Propagation of language- the languages of Ethiopia


This piece has 12 parts. It describes the propagation of language, gives the names of most languages of Ethiopia, with emphasis on Amarigna, Oromigna, Somaligna, and Tigrigna. It also indicates difficulties of organizing Ethiopians on a federal structure composed of language-based regions.


1. Language does not indicate which group of people ruled over other groups, nor does it change the ethnicity or origin of people.

A language (superstratum) propagates over another (substratum). Consider the following English phrase as a way of examining a superstratum and substratum. [1]

Superstratum:       "the southern people"--  as spoken by an Englishman.

Substratum-a:      "ze saz'n pipl"-- as spoken by a non-Englishman.

Substartum-b:      "za souzern bibl"--as spoken by another non-Englishman.

  The same language (superstratum) propagating on different languages (substrata) may result in separate dialects, or even different languages if the substrata are different from each other.  For example, different Roman legions (speaking Latin) ruled over Western Europe that resulted in the Spanish, Portuguese, and French languages. The propagation of a language does not change the origin of people, as the Portuguese are not Italians or Frenchmen though their speech is rooted in Latin (superstartum).  This would be an example of how the language of the rulers propagated on the subjects.   Yet, there are cases where the language of the subjects propagated on the rulers. An example of the latter case would be the Manchurians that invaded China and ruled over them for centuries.  The nannies, house employees and field workers spoke Chinese causing the employers to speak Chinese.  Consequently, the Chinese language propagated over the ruling Manchurians.  Clearly, the propagation of a language does not indicate what group of people ruled over others. 


2. Superposing of a superstratum over a substratum of languages does not necessarily indicate the superposing of one culture over others.

In the recent past, Imperial Britain had colonized India.  The Indians have liberated themselves, but have elected to use English as their national language. The English language (superstratum) is propagating over the different languages (substrata) of India. However, though language is part of culture, the Indian culture has not been erased or diminished, or otherwise subordinated.  Within India, the English culture is not a superstructure and the Indian a substructure, though the English language is a superstratum and the various Indian languages are the substrata. 


3- The Semitic language propagated from Ethiopia to the Middle East.

The study of languages (linguistics) has allowed specialists to determine world language groups, and the propagation of languages. Such a study has placed Ge'ez, Hebraic, and Arabic as Semitic languages. It is also suggested that the Semitic language propagated from Ethiopia to the Middle East from which the Hebraic and Arabic sprang. [2]


4. Propagation of Ge'ez over the rest of Ethiopian languages- intermarriage and the inability to identify a people called Ge'ez.

The Agaw who spoke Cushitic languages are said to have occupied a large territory of Ethiopia including the northern parts. Those who spoke Ge'ez also lived in Ethiopia. The Agaw and those who spoke Ge'ez were so thoroughly intermarried that, except for the existence of the Ge'ez language, there are no otherwise separately knowable people called the Ge'ez in any part of Ethiopia or the world. We cannot even be sure the GeÕez as spoken now is the same as that done in ancient times. Some of the words in GeÕez may even be hybridized. For instance, it has been suggested that the name of the ancient Ethiopian city of Aksum likely is a hybridized word from the languages of the Agaw (Ah^w) for water and the Semite (Siyyum) for Chief. Thus, it is beleived  that "Water chiefÓ was called Ò Ah^w SiyyumÓ, which developed to the name Aksum. [3]


5. Propagation of the Ge'ez over the rest of Ethiopian languages- the designation of the Semitic people of Ethiopia.

The propagation of the Ge'ez (superstratum) over other languages (substrata) have resulted in the Semitic languages of Ethiopia that include the following: Amharic, Arabic, Argobba, Gurage, Harari -Aderigna, Ino'r, Sebat Bet Gurage, Silti, Tigrigna, TigrŽ. [4] The people who speak these languages are said to be Semitic.


6. Amharigna/Amharic - a Semitic language and its evolution.

Though the linguistic characteristics make Amharic a Semitic language, its evolution is not well known.  Before emperor Ezana accepted the Christian religion and placed the cross on his coinage with the phrase "Servant of God", the coinage of Aksumite emperors had the crescent and the phrase " Son of the invincible god Mahrem." [5] The Ethiopian monarchs always referred to their mission by conceptually aligning it with that of God.  The question is: does "Mahrem" have anything to do with the appellation Amhara?  Scholars have suggested that the Ge'ez origin for the term is "am" for people and "hara" for free, so that Amhara refers to free people, or people that value freedom.  [6] The Amhara then would be a free people that served under the "Son of the invincible god Mahrem" in those times before the Aksumite emperor accepted Christianity, or as Christians under the "servant of God" afterwards.  However, because there is a place called Amara Saynt in Welo, other scholars have proposed Amhara is the language of the Amara Saynt that has propagated over Ethiopia. [7] In the latter interpretation, the Amhara would be those from Amara Saynt, while those of other regions that may speak Amharic are not Amhara by origin.  Yet, many Ethiopians identify themselves as Amhara, though not as an ethnic identity other than that they are Ethiopians.  Whatever its origin, Amharigna is a national language, and those who speak it are Ethiopians and do not belong to any particular ethnic group. [Are there people who call themselves Amhara in Ethiopia?  Yes there are. Are they a Gossa, tribe, or clan.  No they are not. They are Ethiopians that speak Amharigna.  They are Amhara because they speak Amharigna that propagated over the languages of their progenitors.  Commonly, in most regions the Amhara peasant uses his identity as Amhara to imply that s/he is Christian, and uses the name Gala to Ethiopians who are of a Moslem faith.  Yet, there are Moslems who also identify themselves as Amhara in other regions.  Hence, the meaning of Amhara is quite complex, and not agreed upon by all.]


  7. Oromigna/ Oromiffaor Afan Oromo- a Cushitic language and its evolution.

One of the major languages in Ethiopia is Oromigna /Oromiffa, a Cushitic language. It is a language that has propagated over Ethiopians mostly of central and southern regions, whose progenitors spoke different other languages.  Many different languages spoken by Ethiopians that lived in those regions served as the substrata for the Oromiffa superstratum, and produced the different dialects of Oromiffa of Ethiopia.  Whereas Amharigna propagated over other languages as the Ethiopian Christian Kingdom ruled over those regions, Oromiffa propagated over other languages pursuant to the Ahmad Gragn Jihad Wars of Ethiopia in early 16th century and thereafter.  As Gragna and/or his soldiers marched over the Christian Kingdom from the southeast to the center, the west and the north, the Oromiffa language propagated along with and in the wake of Gragn's conquest.  Ahmad Gragn had killed many Christians but he did not annihilate the entire population he conquered, neither did the Gala (now called Oromo) that spoke Oromiffa wipe out the preexisting Ethiopian in the regions they settled. Much before the Jihad Wars of Gragn it is likely that some Oromo might have settled in Ethiopia even though they likely had assimilated the local language. With the serious weakening of the control of the Christian kingdom during and after the Jihad Wars by Gragn, and the consequent northerward migration of the Oromo, their language, Oromiffa, propagated over the preexisting Ethiopian languages of the conquered regions. It might be a case of the majority accepting the language of the minority, and turning it into a language of the majority. Consider Welega Province that was likely inhabited by the Agaw. Medieval Damot and Innary are well known places in Ethiopian history. However, neither the people of these regions were referred as Gala/Oromo, nor was the Oromigna/Oromiffa language mentioned as the language of Ethiopians in these or other regions in the literature of Ethiopia before the Jihad. Before the propagation of Oromigna/Oromiffa over Welega in the 16th century, northern Welega was called Damot, while the other was part of Innarya. The propagation of Oromiffa over the people of medieval Damot [subsequently, Damot became the name of a region in Gojam] and Innary gave the Oromigna/ Oromiffa of Welega. The Oromigna that propagated over the language of the Inhabitants between River Didessa and River Omo and south of RiverGibie resulted in the Mecha dialect, while that over Shewa resulted in the Tulama. It is not clear how many Oromigna/Oromiffa speaking people moved to medieval Damot and Innary or shewa for the Ormiffa to propagate over the earlier languages.  It is remarkable that excluding the Gada culture of the Oromo, which is not practised now, the culture of most of the inhabitants of Welega, as recounted in stories shared during times of mourning such as how the ancients hunted, dated, defended their families during squabbles, et cetera, are indistinguishable from those shared by inhabitants of Gojam and Begemedir.  The Tulama speaking Oromos have a lot in common with the cultures of other Ethiopians of Shewa. The Welega, Mecha, and Tulama dialects are different from the Borena dialects of the center, and the Qottu of the eastern regions. The Borena dialects result from the propagation of Oromifa on the the language of the inhabitants of ancient Ethiopians of Bali, Dawaro and part of Fatager (now Arsi) and Welo. The subdialects of the Borena Oromifa dialect include the Borena, Arsi, Guji, Ittu, Annia and Welo. In the Vicinity of the City of Harar and eastwards the Qottu dialect include the Nola,Babbile, and the Jarso.  [4] In these same regions it is likely that a Semitic language had propagated over the ancient inhabitants before Oromiffa did. After all, the the semitc Adare language is preserved at least in the Walled city of Harar. Moreover, in southern regions there are several strong languages in which the substrata (e.g., Welayeta, Gumuz, Gurghigna,Hadiyya, Sidama, etc.) survived extinction by accommodating some words from the superstrata (Amharic or  Oromiffa). [Are there people who call themselves  Oromo in Ethiopia?  Yes there are. Are they a Gossa, tribe, or clan.  No, they are not. They are Ethiopians that speak Oromigna/Oromiffa of different dialects depending on the language spoken by previous Ethiopians.  They are Oromo because they speak Oromign/Oromiffa that propagated over the languages of their progenitors. Are the Oromo Habasha?  Absolutely yes. They are descendents of ancient Ethiopians whose progenitors spoke languages before Oromiffa propagated over them.  The new people (Gala) that migrated to the region were thoroughly intermarried, and it would be difficult to single out the non-Habasha among the Oromiffa-speaking Ethiopians.]



8. Somali/Somaligna

The Somali speak languages and dialects most of which are intelligible to Standard Somali that is based on the dominant language of Northern Somalia. [8]The Somali languages and dialects include Standard Somali, Af-Soomaali, Af-Maxxaad Tiri,  Af-Ashraaf, Degodia, Ogaden, Maay, and Digil.  [8]All the dialects of the Somali language belong to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic languages.  Some of the Somali dialects are intelligible with eastern Oromigna [9], though other authorities disagree with such an assertion.[10]


Linguistic study has reportedly led Heine (1979) to propose that a people called "Sam" about 1000 to 500 B.C, spoke a version of the Cushitic language. [11] The "Sam" lived east of the Omo River and north of River Tana in Kenya.  The "Sam" migrated northeastward into what is now Somalia and Ethiopia, and their language propagated over other languages of previous inhabitants ultimately resulting in a people called Samaale or Somaal based on the language they spoke.


9. The Tigrey as a name of a language, a people, and a region.

As indicated above, Tigrigna is a Semitic language. It likely resulted from the propagation of Ge'ez over the Agaw. The people that speak Tigrigna are called Tigre (Tigerawe, Tigrai).  Moreover, outside of Eritrea, a large number of the people who live in the province of Tigrey are Tigrey people (Tigrawe).  Thus, the Tigrey (Tigrawe) may be said to have a homeland. However, the homeland conception apparently results in serious problems in the conception of citizenship by many Tigrey (Tigrawe) individuals of Tigrey Province, and Tigrey regions of Eritrea (Hamasen, Serae, Akaleguzae) that include, 1) an identity crises between allegiance to Tigrey (the province, or the Hamasen and adjoining highlands) versus to Ethiopia (the country), and 2) an inability to fathom that other regions of Ethiopia are not divided into homelands inhabited by people that speak one major language within each homeland.  The problem is compounded by the use of the terms (derived from Ge'ez) such as b'her and b'hereseb.  So long as the word Tigrey (Tigrawe) refers to people that live in the Tigrey province, no amount of discussion on b'her and b'herseb can clarify to many a "Tigrawe intellectual" the distinction in the meanings of the two words as that may seem to them to be a distinction without a difference.  Given the political upper hand, as we observed since 1991 to 2005, such ÒTigrawe intellectuals" would just as easily raise in their imagination the political structure that they are used to in their native province, and group Ethiopians into different homelands. However, outside of Tigrey a homeland designation is wrong because the designation is not founded on history, or the ease of administration, or on a desire of the people of the pertinent regions.  The designation of homeland outside of Tigrey was used before the TPLF implemented it by Fascist Italy to disunite and weaken Ethiopia. 



10. The Semitic and Cushitic designations.

Sem and Ham and Japeth were children of Noah. Ham is supposed to be cursed by Noah for having told to Sem and Japeth the nakedness of their father. Descendents of Ham include Cush or Ethiopia (Genesis 10:6). Mitsrayan or Egypt, PuT or Libya, and Canaanites. This then is the origin for the linguistic designation of Semites and Cushities.  The Semitic, which is an Afro-Asiatic language propagated from Ethiopia to the Middle East, indicating that Semites also lived in Ethiopia a long time ago. [7] Irrespective of the presumed origin of the names Semitic, Cushitic, et cetera, there nonetheless are such languages that have distinguishable characteristics.



11. The languages of Ethiopians.

The national language of Ethiopia is Amharigna (or Amharic). However, Ethiopians speak subsets of the three major Afroasiatic languages namely the Cushitic, Semitic, and Omotic, and a fourth one, Nilotic, totaling more than eighty languages, some of which are adapted from authorities [4] and are given below.


Aari (Omotic), Afar (Cushitic), Alaba (Cushitic), Amharigna (Semitic) Anfillo (Omotic), Anuak (Nilotic), Arabic (Semitic), Arbore (Cushitic), Argobba (Semitic), Awngi (Agaw, Cushitic), Baiso (Cushitic), Bambassi (Omotic), Basketto (Omotic), Bedawi (Cushitic), Bench (Omotic), Berta (Nilotic), Bilen (Cushitic), Birale (unclassified, Omotic?), Boro (Omotic), Burji (Cushitic), Bussa (Cushitic), Chara (Omotic), Daasanach (Omotic), Dime (Omotic), Dirasha (Cushitic), Dizi (Omotic), Dorze (Omotic), Gamo-Gofa-Dawro (Omotic), Ganza (Omotic), Gawwada (Cushitic), Gedeo  (Cushitic), Gumuz (Nilotic), Gurage, East (Semitic), Gurage, Soddo (Semitic), Gurage, West (Semitic), Hadiyya (Cushitic), Hamer-Banna (Omotic), Harari -Aderigna (Semitic), Hozo (Omotic), Ino'r (Semitic), Kachama-Ganjule (Omotic), Kacipo-Balesi (Nilotic), Kafa (Omotic), Kambaata (Cushitic), Karo (Omotic), Komo (Nilotic), Komso (Cushitic), Koorete (Omotic), Kunama (Nilotic), Kunfal (Cushitic), Kwama (Nilotic), Kwegu (Nilotic), Libido  (Cushitic), Majang (Nilotic), Male (Omotic), Me'en (Nilotic), Melo (Omotic), Mesmes (Semitic), Murle (Nilotic), Mursi (Nilotic), Nara (Nilotic), Nayi (Omotic), Nuer (Nilotic), Nyangatom (Nilotic), Opuuo (Nilotic), Oromo, Borena-Arsi-Guji (Cushitic), Oromo, Eastern, Qottu (Cushitic), Oromo, West-central (Cushitic), Oyda (Omotic), Qimant (Cushitic), Rer Bare (unclassified, Gode?), Saho (Cushitic), Sebat Bet Gurage (Semitic), Seze (Omotic), Shabo (Nilotic), Shakacho (Omotic), Sheko (Omotic), Sidamo  'Afo (Cushitic), Silti (Semitic), Somali (Cushitic), Suri (Nilotic), Tigrigna (Semitic), TigrŽ (Semitic), Tsamai (Cushitic), Uduk (Nilotic), Wolaytta (Omotic), Xamtanga (Cushitic), Yemsa (Omotic), Zay (Semitic), Zayse-Zergulla (Omotic).


12. Problems of assigning the language of people as the basis for naming regions and forming a federation of such regions.

The whole concept of raising in the imagination a federation on the basis of assigning territory (state) that has the same name as the perceived major language spoken by inhabitants of that territory immediately poses an identity crisis and is a sure method of destroying the allegiance of inhabitants to Ethiopia as a country. To begin with , language-based regionalization is a non-starter since there are over eighty different languages in Ethiopia, and no one has proposed to form over eighty separate states ("killil").  The moment one presents less than ten states based on the perceived language spoken by the majority of a region, there will be other languages that would be subordinated within a so-called language-based region.  Hence, language-based regionalization solves no problems. However, language based regionalization spawns problems.   A major way by which Ethiopia maintained its independence over the centuries is because individuals and groups had "yilugntal", i.e., they subordinated their greed to the will of the nation. [2] When administrative regions are not based on ethnicity, as in all parts of Ethiopia except for Tigrey, Ethiopia is the community to which most Ethiopians felt they belonged to.  When all the administrative regions are ethnic homelands, the community for an individual is supposed to be her/his ethnic homeland ("killil"). Some will more readily develop allegiance to their homeland more than they do to Ethiopia or they will equivocate about their allegiances. However, for most Ethiopians to accept such identity it will require lots of years of governance under ethnic-based system.  In an ethnic-based federalism Ethiopia would be analogous to the United Nations, but not to a coherent country for which all citizens would care and have a  yulegnta  . Yelugnta yalelew sew lezabis, tchiko, qletam, ena hodam yemeslal.  Quite simply, governance by dividing Ethiopia by language is a sure method of instilling the concept of Gossa when none existed before, and eventually destroying Ethiopia. Such a division poses the greatest security problem for the well being of Ethiopia.  Though the TPLF has tried since 1991 to destroy Ethiopia by all machinations possible, the momentum of centuries of freedom had nullified its foolish attempts.  However, continued governance by dividing regions named on the language that people speak, as in Tigria, Amahara, Oromia, Somalia etc., will result in grave problems in the future. The solution to this national security problem is to assign none of the names of the Ethiopian languages as the name of any administrative region (province or state.), while at the same time supporting the democratic rights of all Ethiopians to develop their languages as individuals and/or groups.




HG revised 12/23/2006





References (reminders)

[1] Prof. Getatchew Haile, EEDN discussion

[2] Prof. Greenberg, 1963

[3][Prof. Taddesse Tamrat, 1988]

[4]- URL:"".

[5]- Munuro-Hay, 1992

[6] Prof, Mesfin- yekehdet qulqulet

[7] Prof. Donald Levin, 2004

8-19 - cccg 2003

9-20 - cccg 2003

10-21- GH-Persnal Comm

11-22- cccg 2003