Ethio-Semitic Language Groups

Ethiopia Table of Contents

The most important Ethio-Semitic language is Amharic. It was the empire's official language and is still widely used in government and in the capital despite the Mengistu regime's changes in language policy. Those speaking Amharic as a mother tongue numbered about 8 million in 1970, a little more than 30 percent of the population. A more accurate count might show them to constitute a lesser proportion. The total number of Amharic speakers, including those using Amharic as a second language, may constitute as much as 50 percent of the population.

The Amhara are not a cohesive group, politically or otherwise. From the perspective of many Amhara in the core area of Gonder, Gojam, and western Welo, the Amhara of Shewa (who constituted the basic ruling group under Menelik II and Haile Selassie) are not true descendants of the northern Amhara and the Tigray and heirs to the ancient kingdom of Aksum. Regional variations notwithstanding, the Amhara do not exhibit the differences of religion and mode of livelihood characteristic of the Oromo, for example, who constitute Ethiopia's largest linguistic category. With a few exceptions, the Amhara are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and are highland plow agriculturists.

The Tigray (whose language is Tigrinya) constitute the second largest category of Ethio-Semitic speakers. They made up about 14 percent of the population in 1970. Like the Amhara, the Tigray are chiefly Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and most are plow agriculturists. Despite some differences in dialect, Tigray believe, as anthropologist Dan Franz Bauer has noted, "that they have a common tenuous kinship with other Tigray regardless of their place of residence."

The number of persons speaking other Ethio-Semitic languages is significantly smaller than the number who speak Amharic and Tigrinya. Moreover, unlike the Amhara and Tigray, members of other Ethio-Semitic groups do not share the Aksumite heritage and Orthodox Christianity, and their traditional economic base is different.

Of the seven Ethio-Semitic languages found among the Gurage of southern Shewa, four are single tongues and three are dialect clusters, each encompassing four or five dialects. All correspond to what anthropologist William A. Shack calls tribes, which, in turn, consist of independent clan chiefdoms. Although most people accept the name Gurage, they are likely to specify a tribal name in addition.

The traditional social organization and religion of the Gurage resemble those of the neighboring East Cushitic-speaking Sidama and related peoples. In some cases, Orthodox Christianity or Islam has displaced the traditional religious system, in whole or in part. The Gurage traditionally depended on the ensete plant (known locally as false banana) rather than grain for their staple food and used the hoe rather than the plow.

In 1970 there were more than 500,000 speakers of Gurage tongues, but no single group numbered more than 100,000. Substantial numbers, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of all Gurage, live in urban centers, particularly Addis Ababa, where they work at a range of manual tasks typically avoided by the Amhara and the Tigray.

In 1970 a total of 117,000 persons were estimated to speak Tigre, which is related to Tigrinya; but that figure was likely an underestimate. The ten or so Eritrean groups or clusters of groups speaking the language do not constitute an ethnic entity, although they share an adherence to Islam. Locally, people traditionally used the term Tigre to refer to what has been called the serf class, as opposed to the noble class, in most Tigre-speaking groups.

Perhaps the most numerous of the Tigre-speaking peoples are the Beni Amir, a largely pastoral people living in the semiarid region of the north and west along the Sudanese border. A large number of the Beni Amir also speak Beja, a North Cushitic language. Other groups are, in part at least, cultivators, and some, who live along the Red Sea coast and on nearby islands, gain some of their livelihood from fishing.

Except for the fact that the distinction between nobles and serfs seems at one time to have been pervasive, little is known of early social and political organization among these groups except for the Beni Amir, who were organized in a tribal federation with a paramount chief. The other groups seem to have been autonomous units.

The Hareri are of major historical importance, and their home was in that part of Ethiopia once claimed by Somali irredentists. The Hareri ("people of the city") established the walled city of Harer as early as the thirteenth century A.D. Harer was a major point from which Islam spread to Somalia and then to Ethiopia.

The Argobba consist of two groups. Living on the hilly slopes of the Great Rift Valley escarpment are small groups of Northern Argobba. The Southern Argobba live southwest of Harer. Northern Argobba villages, interspersed among Amharic- or Oromo-speaking communities, stretch from an area at roughly the latitude of Addis Ababa to southeasternmost Welo. Most Argobba speak either Amharic or Oromo in addition to their native tongue.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress