• Soddo group languages, including Soddo, Gogot and Galila
These Semitic languages spoken in Ethiopia use the Ge’ez script for their written form. This script is unique to Ethiopia. With seven characters denoted by each of its 33 letters, it has a total of 231 characters, providing plenty of fun for anyone who wants to learn Ethiopian languages that use it.
Many an Ethiopian language sits within the Cushitic group. It includes:
Some Cushitic languages in Ethiopia use the Ge’ez script, as the country’s Semitic languages do, while others used the Roman alphabet.
Omotic languages are spoken in various locations in Africa, including in Ethiopia. They are known for being fairly agglutinative, with complex tonal systems. While most linguists consider the Omotic languages to be Afroasiatic, some argue that they should be treated as an independent language family. Ethiopia’s Mao languages are central to debates around the classification of Omotic languages.
Ethiopia language that is classed as Omotic is therefore an interesting area of study, though one that I don’t intend to get side-tracked by in this article.
Omotic languages in Ethiopia include:
• Welaytta (Welamo)
The other major Ethiopia language group is Nilo-Saharan. The country is home to dozens of languages that sit within this classification. Some of the most prominent include:
Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken in many parts of Africa. Most recently, I wrote about which languages from this family are spoken in Tanzania. You can read more about that by clicking the link below.
Ethiopia is home to five official languages: Afar, Amharic, Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya. The country also has several local sign languages.
What language do Ethiopians speak more than any other? Well, until 2020, the sole Ethiopian language used for federal government business was Amharic, which has been an influential Ethiopia language since the 12th century.
However, on 29 February 2020, the country’s Council of Ministers officially elevated four regional Ethiopian languages to have the same status – that is, to be working federal government languages. As such, Afar, Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya all now have official status as well as Amharic.
To get back to my original query – what language is spoken in Ethiopia more than any other? – it is Oromo that has more native speakers than any other Ethiopian language. If we count second language speakers as well, though, it is Amharic that can be considered the main language in Ethiopia.
Let’s look at this in a little more detail.
Ethnologue’s 2021 data shows that Oromo has 37.4 million first language speakers. That means that it has more native speakers than any other Ethiopan language. It’s spoken as a first language by over 33% of the country’s population.
Spoken widely across the Horn of Africa, Oromo is used as a lingua franca in Ethiopia and a language of primary education in several states. This is despite Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, banning Oromo’s use in education, in administrative matters and even in conversation.
In terms of total speaker numbers, Amharic is the most spoken language in Ethiopia. It has 31.8 million first language speakers and around 25 million second language speakers (out of a total population of 115 million people).
Amharic’s writing system has developed from the Ge’ez script, with text flowing from left to right.
As well as being one of the languages spoken in Somalia and in neighbouring Djibouti, Somali has some 6.7 million first language speakers in Ethiopia. It is spoken mainly in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country, along the land border between Ethiopia, Somali and Djibouti.
Another language in Ethiopia to have gained official status in 2020, Tigrinya (or Tigrigna) is a northern Ethiopia language with around 6.4 million native speakers. It has a number of dialects, yet none has been widely accepted as a ‘standard’ Tigrinya dialect. By the way, for a closer look at the difference between languages and dialects, why not click the link below?
Another language spoken in Ethiopia, Sidama is a Highland East Cushitic tongue. Also called Sidaamu Afoo, it has over 4.3 million first language speakers. Sidama used an Ethiopic script until 1993, when it switched to the Latin alphabet. The literacy rate for native Sidama speakers is now very low, at under 5%.
Sidama shares between 53% and 64% lexical similarity with Alaba-K'abeena, Kambaata and Hadiyya, while also showing strong Omoro influences in terms of its vocabulary.
Wolaytta has only had a written from since 1940, though the language has been around much, much longer. Speaker number estimates vary, from around 1.6 million to 2.4 million. The reason for the discrepancy is due to the lack of clear boundaries around where the language begins and ends.
For many years, the Melo, Oyda and Gamo-Gofa-Dawro languages were considered to be dialects of Wolaytta, though they are now considered to be separate languages.
Sebat Bet, which means ‘seven houses’ is one of the Semitic Gurage languages. It has several dialects, including Chaha, Ezha, Muher, Gura, Gumer and Inor. First language speakers are believed to total around 2.1 million.
With more than 1.8 million native speakers, Afar is an Ethiopian language that was awarded official status in early 2020. It is a Lowland East Cushitic language which is spoken in Djibouti and Eritrea, as well as in Ethiopia. This Ethiopian national language is also called ’Afar Af, Afaraf and Qafar af by those who speak it.
Hadiyya is the language of Ethiopia’s Hadiya people, who refer to it as Hadiyyisa. The language is also referred to variously as Hadiyigna, Adiya, Adea, Adiye, Hadia, Hadiya and Hadya. It is closely related lexically (though not morphological terms) to the neighbouring Libido language.
An Omotic language spoken by Ethiopia’s Gamo people, Gamo is sometimes considered a language in its own right, while other linguists group it together with Gofa and Dawro, considering Gamo-Gofa-Dawro to be a single language.
A Highland East Cushitic language, Gedeo is also known as Derasa, Deresa, Darassa, Geddeo, Derasanya and Darasa. It is spoken in south-central Ethiopia and is an interesting language to learn, with verbs marked for person, number, subject gender and voice (active, causative, middle and passive). Gedeo has around 980,000 native speakers.
A language spoken in Ethiopia by around 830,000 native speakers, Kafa (also called Kefa) is spoken in the country’s Keffa Zone. Interestingly, there is a group of traditional hunters (the Manja) within Kafa society who use a number of different words and constructions to other Kafa speakers. This gives rise to the theory that they may once have spoken a language of their own, which later became subsumed within Kafa, while retaining its own distinctive traits.
Though it is extinct in terms of common usage, the Ge’ez language – Ethiopia’s ancient language – remains an important liturgical language in the country. The written form of Ge’ez was developed by the Aksumites using the Sabean alphabet. A number of other languages are descended from Ge’ez, including Tigrinya and Amharic.
As is the case in so many countries, in Africa and around the globe, Ethiopia has lost many languages to the passage to time. Weyto, for example, is thought to have been spoken by hippopotamus hunters in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana region, while Rer Bare was spoken along the Shabele River. The languages were eradicated due to the spreading influences of Amharic (in the case of Weyto) and Somali (in the case of Rer Bare).
Unlike many African countries, which have been heavily influenced linguistically by colonial rule (you can click the link below to read more about the languages of Africa), Ethiopia has never been colonised. Despite this, a number of imported languages are used within the country.
English is taught in many schools in Ethiopia, while the country is also home to clusters or French, Italian and Arabic speakers.
In linguistic terms, Ethiopian maps show clear regional distinctions. Somali, for example, is spoken mostly in the east and southeast of the country, while Oromo speakers stretch from the western border into central Ethiopia and down to the south. Amharic speakers are concentrated in the north and northwest, as well as in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital (and largest) city. Afar speakers, meanwhile, can be found mainly in the northeast, while Tigrinya is spoken in the north.
Ethiopia official language areas aside, there are other regions where speakers of particular languages are clustered. The western border is home to Nuer and Berta speakers, while central-southwestern areas are home to Hadiyya, Sidamo, Kistane and Wolaytta speakers.
We can learn an incredible amount from studying the language of Ethiopia, not just about the languages themselves but about the cultures of those who speak them.
The Kafa hunters who I mentioned above, for example, are distinct from the rest of Kafa society, with their linguistic quirks serving to emphasise and reinforce this.
Hadiyya is another good example. Learning the language unlocks access to some wonderful traditional poetry, which is structured to include rhythmical rhymes at the start of each verse.
Studying the languages of Ethiopia can unlock myriad cultural insights such as these, making them a very enriching area of learning.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sharing my insights into languages in Ethiopia in this article, so I hope you’ve found them interesting. To recap, we’ve looked at Ethiopian language from the perspective of the country’s five official languages, explored a number of different languages and looked at which are spoken where within the country.
Do you have any insights of your own to share on the topic of languages in Ethiopia? If so, please feel free to leave a comment below.