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Number of Speakers: 17.4 million

Geographical Center: North-central Ethiopia (Amhara region)

Amharic is spoken by over 17 million people in Ethiopia, where (in addition to Oromo) it is a national language, and by 40,000 people in Israel. Amharic is also spoken in Egypt and Sweden. Close to 15 million Amharic speakers are monolingual. The remainder of the population speaks English, Oromo, Arabic, and Tigrinya as well. Together with Oromo, Amharic is one of the most important languages of Ethiopia. Amharic is known by a number of alternate names including Abyssinian, Amarinya, Amarigna, and Ethiopian.

Amharic is a South Ethiopian language of the South Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Within the South Ethiopian group, it is a Transversal language of the Amharic-Argobba subgroup. It is thus most closely related to Argobba.

Minimal variation outside of pronunciation. All dialects are highly mutually intelligible.

The Amharic alphabet is called fidäl, meaning ‘letter’. It is a syllabary writing system, since in the orthography consonants and vowels do not exist independently of each other. The Amharic alphabet is written from left to right and consists of 33 consonants, each having seven ‘orders’ or shapes depending on the vowel with which the consonant is combined.

The Amharic phoneme inventory is comprised of 31 consonants and 7 vowels, depending on the analysis. The glottalized or ejective series of consonant phonemes in particular is characteristic of the Amharic sound system. Consonant clusters are tolerated, but not in initial position. All but two phonemes in the Amharic consonant inventory may occur in geminated (double consonant) form. Gemination is phonemic or contrastive in the language. Consonantal assimilation is widespread. The distribution of stress on each syllable is for the most part uniform, although as a general rule the last syllable of a word tends not to be stressed. (Note: some Amharic scholars contest this assessment of stress.) The syllable structure of Amharic can be schematized as follows: (C)V(C)(C), where C is a variable for ‘consonant’, V is a variable for ‘vowel’, and items in parentheses are optional. Reduplication is productive and serves a variety of grammatical functions.

Amharic nouns inflect by adding affixes in the following order: gender (masculine/feminine), number (singular/plural), definiteness (definite/indefinite), case nominative/accusative/genitive/vocative) and direct object status. Affixation in the language is predominantly suffixal, although prefixation occurs as well. Few primary adjectives exist in the language. Most are derived from nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech. As in other Semitic languages (such as Hebrew, for example), Amharic verb forms are derived by applying various templates (vowel and affix patterns) to a set of roots consisting of between three to five consonants. Verbs inflect for person, number, gender, aspect (perfect/imperfect – n.b. tense and complex/compound tenses are expressed by means of auxiliary verbs), mood (indicative/imperative/interrogative/optative), voice (active/passive), and polarity (positive/negative). Verbs agree with their subjects and optionally with their objects. Prepositions and postpositions are both attested. In fact, both may co-occur (with rare exceptions, postpositions are used in combination with prepositions) to mark a particular relation in a given sentence. Most postpositions are of nominal origin. The typical clause of order in Amharic is SOV. Nonetheless, extraposition (cf. “left dislocation”), that is, the clause-initial positioning (plus pronominal resumption) of objects, verbs, modifiers, or other expressions that do not typically occur clause-initially, is a characteristic feature of Amharic word order. In this way, OSV word orders are often encountered in colloquial usage. Genitives, articles, relative clauses, and modifiers precede their head nouns in noun phrases. Objects precede verbs within the verb phrase.

Amharic is one of the official or national languages of Ethiopia. As such, it is used in governmental administration, public media and mass communication (television, radio, literature, entertainment, etc.), and national commerce. Amharic is taught in schools up to the seventh grade in many areas. Roughly one quarter of the population is literate in the written form of the language.

The Amharic people descend from an ancient tribe who inhabited the Amhara region of the Ethiopian state. Amharic has been the language of the ruling class in Ethiopia since the end of the 13th century. The earliest written records of Amharic are the Imperial songs, which date back to the 14th century. Amharic was used by Portuguese missionaries in the early 17th century. Around that time, Amharic became the lingua franca in Ethiopia. The first attestation of Amharic’s use in the arena of national government was the publication of the royal chronicles, which were written in the 19th century at the time of Emperor Theodoros II. From that point forward, Amharic officially became the written language of Ethiopia, developing one of the most extensive written literatures (if not the largest) in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Alone, J.P.H.M. 1959. Short Manual of the Amharic Language. Fifth edition. Madras: Macmillan and Company Limited.

Appleyard, David. 1995. Colloquial Amharic. London and New York: Routledge.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Leslau, Wolf. 1969. An Amharic Reference Grammar. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Leslau, Wolf. 2000. Introductory Grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

Titov, E.G. 1976. Modern Amharic Language. Nauka Publishing House.

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