Amharic – A Semitic language of Ethiopia


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.




Comments
  1. So Amharic is like Modren Hebrew. Modren Hebrew is an east European trying to speak a semetic language so it sounds European and the Amharic is a nilo saharan trying to speak a semetic language. What I find interesting is the ch sound which is an allophone in Arabic to the K phoneme has become its own phoneme in Amharic as it is clear that it presents itself almost all of the time where it is an allophone in Arabic and not where it is a phoneme.

  2. In Arabic it is qatala not qutila. Qatala means he killed as in your example, you mistakenly used qutila which mean he was killed

  3. A purple light is shining on Paul in this video, and it makes his hair look like it's been dyed purple. But you can see his shirt looks purple too.

  4. I was hoping he'd explain why Amharic is written with the same symbols as Armenian, since they're not located right next to each other.

  5. Hi Paul,
    I love how you go deep in your video’s. It would be very interesting to see à vidéo about Tigrinya/Tigre and geez as well. Keep up you good work and many Thanks for all your vidéos 👍

  6. I speak Swedish and English but although my dad is from Ethiopia i've never learnt to speak amaharic. I only know a few words and can say basic sentences.

    But I know my dad and his relatives who have emmigrated to other countries than sweden usually use english to explain to things that they can't come up with a word for in amaharic.

    I've noticed a lot of loan words in amaharic from Italian and I've also thought a lot about how similar to Hindi it is! Somali is also very similar to hindi in like the tone which it's spoken in, I think it' because east africa has histroically been very influenced by trade with India.

  7. I am Ethiopian and I speak Amharic fluently and I can relate to words in Arabic and Hebrew, but to be honest Amharic is kinda hard language to learn. I am sometimes amazed by how things are written in Amharic and can Imagine how hard it would be for people trying to learn it.

  8. So there is another similarity with some dialects of arabic, for instance in palestinian arabic in some variations of northern palestinian dialects, we have a very similar negative form for verbs, such as if i want to say "i broke the vase" i would say انا كسرت* الجرة*, and if i want to say "i didn't break the vase" i would say انا مكسرتش الجرة. So what i did there is adding م at the begining of the word and a ش at the end of the word. It works only in past tense and only in this specitic palestinian dialect. An interesting thing to know that amharic has a lot of similarities with arabic.

  9. This is pretty cool, as an Arabic speaker I love learning about other Semitic languages, as I feel that for a language group, it has many extinct languages or ones spoken by very small minorities. An interesting similarity was the word for 'car' which was 'makina', in Arabic that word actually means 'machine'. I don't believe a car was ever referred to as a 'makina' in Arabic (in fact today, we commonly use makina to refer to a car's engine), so it'd be fascinating if the word is not a loanword but in fact developed independently to mean car in Amharic.

    Also when you gave the example for the word 'to kill', your pronunciation of the Arabic word was slightly off, it should be (qa ta la), which would mean more like: "He killed." The way you said it (qu ti la) would instead mean: "He was killed." In reality if you want to say: 'to kill' you can't really say it using just the root word, you'd have to say: "Li yaq tal", which would literally mean: "For him to kill."

  10. If you take a shot every time he says ethiosemitic and you'll be drunk within the first two minutes 😂

  11. At 8:02, I'm reminded of the Talmud (which is written in a mix of Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew), where it would not be uncommon to find "amar lei l'Rava," which, word for word, is "he said to him to Rava."

  12. 14:10
    The Arabic قُتِلَ 'qutila' means "to be killed" or "he was killed" to be exact, and is the passive form of قتل 'qatala' which means "to kill" or "he killed".

  13. Very interesting introduction and demonstration. However, at 14:18 قتل (he killed) is not to be read as you have it "qutila" (the passive, i.e. he was killed), but qatala.

  14. Why not eye is related to Ayin, you might be surprised Actually eye is like igi in sumerian or babylonian

  15. I'm a Hebrew speaker and I got the sabbar – shavar similarity from the start 😀 The whole thing with words getting REALLY long because so much extra context stuff was added onto the root is also similar. And they say German words are longbecause they mash them together. The whole thing with little bits being added to the sides of the letters to replace vowels and make one letter be the equivalent of two in languages like English (and probably many others) is also similar, except in Hebrew these "bits" are placed over or under the letters, not attached to them, and it's been mostly scrapped after 3rd-4th grade in school because everyone gets the meaning of the word anyway from the order of the letters + a bit of context if letter order isn't enough.

  16. 11:01 the word Hakim in Arabic doesn't mean doctor, it rather means a wise man or a ruler
    14:12 qutila is passive form, which means he's being killed.. a direct verb of it should be qatala (he killed)

  17. The Amharic was one of the main alphabets used to write Arabic and a variant of it
    In Arabic the Amharic alphabet is known as Arabic mosnad عربي مسند
    Unlike Arabic jazm which is the usual alphabet used nowadays
    Arabic used to be written in a differents alphabets according to each region where Arabs lived
    There Arabic tamoud, mosnad, jazm…etc.
    The Amharic used a développed alphabet based on Arabic mosnad

    http://arabetics.com/public/html/more/History%20of%20the%20Arabic%20Script_article_Arabic_files/image011.gif

  18. Semetic languages are African. Arabic and Hebrew are technically baby african languages that branched out.

  19. Paul I don't think people appreciate how much time it must have taken you to produce this quality vlogs which I find very informative / educational and for that I really admire you. Coz you invested so much time to do research in order to make your video's. Your pronunciations of Amharic words are amazing too. You certainly deserve a huge recognition not just for this particular vlog but for all the different ones you have made so far. Keep it up bro!

  20. Am I the only one who thinks this script (Ge'ez) is similar in shape to glagolitic script?

    That was my first impression when I saw the image at 2:22…

  21. Wow that is really amazing… how great it sounds to hear from u (from one not actually native or not born in this language) having a lot about Amharic!!
    Good job! By the way guys, I m teaching Spanish in Amharic, visit my channel!😉. One love!🙏

  22. You forget Maltese…could it be because it is the oldest Semitic language in existence? Or because being so old so few speakers remain?

  23. ቅውእርትሰኡኢኦፕአስድፍግህጅክል፤ዝሽችቭብን፣ወኤኧጥይዩእፗጵዐጽባፍግሕጅኽዥሽጭቭብኝም

  24. Thank you almighty YAH for the Aksum Kingdom Solomonic dynastic Empires and the official Amharic language usages and scripts.

  25. I noticed another word from your examples that is the same as Arabic it is anbasa for lion it is in Arabic is just the same but with Ayn letter in the begining
    Also you could used qatala in Arabic which means he killed
    Also it is Same'3a not Sama'3a
    Your vedios is one of my few joys in YouTube. Thanks Paul

  26. Thank you very much for making this simple yet easily understandable video.

    I'm visiting Ethiopia and this video definitely increased my confidence to learn few lines before I go.

  27. Every language in the world should be compelled or forced to Romanize. Compounded "alphabets" that resemble a drunk's doodling, or the use of characters as in Chinese or Japanese to portray words are fucking stupid and invented to keep the masses from learning to read and write, thus oppressing them and keeping them poor, ignorant and obedient to the elite classes.

  28. Question, the theories I had seen generally suggested the reverse, that Arabic and semitic languages on a whole actually originate and trace back to Ethiopia, I am curious which source you got that indicated the opposite?

  29. ethiopians seem to be result of admixture between africans and arabs genetically and culturally. Paul could you teach us how cushitic people and languages came? why cushite people are slightly different from sa called "bantu" people of west, central, east and southern africa?

  30. You can see the amounts of sound both Hebrew and Arabic don't really use but In Ethiopia Semitic they use it all. As of Amharic it is definitely a amalgamated languages both ethnically and linguistically with the Agew language but it was different before it started As Geez. As it begin to evolve dropped the strong accents, like by softening the word tones.

  31. Hi dear faul I want to learn the Amharic (Ethiopian) language please help me I am from India

  32. I've got another Semitic one for ya – what about Coptic ?

  33. The amharic alphabet is similar the alphabet of old southern Arabic ( yemen ) which called (Musnad), it was used before around 2000 b.c until around 500 years before now , the Ancient inscriptions still existed, and it is the same current Arabic alphabet, however different symbols, and oldest beside have advantage, you can write from right to left or from left to right , and no need points
    More info :

    https://ar.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D8%AE%D8%B7_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%86%D8%AF

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_South_Arabian_script

  34. The Arabic for “he killed” is qatala and so does indeed closely match the Amharic vocalism. The form you cite, qutila, is passive and so not an appropriate comparison. Switch to the correct active form and you get a nice match.

  35. The connections you mention for the root "Q-T-L" are definitely correct. And you could also add the Aramaic "קטל/QTL".
    What's interesting to me is that the "Qof" usually becomes a "G" sound in Gulf Arabic (in the East), so I wouldn't expect to find that consonant shift in Ethiopia… very interesting 👍

  36. To go from arabic to hebrew
    Replace :
    K with kh like in malik, malikh (king)
    H with kh like in homos-> khomosh
    Replace S with sh for example salam alaykom> shalom alikhem.

    You can't revert this.
    Because in arabic we still have sh, and kh. Along with s, k, and h.

    Amharic ? No idea.. Probably it is close to yemen dialects

  37. It seems to me that the kushitic and amharic are both afro asiatics languages as hebrew and arabic and maltese.. so they must have something in common..

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