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Number of Speakers: 4.5 million
Key Dialects: Tigray, Asmara
Geographical Center: Tigrinya is spoken primarily in the Tigray province of Ethiopia and in the highlands and urban centers of Eritrea.
Tigrinya is one of the official languages of both Eritrea and Ethiopia. In Eritrea, Tigrinya is spoken by approximately 1.2 million people and forms a dialect continuum rooted in Ethiopic (Ge’ez). In Ethiopia, Tigrinya is spoken by approximately 3.2 million people. Outside Eritrea and Ethiopia, Tigrinya is spoken in Germany and Israel. In Israel, there is a community of about ten thousand Tiginya speakers. Tigrinya is sometimes confused with the distinct, but related language Tigre.
Tigrinya is a member of the Southern Semitic language subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family. It is therefore distantly related to Arabic and Hebrew. Tigrinya is closely related to Tigre and Ge’ez, a liturgical language.
Asmara is the dialect of Tigrinya spoken in Eritrea and Tigray is the dialect spoken in Ethiopia. There are regional subdialects of both Asmara and Tigray, but no study has systematically mapped out the boundaries of these. Nonetheless, the consensus among Tigrinya scholars is that are no significant social dialect differences.
The Ethiopic syllabary is used in writing Tigrinya. The characters used in Tigrinya are taken from Sabean through Ge’ez. In the process, Tigrinya added characters not present in either the Sabean or Ge’ez writing systems. In the orthography, each consonant symbol is found in seven forms, called “orders”. The order in which each consonant is found varies according to the vowel that follows, with some exceptions.
Tigrinya has seven vowels. Vowel sequences are not permitted and consonant sequences only occur word-internally. If the morphology conspires to create illicit sequences, then epenthesis (insertion) or deletion may occur. Certain consonant and vowel phonemes may only be inserted in specific environments (e.g. word-initially, medially, or finally).
As a Semitic language, the basic word formation processes in Tigrinya involve a set of templates. Words are based on consonantal roots that can be put in different templatic forms. Roots can have either three or four consonants. The templates themselves are consonant-vowel sequences, such as CVCVC.
Tigrinya nouns are either masculine or feminine and are inflected for number. Gender is not marked on the noun, but on nominal dependents like articles and adjectives. Verbs agree with their subjects and objects in person, number, and gender. Verbs are also marked for aspect and mood.
The basic word order in Tigrinya is SOV. Adjectives and other modifiers precede the nouns that they modify. Tigrinya has prepositions rather than postpositions and sentential negation is expressed by a circumfix around the verbal complex. The negative circumfix can also be attached to nouns, adjectives, and larger phrases.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
In Ethiopia Tigrinya is spoken throughout the Tigray province where it serves as a lingua franca among different ethnic groups and has the status of national language. Tigrinya is an official language in Eritrea as well. In both countries, it is used in the mass media (e.g. radio), in schools, and in government and non-governmental agencies.
The earliest written Tigrinya is from the 13th century and was found in Logosarda in southern Eritrea. Many of the words in this text, which concerns local laws, are similar to those found in modern Tigrinya. The syntax of Tigrinya has been influenced by Cushitic languages such as Agaw. Even so, the lexical and morphological structures remain solidly Semitic. Lexically, Tigrinya has borrowed heavily from Ge’ez, Italian, and English.
Ghebrehiwet, Mesfen. 1993. English-Tigrigna grammar.
Ghebrehiwet, Mesfen. A self-study Tigrigna for foreigners and English for Tigrigna speakers. Mesfin Ghebrehiwet.
Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.
Mason, John. (ed.). 1996. Tigrinya Grammar. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press.
Tewolde, Tesfay. 2000. A Grammar of Tigrinya. Rome: Simmos Printing Press.
Tuquabo, Aressi. 1987. Concise English-Tigrinya dictionary. Asmara: Ethiopian Studies Centre.
Uqbamicael Habtemariam. 1993. English-Tigrigna dictionary.
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