Amharic language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

አማርኛ amarəñña
Spoken natively inEthiopia
Native speakers17.5 million  (1994)
(14.7 million monolingual)
Language family
Writing systemGe'ez alphabet abugida
Official status
Official language inEthiopia and the following specific regions: Addis Ababa City Council, Amhara Region, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, Dire Dawa Administrative council, Gambela Region, SNNPR
Regulated byno official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1am
ISO 639-2amh
ISO 639-3amh
Jump to: navigation, search
አማርኛ amarəñña
Spoken natively inEthiopia
Native speakers17.5 million  (1994)
(14.7 million monolingual)
Language family
Writing systemGe'ez alphabet abugida
Official status
Official language inEthiopia and the following specific regions: Addis Ababa City Council, Amhara Region, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, Dire Dawa Administrative council, Gambela Region, SNNPR
Regulated byno official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1am
ISO 639-2amh
ISO 639-3amh

Amharic (Amharic: አማርኛ? amarəñña) is a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia. It is the second most-spoken Semitic language in the world, after Arabic, and the official working language of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Thus, it has official status and is used nationwide. Amharic is also the official or working language of several of the states within the federal system. It has been the working language of government, the military, and of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church throughout medieval and modern times. Outside Ethiopia, Amharic is the language of some 2.7 million emigrants. It is written using Amharic Fidel, ፊደል, which grew out of the Ge'ez abugida—called, in Ethiopian Semitic languages, ፊደል fidel ("alphabet", "letter", or "character") and አቡጊዳ abugida (from the first four Ethiopic letters, which gave rise to the modern linguistic term abugida).



Consonant and vowel phonemes

The Ethiopic (or Ge'ez) writing system is visible on the side of this Ethiopian Airlines Fokker 50: it reads "Ethiopia's": የኢትዮጵያ (ye-Ītyōṗṗyā).

There is no agreed way of transliterating Amharic into Roman characters. The Amharic examples in the sections below use one system that is common, though not universal, among linguists specializing in Ethiopian Semitic languages. The Amharic ejective consonants correspond to the Proto-Semitic "emphatic consonants", usually transcribed with a dot below the letter. The consonant and vowel charts give these symbols in parentheses where they differ from the standard IPA symbols.

Nasalmnɲ (ñ)
Plosivevoicelessptkʔ (ʾ)
ejective (p', p̣) (t', ) (q, )
Affricatevoiceless (č)
voiced (ǧ)
ejectivetsʼ (s', ṣ)tʃʼ (č', č̣)
Fricativevoicelessfsʃ (š)h
voicedv*zʒ (ž)
Approximantlj (y)w

* - Only in words borrowed from English and other languages

Highiɨ (ə)u
Mideə (ä)o

Amharic vowel chart.svg

Writing system

Fidel signs

Amharic Fidel is an abugida, in that each character represents a consonant+vowel combination, and the characters are organized in groups of similar symbols on the basis of both the consonant and the vowel. Some phonemes can be represented by more than one series of symbols: /'/, /s'/, and /h/ (the last has four distinct letter forms). The citation form for each series is the consonant+/ä/ form, i.e. the first column of fidel. You will need a font that supports Ethiopic, such as GF Zemen Unicode,[1] in order to view the fidel.

Non-speakers are often disconcerted or astonished by the remarkable similarity of many of the symbols. This is mitigated somewhat because, like many Semitic languages, Amharic uses triconsonantal roots in its verb morphology. The result of this is that a fluent speaker of Amharic can often decipher written text by observing the consonants, with the vowel variants being supplemental detail.

A modern usage of Amharic: the label of a Coca-Cola bottle. The script reads ኮካ-ኮላ (koka-kola).
Logo of EBFNA
Chart of Amharic fidels[2][3]


As in most other Ethiopian Semitic languages, gemination is contrastive in Amharic. That is, consonant length can distinguish words from one another; for example, alä 'he said', allä 'there is'; yǝmätall 'he hits', yǝmmättall 'he is hit'. Gemination is not indicated in Amharic orthography, but Amharic readers seem not to find this to be a problem. This property of the writing system is analogous to the vowels of Arabic and Hebrew or the tones of many Bantu languages, which are not normally indicated in writing. The noted Ethiopian novelist Haddis Alemayehu, who was an advocate of Amharic orthography reform, indicated gemination in his novel Fǝqǝr Ǝskä Mäqabǝr by placing a dot above the characters whose consonants were geminated, but this practice has not caught on.



Personal pronouns

In most languages, there is a small number of basic distinctions of person, number, and often gender that play a role within the grammar of the language. We see these distinctions within the basic set of independent personal pronouns, for example, English I, Amharic እኔ ǝne; English she, Amharic እሷ ǝsswa. In Amharic, as in other Semitic languages, the same distinctions appear in three other places within the grammar of the languages.

Simple Amharic Sentences
One may construct simple Amharic sentences by using subject and predicate. Here are a few simple sentences.
    Ethiopia is in Africa.    Ethiopia Africa wist Nat. 

Here the word wist Nat is almost similar to saying she’s inside, which assumes Ethiopia has a female gender. Another example.

    The boy is asleep.    Liju tegn-tual. 

The word Liju (The boy/boy) has its roots from Lij (child). The predicate following Liju tells us the boy has already slept, tegn-tual.

    * The hyphen used here is an aid to help pronounce the word in the right way. It does not indicate a compound. 
    The weather is Good.    Ayeru Des-yilal or similarly, Ayeru t’-iru naew . 

Ayeru directly refers to the weather while des-yila shows happiness.

    He came to the city.    Esu Ketema me – t’ -a. 

me – t’ -a / Esu me – t’ -a should refer to he came, where ketema is the city.

    * t’ indicates special emphasis here—pronounce by placing your tongue in between your upper and lower front teeth. 
    She watched TV.    Esua TV ayech.[4] 
Subject–verb agreement
All Amharic verbs agree with their subjects; that is, the person, number, and (second- and third-person singular) gender of the subject of the verb are marked by suffixes or prefixes on the verb. Because the affixes that signal subject agreement vary greatly with the particular verb tense/aspect/mood, they are normally not considered to be pronouns and are discussed elsewhere in this article under verb conjugation.
Object pronoun suffixes
Amharic verbs often have additional morphology that indicates the person, number, and (second- and third-person singular) gender of the object of the verb.
'I saw Almaz'
While morphemes such as -at in this example are sometimes described as signaling object agreement, analogous to subject agreement, they are more often thought of as object pronoun suffixes because, unlike the markers of subject agreement, they do not vary significantly with the tense/aspect/mood of the verb. For arguments of the verb other than the subject or the object, there are two separate sets of related suffixes, one with a benefactive meaning (to, for), the other with an adversative or locative meaning (against', to the detriment of, on', at).
'I opened the door for Almaz'
'I closed the door on Almaz (to her detriment)'
Morphemes such as -llat and -bbat in these examples will be referred to in this article as prepositional object pronoun suffixes because they correspond to prepositional phrases such as for her and on her, to distinguish them from the direct object pronoun suffixes such as -at 'her'.
Possessive suffixes
Amharic has a further set of morphemes that are suffixed to nouns, signalling possession: ቤት bet 'house', ቤቴ bete, my house, ቤቷ; betwa, her house.

In each of these four aspects of the grammar, independent pronouns, subject–verb agreement, object pronoun suffixes, and possessive suffixes, Amharic distinguishes eight combinations of person, number, and gender. For first person, there is a two-way distinction between singular (I) and plural (we), whereas for second and third persons, there is a distinction between singular and plural and within the singular a further distinction between masculine and feminine (you m. sg., you f. sg., you pl., he, she, they).

Amharic is a pro-drop language. That is, neutral sentences in which no element is emphasized normally do not have independent pronouns: ኢትዮጵያዊ ነው ityop'p'ǝyawi näw 'he's Ethiopian,' ጋበዝኳት ‘gabbäzkwat I invited her. The Amharic words that translate he, I, and her do not appear in these sentences as independent words. However, in such cases, the person, number, and (second- or third-person singular) gender of the subject and object are marked on the verb. When the subject or object in such sentences is emphasized, an independent pronoun is used: እሱ ኢትዮጵያዊ ነው ǝssu ityop'p'ǝyawi näw 'he's Ethiopian', እኔ ጋበዝኳት ǝne gabbäzkwat 'I invited her', እሷን ጋበዝኳት ǝsswan gabbäzkwat I invited her.

The table below shows alternatives for many of the forms. The choice depends on what precedes the form in question, usually whether this is a vowel or a consonant, for example, for the 1st person singular possessive suffix, አገሬ agär-e 'my country', ገላዬ gäla-ye 'my body'.

Amharic Personal Pronouns
EnglishIndependentObject pronoun suffixesPossessive suffixes
you (m. sg.)አንተ
you (f. sg.)አንቺ
-(ä)w, -t-(ǝ)llät-(ǝ)bbät-(w)u
you (pl.)እናንተ

Within second- and third-person singular, there are two additional "polite" independent pronouns, for reference to people that the speaker wishes to show respect towards. This usage is an example of the so-called T-V distinction that is made in many languages. The polite pronouns in Amharic are እርስዎ ǝrswo you sg. pol. and እሳቸው ǝssaččäw s/he pol.. Although these forms are singular semantically—they refer to one person—they correspond to third-person plural elsewhere in the grammar, as is common in other T-V systems. For the possessive pronouns, however, the polite 2nd person has the special suffix -wo your sg. pol.

For possessive pronouns (mine, yours, etc.), Amharic adds the independent pronouns to the preposition yä- 'of': የኔ yäne 'mine', ያንተ yantä 'yours m. sg.', ያንቺ yanči 'yours f. sg.', የሷ yässwa 'hers', etc.

Reflexive pronouns

For reflexive pronouns ('myself', 'yourself', etc.), Amharic adds the possessive suffixes to the noun ራስ ras 'head': ራሴ rase 'myself', ራሷ raswa 'herself', etc.

Demonstrative pronouns

Like English, Amharic makes a two-way distinction between near ('this, these') and far ('that, those') demonstrative expressions (pronouns, adjectives, adverbs). Besides number, as in English, Amharic also distinguishes masculine and feminine gender in the singular.

Amharic Demonstrative Pronouns
Number, GenderNearFar
SingularMasculineይህ yǝh(ǝ)ya
Feminineይቺ yǝčči, ይህች yǝhǝččያቺ
Pluralእነዚህ ǝnnäzzihእነዚያ ǝnnäzziya

There are also separate demonstratives for formal reference, comparable to the formal personal pronouns: እኚህ ǝññih 'this, these (formal)' and እኒያ ǝnniya 'that, those (formal)'.

The singular pronouns have combining forms beginning with zz instead of y when they follow a preposition: ስለዚህ sǝläzzih 'because of this; therefore', እንደዚያ ǝndäzziya 'like that'. Note that the plural demonstratives, like the second and third person plural personal pronouns, are formed by adding the plural prefix እነ ǝnnä- to the singular masculine forms.


Amharic nouns can be primary or derived. A noun like əgər 'foot, leg' is primary, and a noun like əgr-äñña 'pedestrian' is a derived noun.


Amharic nouns can have a masculine or feminine gender. There are several ways to express gender. An example is the old suffix -t for femininity. This suffix is no longer productive and is limited to certain patterns and some isolated nouns. Nouns and adjectives ending in -awi usually take the suffix -t to form the feminine form, e.g. ityop':ya-(a)wi 'Ethiopian (m.)' vs. ityop':ya-wi-t 'Ethiopian (f.)'; sämay-awi 'heavenly (m.)' vs. sämay-awi-t 'heavenly (f.)'. This suffix also occurs in nouns and adjective based on the pattern qət(t)ul, e.g. nəgus 'king' vs. nəgəs-t 'queen' and qəddus 'holy (m.)' vs. qəddəs-t 'holy (f.)'.

Some nouns and adjectives take a feminine marker -it: ləǧ 'child, boy' vs. ləǧ-it 'girl'; bäg 'sheep, ram' vs. bäg-it 'ewe'; šəmagəlle 'senior, elder (m.)' vs. šəmagəll-it 'old woman'; t'ot'a 'monkey' vs. t'ot'-it 'monkey (f.)'. Some nouns have this feminine marker without having a masculine opposite, e.g. šärär-it 'spider', azur-it 'whirlpool, eddy'. There are, however, also nouns having this -it suffix that are treated as masculine: säraw-it 'army', nägar-it 'big drum'.

The feminine gender is not only used to indicate biological gender, but may also be used to express smallness, e.g. bet-it-u 'the little house' (lit. house-FEM-DEF). The feminine marker can also serve to express tenderness or sympathy.


Amharic has special words that can be used to indicate the gender of people and animals. For people, wänd is used for masculinity and set for femininity, e.g. wänd ləǧ 'boy', set ləǧ 'girl'; wänd hakim 'physician, doctor (m.)', set hakim 'physician, doctor (f.)'. For animals, the words täbat, awra, or wänd (less usual) can be used to indicate masculine gender, and anəst or set to indicate feminine gender. Examples: täbat t'əǧa 'calf (m.)'; awra doro 'cock (rooster)'; set doro 'hen'.


The plural suffix -očč is used to express plurality of nouns. Some morphophonological alternations occur depending on the final consonant or vowel. For nouns ending in a consonant, plain -očč is used: bet 'house' becomes bet-očč 'houses'. For nouns ending in a back vowel (-a, -o, -u), the suffix takes the form -ʷočč, e.g. wəšša 'dog', wəšša-ʷočč 'dogs'; käbäro 'drum', käbäro-ʷočč 'drums'. Nouns that end in a front vowel pluralize using -ʷočč or -yočč, e.g. s'ähafi 'scholar', s'ähafi-ʷočč or s'ähafi-yočč 'scholars'. Another possibility for nouns ending in a vowel is to delete the vowel and use plain očč, as in wəšš-očč 'dogs'.

Besides using the normal external plural (-očč), nouns and adjectives can be pluralized by way of reduplicating one of the radicals. For example, wäyzäro 'lady' can take the normal plural, yielding wäyzär-očč, but wäyzazər 'ladies' is also found (Leslau 1995:173).

Some kinship-terms have two plural forms with a slightly different meaning. For example, wändəmm 'brother' can be pluralized as wändəmm-očč 'brothers' but also as wändəmmam-ač 'brothers of each other'. Likewise, əhət 'sister' can be pluralized as əhət-očč ('sisters'), but also as ətəmm-am-ač 'sisters of each other'.

In compound words, the plural marker is suffixed to the second noun: betä krəstiyan 'church' (lit. house of Christian) becomes betä krəstiyan-očč 'churches'.

Archaic forms

Amsalu Aklilu has pointed out that Amharic has inherited a large number of old plural forms directly from Classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez) (Leslau 1995:172). There are basically two archaic pluralizing strategies, called external and internal plural. The external plural consists of adding the suffix -an (usually masculine) or -at (usually feminine) to the singular form. The internal plural employs vowel quality or apophony to pluralize words, similar to English man vs. men and goose vs. geese. Sometimes combinations of the two systems are found. The archaic plural forms are not productive anymore, which means that they are not be used to form new plurals.


If a noun is definite or specified, this is expressed by a suffix, the article, which is -u or -w for masculine singular nouns and -wa, -itwa or -ätwa for feminine singular nouns. For example:

masculine sgmasculine sg definitefeminine sgfeminine sg definite
housethe housemaidthe maid

In singular forms, this article distinguishes between the male and female gender; in plural forms this distinction is absent, and all definites are marked with -u, e.g. bet-očč-u 'houses', gäräd-očč-u 'maids'. As in the plural, morphophonological alternations occur depending on the final consonant or vowel.


Amharic has an accusative marker, -(ə)n. Its use is related to the definiteness of the object, thus Amharic shows differential object marking. In general, if the object is definite, the accusative must be used.

'The child chased the dog.'
'The child chased the dog.'

The accusative suffix is usually placed after the first word of the noun phrase:


'He bought this watch.'


Amharic has various ways to derive nouns from other words or other nouns. One way of nominalizing consists of a form of vowel agreement (similar vowels on similar places) inside the three-radical structures typical of Semitic languages. For example:

There are also several nominalizing suffixes.



As in other Semitic languages, Amharic verbs use a combination of prefixes and suffixes to indicate the subject, distinguishing 3 persons, two numbers and (in all persons except first-person and "honorific" pronouns) two genders.


Along with the infinitive and the present participle, the gerund is one of three non-finite verb forms. The infinitive is a nominalized verb, the present participle expresses incomplete action, and the gerund expresses completed action, e.g. ali məsa bälto wädä gäbäya hedä 'Ali, having eaten lunch, went to the market'. There are several usages of the gerund depending on its morpho-syntactic features.

Verbal use

The gerund functions as the head of a subordinate clause (see the example above). There may be more than one gerund in one sentence. The gerund is used to form the following tense forms:

Adverbial use

The gerund can be used as an adverb: alfo alfo yəsəqall 'Sometimes he laughs'. əne dägmo mämt'at əfälləgallähu 'I also want to come'.


Adjectives are words or constructions used to qualify nouns. Adjectives in Amharic can be formed in several ways: they can be based on nominal patterns, or derived from nouns, verbs and other parts of speech. Adjectives can be nominalized by way of suffixing the nominal article (see Nouns above). Amharic has few primary adjectives. Some examples are dägg 'kind, generous', dəda 'mute, dumb, silent', bič'a 'yellow'.

Nominal patterns

CäCCaC — käbbad 'heavy'; läggas 'generous'
CäC(C)iC — räqiq 'fine, subtle'; addis 'new'
CäC(C)aCa — säbara 'broken'; t'ämama 'bent, wrinkled'
CəC(C)əCbələh 'intelligent, smart'; dəbbəq' 'hidden'
CəC(C)uCkəbur 'worthy, dignified'; t'əqur 'black'; qəddus 'holy'

Denominalizing suffixes

-äññahayl-äñña 'powerful' (from hayl 'power'); əwnät-äñña 'true' (from əwnät 'truth')
-täññaaläm-täñña 'secular' (from aläm 'world')
-awi — ləbb-awi 'intelligent' (from ləbb 'heart'); mədr-awi 'earthly' (from mədr 'earth'); haymanot-awi 'religious' (from haymanot 'religion')


yë-kětëmã 'urban' (lit. 'from the city'); yë-krəstənna 'Christian' (lit. 'of Christianity'); yë-wəšĥĔt 'wrong' (lit. 'of falsehood')

In the same way, a relative perfectum or imperfectum can be used as an adjective by prefixing :

yë-běssēlē 'ripe, done' (lit. 'what has been cooked/prepared'); yë-qoyyĖ 'old' (lit. 'what remained'); yë-mm-ikkËtÃtël 'following' ('that what is following', from yë-kËtÃtëläl 'to follow'); yë-mm-ittay ŅëÕ 'visible' (lit. 'what is seen')

Adjective noun complex

The adjective and the noun together are called the 'adjective noun complex'. In Amharic, the adjective precedes the noun, with the verb last; e.g. kəfu geta 'a bad master'; təlləq bet särra (lit. big house he-built) 'he built a big house'.

If the adjective noun complex is definite, the definite article is suffixed to the adjective and not to the noun, e.g. təlləq-u bet (lit. big-def house) 'the big house'. In a possessive construction, the adjective takes the definite article, and the noun takes the pronominal possessive suffix, e.g. təlləq-u bet-e (lit. big-def house-my) "my big house".

When enumerating adjectives using -nna 'and', both adjectives take the definite article: qonǧo-wa-nna astäway-wa ləǧ mät't'ačč (lit. pretty-def-and intelligent-def girl came) "the pretty and intelligent girl came". In the case of an indefinite plural adjective noun complex, the noun is plural and the adjective may be used in singular or in plural form. Thus, 'diligent students' can be rendered təgu tämariʷočč (lit. diligent student-PLUR) or təguʷočč tämariʷočč (lit. diligent-PLUR student-PLUR).

Literature in Amharic

There is a growing body of literature in Amharic in many genres. This literature includes government proclamations and records, educational books, religious material, novels, poetry, proverb collections, dictionaries (monolingual and bilingual), technical manuals, medical topics, etc. The Holy Bible was first translated into Amharic by Abu Rumi in the early 19th century, but has been retranslated a number of times since. The most famous Amharic novel is Fiqir Iske Meqabir (transliterated various ways) by Haddis Alemayehu (1909–2003), translated into English by Sisay Ayenew with the title Love unto Crypt, published in 2005 (ISBN 978-1-4184-9182-6).

Translation companies

Because of the rapid growth of Ethiopian communities in Europe, the United States and Canada, several public service organizations started to offer Amharic language translation and interpretation services.


The etymology of the word Rastafari actually comes from Amharic. Ras Tafari was the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie I, composed of the Amharic words Ras (literally "Head", an Ethiopian title equivalent to duke), and Haile Selassie's pre-regnal given name, Tafari.

Many Rastafarians learn Amharic as a second language, as they consider it to be a sacred language. During the late 1960s study circles in Amharic were organized in Jamaica—a sort of Rastafarian parallel to the contemporary movement for civil rights in the United States. It was also a function of the post-colonial, Pan-African identity and Rastafarian awareness sweeping the ghetto after Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the island. Various reggae artists in the 70s, in the style later called roots reggae, including Ras Michael, Lincoln Thompson and Misty-in-Roots, have written songs in Amharic, thus bringing the sounds of this language to a wider audience. Especially the Abyssinians have used Amharic as sacred languages ​​in their songs.[5]

Satta Massagana

A notable early attempt to use Amharic in reggae was the song "Satta Massagana" by the Abyssinians, mistakenly believed to mean "Give thanks". However, this "Amharic" phrase seems to have been derived from looking in a bilingual dictionary and finding the entries säţţä for "give" (actually "he gave") and 'amässägänä for "thank" or "praise" (actually "he thanked" or "he praised"), by those unaware of the correct inflections of these verbs, the convention of always listing verbs in the past tense third person, or the pronunciation of the diacritical marks[citation needed]. The actual way to say "give thanks" in Amharic is only one word, misgana. Ironically, owing to the vast popularity of this song, "to satta" has even entered modern Rastafarian vocabulary as a verb meaning "to sit down and partake".


The Amharic script is included in Unicode, Nyala font is included on Windows7 (see Youtube video) and Vista (Amharic Language Interface Pack (LIP)) to display and edit using the Amharic Script. Now people can post in forums and blogs, send e-mail, or publish Web sites in Amharic. There are several free software programs, and also some commercial ones, for writing in Amharic for computers with prior versions of Windows. Some such software packages are: Keyman, GeezEdit, Hewan Amharic Software, AbeshaSoft and PowerGe'ez. In February 2010, Microsoft released its Windows Vista operating system in Amharic, enabling Amharic speakers to use its operating system in their language. Google has added Amharic to its Language Tools[6] which allow typing Amharic Script online without an Amharic Keyboard.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William, eds. (1996). "Ethiopic Writing". The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press, Inc. p. 573. ISBN 978-0-19-507993-7. 
  3. ^ "Principles and Specification for Mnemonic Ethiopic Keyboards". Retrieved 6 February 2012. 
  4. ^ September 28, 2010 (2010-09-28). "Simple Amharic Sentences". Bigaddis. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  5. ^ "SNWMF 2005 - Performers". Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  6. ^ "Google". Google. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 



External links