Ethnic Groups, Ethnicity, and Language

Ethiopia Table of Contents

One way of segmenting Ethiopia's population is on the basis of language. However, the numbers in each category are uncertain, and estimates are often in conflict. At present, at least seventy languages are spoken as mother tongues, a few by many millions, others by only a few hundred persons. The number of distinct social units exceeds the number of languages because separate communities sometimes speak the same language. More than fifty of these languages--and certainly those spoken by the vast majority of Ethiopia's people--are grouped within three families of the Afro-Asiatic super-language family: Semitic (represented by the branch called Ethio-Semitic and by Arabic), Cushitic, and Omotic. In addition, about 2 percent of the population speaks the languages of four families--East Sudanic, Koman, Berta, and Kunema--of the Nilo-Saharan super-language family.

Most speakers of Ethio-Semitic languages live in the highlands of the center and north. Speakers of East Cushitic languages are found in the highlands and lowlands of the center and south, and other Cushitic speakers in the center and north; Omotic speakers live in the south; and Nilo-Saharan speakers in the southwest and west along the border with Sudan. Of the four main ethno-linguistic groups of Ethiopia, three--the Amhara, Tigray, and Oromo--generally live in the highlands; the fourth--the Somali--live in the lowlands to the southeast.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress