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Number of Speakers: 30 million

Key Dialects: Borana, Harar, Wellegga, Tulama, Arsi, Gujji, Raya, Orma, Munyo, Waata.

Geographical Center: Oromiya, the largest federal state within Ethiopia.

The fourth most widely spoken language of Africa (after Arabic, Hausa, and Swahili), Oromo is one of the major languages of Africa. Together with Amharic, it is the most important language of Ethiopia, where it is a national language and lingua franca. Over 40% of the population of Ethiopia claim Oromo descent, making them the largest ethnic group in the country. Oromo is spoken over a geographically wide expanse that includes Ethiopia, Kenya, and parts of Somalia and Egypt. As a result, a considerable number of dialects exist. Prior to 1974, Oromo was widely known as ‘Galla’. However, following the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974, the use of this name has fallen into disfavor and has come to be considered derogatory. Other names of the language include: Afaan Oromo, Oromiffa, and Oromoo.

Oromo is an East Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family.

Given the geographical disbursement of the language, dialectal variation is inevitable. On the whole, variation is on the minimal side, giving the impression of dialectal uniformity. Thus, interdialectal comprehensibility is high. Nonetheless, some dialects exhibit considerable differences. For example, Borana Oromo and Harar Oromo are different enough to warrant separate literatures. No single Oromo dialect has been officially chosen to represent the standard dialect.

The Oromo alphabet Qubee is based on the roman orthography.

The Oromo phoneme inventory includes twenty-eight consonants and five vowels, depending on the analysis. Vowel length is contrastive, geminates (double consonants) are tolerated, diphthongs (double discrete vowels) do not occur, and consonant clusters are attested although highly restricted. The syllable structure of Oromo can be schematized as follows: CV(V)(C), where C is a variable for ‘consonant’, V is a variable for ‘vowel’, VV represents a long vowel, and items in parentheses are optional. Oromo is a pitch-accent language rather than a pure tone language. That is to say, pitch is not contrastive as in tone languages and is dependent on the placement of word stress and to some degree, syntactic structure. Only the penultimate or final syllable of a root is accentuated, in which case it is realized with high pitch. In nominal expressions, the final syllable must be accented if the penultimate syllable also bears a pitch-accent. However, if the penultimate syllable does not receive an accent, then one is placed on the final syllable. With respect to verbs, accent is limited to jussive forms (see below), which always bear an accent on their first syllable. Reduplication is productive in the language and is used primarily for plural formation and to denote distribution or intensity in nouns. Some words tend to metathesize (completely reverse the linear order of their constituent phonemes). The Oromo lexicon contains numerous borrowings, primarily from European languages, but also from Arabic and Swahili.

Many (but not all) Oromo nouns inflect for gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), while all inflect for number (singular – specific vs. non-specific, plural) and case (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, locative, ablative, and vocative). Likewise for pronouns, which also inflect for person. Verbs inflect for person, gender, number, tense-aspect, mood, and voice. Tense marking does not play a major role in the language – the language divides events in time in two ways: complete (perfective/past) and incomplete (progressive – involving the present or future). Compound tenses are possible and are formed with a variety of auxiliary verbs. Several grammatical moods are attested: indicative, interrogative, imperative, and jussive (a directive mood that signals a speaker’s command, permission, or agreement). The voice system of Oromo involves three voices: active, passive, and the so-called “autobenefactive” (semi-passive/middle). Adjectives form a very small class in the language and inflect for gender and number. Nouns are typically used attributively to achieve the effect of adjectival modification. Adverbs form a large class of expressions in the language and bear case morphology. Both prepositions and postpositions exist, however, the use of postpositions is preferred and occurs with a higher frequency than the use of prepositions. Regarding word order, Oromo is an SOV language. Nouns precede modifiers, articles, pronouns, and case markers. Verbs follow their noun phrase arguments and occasionally their modifiers.

Oromo, along with Amharic, is one of the official national languages of Ethiopia. It is the primary trade language of Ethiopia and is used as a lingua franca in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. Oromo is used in both regional and national governmental administration, national commerce, and in mass media (newspaper, television, radio). Oromo language education is well developed; it is the medium of instruction in grades 1-8 and is taught in both secondary schools and in institutions of higher education. Oromo achieved the status of literary language of Ethiopia in 1992.

Very little information about the historical origins of the language and culture is available. However, scholars claim to have traced the existence of the Oromo language back to at least the 16th century. The original homeland of the Oromo people included much of what is now Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Over the course of the 20th century, the Oromo lost their sovereignty under the dictatorship of Haile Selassie, an Amharic monarch. Under his rule, the Oromo language was banned and the Amharic culture was imposed upon its citizens. In 1974, an Oromo coup overthrew Selassie and Ethiopia was made a republic one year later.

Gamta, Tilahun. 1989. Oromo-English Dictionary.

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

Griefenow-Mewis, Catherine. 2001. A Grammatical Sketch of Written Oromo. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Hodson, Arnold W. and Craven H. Walker. 1922. An Elementary and Practical Grammar of the Galla or Oromo Language. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Owens, Jonathan. 1985. A Grammar of Harar Oromo (Northeastern Ethiopia). Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.

Stroomer, Harry. 1987. A Comparative Study of Three Southern Oromo Dialects in Kenya. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.

Stroomer, Harry. 1995. A Grammar of Boraana Oromo (Kenya). Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Tucho, Yigazu, R. David Zorc, and Eleanor C. Barna. 1996. Oromo Newspaper Reader, Grammar Sketch, and Lexicon.

Zaborski, Mohammed Ali, Andrzej. 1990. Handbook of the Oromo Language. Wroclaw: Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolinskich – Wydawnictwo.

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