Jewish Ethiopian Languages
Description by Anbessa Teferra
Historically, Jews in Ethiopia, known as Beta Israel, spoke several languages: Qwaräñña, Amharic, and Tigrinya, and they read and recited texts in Ge'ez, a language spoken in Ethiopia until the 10th century and also used for Christian scripture. Their languages were quite similar to the non-Jewish languages around them; there were very few distinctive Jewish features. Today, most Ethiopian Jews speak Amharic, Hebrew, or a contact language variety known as Hebraized Amharic, including many influences from Modern Hebrew.
Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic) is an ancient Ethio-Semitic language that was spoken in northern Ethiopia and what is today Eritrea. It ceased to be a spoken language after the fall of the Aksumite kingdom toward the beginning of the 10th century.
The oldest known inscription in Gee'z dates from the 3rd or 4th century CE. It is assumed that the Bible was translated into Ge'ez between the 5th and 7th centuries, while the period of classical Ge'ez literature was between the 13th and 17th centuries. Ge'ez is the liturgical language of five groups: the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo, the Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholic Christians, and the Beta Israel. As a liturgical language, it is used in prayer and in public celebrations.
Names of language:
Jewish Amharic, אמהרית מעוברת አማርይስጥ
Territories where it was/is spoken:
- originated: Ethiopia
- today: mostly Israel
Estimated # speakers:
Fidäl syllabary (but mostly occurs as a spoken language)
Sacred texts in Ge’ez, periodicals in Amharic until 2016
The Orit (Torah) of Christians and the Beta Israel is identical. However, there are differences between Christians and Beta Israel in the usage of Ge'ez as a liturgical language. For instance, the prayers of Christians contain the formula ‟By the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” while Beta Israel will say ‟May the Almighty G-d of Israel be blessed.” In addition, the Beta Israel produced a few religious works of their own such as “The Death of Moses,” “The Death of Aaron,” “The Percepts of Sabbath,” and others.
"The Book of Jubilees" in Ge'ez on OpenSiddur
"The Death of Moses" in Ge'ez on OpenSiddur
Amharic is an Ethio-Semitic language, which is a subgrouping within the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic phylum. It is the mother tongue of the Amhara ethnic group, which resides mostly in the central highlands of Ethiopia. In addition, Amharic also serves as a lingua franca for millions of other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Amharic is one of the five official working languages of the Ethiopian federal government. It has more than 32 million native speakers (Ethnologue) and is the second-largest Semitic language in the world after Arabic. Furthermore, around 3 million emigrants outside of Ethiopia speak Amharic. Around 45% of Ethiopian Jews in Israel speak it as their mother tongue, while those born in Israel, around 45%, exclusively speak Hebrew. The remainder speak Tigrinya. Rastafarians consider Amharic a holy language.
Amharic has five varieties, and among them, the dialect of the capital city Addis Ababa is considered the standard variety. The oldest extant records in Amharic are songs and poems dating from the 14th century, after the rise of the Solomonic dynasty.
Linguistic Features of Amharic
Syllable structure: Amharic syllable structure is of the style (C)V(C)(C), with no more than one consonant permitted in the onset position, and no more than two in other positions. A geminate consonant counts as two.
Vowels: Amharic has seven phonemic vowels.
Consonants: Amharic has 33 consonants. Obstruents exhibit a triadic contrast between voiceless, voiced, and ejective. The Amharic consonantal system is unique because 18 of the consonants have at least one labialized form, while four of them have a set of five labialized forms. All consonants, except /h/ and the glottal stop /ʔ/, may occur in a geminated form. Gemination is contrastive, for example distinguishing between wana ‘swimming’ and wanna ‘main.’
Stress: Stress is not significant and generally falls on a final closed syllable or, otherwise, on the penultimate.
The Amharic script called fidäl (ʻletter’) contains 34 basic symbols and is an offshoot of the Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic) writing system. In contrast to other Semitic languages, it is written from left to right, and vowels are represented, though not as an independent form. Therefore the script is considered to be a syllabary, or abugida, rather than an alphabet. Each of the 34 letters has seven shapes, one for each of the seven vowels of Amharic. Although gemination is contrastive, the script does not differentiate between single and geminate letters. The Amharic syllabary is usually presented as a grid with seven vowels of Amharic for each consonant. Below is the syllabary in the most common ha-hu order, alongside the syllabary with Roman script sounds:
© 2023 by Anbessa Teferra. All Rights Reserved
As a Semitic language, Amharic employs root-and-pattern morphology. This system is characterized by a root that consists of radicals that carry the lexical meaning, while a templatic pattern comprises consonantal positions and vowels that encode the grammatical function. Amharic has complex inflectional morphology, particularly for verbs, employing not only root-and-pattern morphology but also affixes that denote gender, number, directness, etc.
The usual word order of Amharic is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). However, if the object is topicalized it may precede the subject (OSV). Noun phrases are head-final with adjectives and other modifiers preceding their nouns.
Amharic has many loanwords from Cushitic languages. It also borrowed heavily from Ge'ez.
The Amharic spoken by Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia was not unique to the Jewish community, aside from some Christian religious terms, names, and expressions that Ethiopian Jews avoided. For example:
Jewish-Amharic speakers avoid the Orthodox Christian Amharic congratulatory message for a woman who has recently given birth (እንኳን ማርያም ማረችሽ / ǝnkwan Maryam maräččǝš / ‘it is good that Mary has pardoned you’), instead opting for (እንኳን እግዚአብሔር በሰላም ገላገለሽ / ǝnkwan ǝgziʾabher bä-sälam gälag-gäläš / ‘it is good that God has relieved you peacefully’).
In Amharic, Ethiopian Jews call a certain type of grasshopper የሙሴ ፈረስ ya-muse faras (‘horse of Moses’), while Christians call it የማርያም ፈረስ ya-maryam faras (‘Mary’s horse’).
Ethiopian Jewish names are devoid of compound personal names that contain Jesus, Mary, etc. as a second member as in: Haile Mariam “Power of Mary” or Gebre Iyesus “Servant of Jesus.”
After Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel, their main mother tongue, Amharic, came into contact with Modern Hebrew. Consequently, a new variety is evolving that has been labeled Jewish Amharic, Israeli Amharic, or Hebraized Amharic (Teferra 2018). Hebraized Amharic differs from standard Amharic in phonology, morphology, and lexicon. The main difference is in the area of lexicon, followed by phonology. Morphology shows only a slight variation. Syntax is hardly affected, at least at the synchronic stage.
Regarding phonology, the differences are phoneme substitution, in particular of those Hebrew sounds which are unfamiliar to Amharic speakers. With regard to the lexicon, Hebrew words are used where there is a lack of equivalent forms in Amharic or where the Jewish Amharic speakers are not aware of such equivalents in Amharic. In addition, uneducated Amharic speakers substitute Hebrew place names with Amharic ones, which sound similar but may not necessarily carry the same meaning. The use of Hebrew-Amharic “sandwich expressions” is another interesting area of the lexicon. Although some of the lexical items come from Hebrew, all of the grammatical affixes originate in Amharic. Regarding morphology, Jewish Amharic is characterized by pattern substitution in certain verbs.
Amharic is heavily used by the immigrant generation, but not by their children. This implies that, as long as there is immigration (aliyah) of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, the process will continue. Conversely, if immigration ceases at some point, then Jewish Amharic will definitely recede and may ultimately die out. Thankfully, a recent Israel Science Fund grant has been obtained to document this transient Jewish language variety. It is hoped that a larger amount of data from various sources may allow us to get a clearer picture of Jewish Amharic.
Amharic is one of several immigrant languages taught at Israeli high schools as a 5-unit heritage language. It is taught in more than 40 schools and is primarily intended to allow Ethiopian Jewish youngsters to receive a matriculation (bagrut) certificate. Amharic is taught also to enhance communication between children and their parents, who usually speak two different languages.
In addition to school use, Amharic also has a limited place in the Israeli mass media. Every day there is an Amharic radio broadcast for three hours on REQA (Rashut Qlitat Aliyah ‘The Aliyah Absorption Network’) and a television broadcast in Amharic 24 hours a day on Israel Ethiopian Television (IETV). Most of the TV programming originates in Ethiopia; the local content is not more than 15%.
Amharic and Ge'ez are mainly used for religious observance in Israel. In their studies, Israeli-born Qesim learn Ge'ez partially. There is a prayerbook written in Israel by an Ethiopian-born man concerned about the loss of the language for liturgical use.
Contemporary, Hybrid Styles
Eden Alene singing Feker Libi at the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest
Ester Rada - Nanu Ney
Traditional Amharic Song
Dejen Manchilot performing Aleli Alela on Israeli TV
Liturgical chants of the Ethiopian Jews
Ysgedu, traditionally sung on the holiday of Sigd
Amharic is the mother tongue of the vast majority of Jews born in Ethiopia, and few Jews today speak Tigrinya. Most Tigrinya speakers made aliyah to Israel in the early 1980s and were quickly assimilated and adopted Hebrew. Amharic-speaking Ethiopian Jews also adopted Hebrew after immigrating to Israel. However, in contrast to Tigrinya speakers, Amharic speakers arrived in Israel over different waves spanning from the 1980s to the present, allowing for greater distribution of assimilation.
Tigrinya is the largest language of the state of Eritrea and one of the three working languages of the country, alongside Arabic and English. It is also the working language of the Tigray regional state in Ethiopia. The Tigrinya-speaking area encompasses the Eritrean Highlands and the northern part of the Ethiopian Highlands. Tigrinya is prevalent in the diaspora too: in Arab countries (particularly Sudan and Saudi Arabia), North America, Western Europe, Israel, etc. In the last decade with the refugee wave from Eritrea, the number of speakers of this language in Israel has significantly grown. The total number of Tigrinya speakers in the world is estimated to be around 10 million. It is assumed that Tigrinya has five dialects.
Tigrinya has adopted its script from Ge'ez. The modern Tigrinya alphabet has some modified letters to indicate sounds that were lacking in Ge'ez, and at the same time it also lacks some Ge'ez letters. As in Ge'ez, the Tigrinya script has seven orders, and it is a syllabic system in that each letter comprises a consonant and a vowel (CV). The exception is the sixth order that lacks a vowel word finally or as the first member of a consonant cluster.
Tigrinya retains four laryngeal phonemes: ʔ, h, ḥ, and ʕ. One of the numerous features typical of nominal morphology is broken plurals, formed by vocalic transfixes and other morphemes (mäftǝḥ “key” – pl. mäfatǝḥ; ʕašša “fool” – pl. ʕayaššu). Tigrinya retains a system of verbal stems. In this language, sentences are head-final, where the main verb is in the final position.
Qwarenynya, Falashan, and Kayligna
In the distant past, Ethiopian Jews used to speak Qwaräñña (sometimes spelled Qwarenynya), which is a dialect of Kemantney according to Appleyard (1988). It is no longer spoken by Ethiopian Jews. Nevertheless, there are various Qwaräñña words and phrases interspersed in the Ge'ez-based liturgy of Ethiopian Jews. There are even some whole chapters in Qwaräñña. In addition to Qwaräñña, Appleyard lists Falashan and Kayliñña as the extinct languages of Ethiopian Jews.
Birkat Hamazon prayer for breaking fast on Sigd (OpenSiddur)
To cite: Teferra, Anbessa. 2023. Jewish Ethiopian Languages. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. https://www.jewishlanguages.org/jewish-ethiopian. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.