Languages of Ethiopia
|Languages of Ethiopia|
|Main languages||Oromo (33.8%), Amharic (29.3%)|
|Main foreign languages||English|
|Sign languages||several local sign languages|
The languages of Ethiopia refers to the various spoken forms of communication in Ethiopia. It includes the nation's official languages, its national and regional languages, as well as its minority and foreign languages.
There are 88 individual languages of Ethiopia according to Ethnologue, with the 1994 Ethiopian census indicating that some 77 tongues were spoken locally. Most of these languages belong to the Afroasiatic family (Semitic and Cushitic languages; Omotic languages are also spoken, though their classification is uncertain). Additionally, Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken by what the government calls the "Nilotic" people, though scholars distinguish Nilotic from the Surmic languages, Gumuz languages, and Koman languages and spoken in Ethiopia.
Of the languages spoken in Ethiopia, 86 are living and 2 are extinct. 41 of the living languages are institutional, 14 are developing, 18 are vigorous, 8 are in danger of extinction, and 5 are near extinction.
Charles A. Ferguson proposed the Ethiopian language area, characterized by shared grammatical and phonological features in 1976. This sprachbund includes the Afroasiatic languages of Ethiopia, not the Nilo-Saharan languages. In 2000, Mauro Tosco questioned the validity of Ferguson's original proposal. There is still no agreement among scholars on this point, but Tosco has at least weakened Ferguson's original claim.
English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is the medium of instruction in secondary schools and universities. Amharic was the language of primary school instruction but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromo and Tigrinya.
After the fall of the Derg in 1991, the 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia granted all ethnic groups the right to develop their languages and to establish first language primary education systems. This is a marked change to the language policies of previous governments in Ethiopia.
In terms of writing systems, Ethiopia's principal orthography is the Ge'ez script. Employed as an abugida for several of the country's languages, it first came into usage in the sixth and fifth centuries BC as an abjad to transcribe the Semitic Ge'ez language. Ge'ez now serves as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches. Other writing systems have also been used over the years by different Ethiopian communities. These include Arabic script for writing some Ethiopian languages spoken by Muslim populations and Sheikh Bakri Sapalo's script for Oromo. Today, many Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan languages are written in Roman/Latin script.
According to the 2007 Ethiopian census, the largest first languages are: Amharic 21,634,396 or 29.30%; Oromo language 24,930,424 speakers or 33.80% of the total population  Somali 4,609,274 or 6.25%; Tigrinya 4,324,476 or 5.86%  Sidamo 2,981,471 or 4.84%  Wolaytta 1,627,784 or 2.21%; Gurage 1,481,783 or 2.01%  and Afar 1,281,278 or 1.74%. Arabic, which also belongs to the Afroasiatic family, is likewise spoken in some areas of Ethiopia. Many Muslim Ethiopians are also able to speak Arabic because of their religious background. English is the most widely spoken foreign language which is also taught in many schools. Amharic is the official working language in which all federal laws are published, and it is spoken by millions of Ethiopians as a second language. In most regions it is the primary second language in the school curriculum.
- Ethiopian Semitic
- Agaw languages
- East Cushitic
- Highland East Cushitic languages
- Lowland East Cushitic languages
- Somali language (also in Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya)
- Southern Lowland East Cushitic
- Omotic* (AA classification uncertain)
- Aari language
- Anfillo language
- Bambassi language
- Basketo language
- Bench language
- Boro language, also called Shinasha
- Chara language
- Dawro language
- Dime language
- Dizi language
- Dorze language
- Gamo language
- Ganza language
- Gayil language
- Gofa language
- Hozo language
- Kachama-Ganjule language
- Kafa language
- Karo language
- Koorete language
- Male language
- Melo language
- Nayi language
- Oyda language
- Seze language
- Shekkacho language
- Sheko language
- Wolaytta language
- Yemsa language
- Zayse-Zergulla language
In Ethiopia, the term "Nilotic" is often used to refer to Nilo-Saharan languages and their communities. However, in academic linguistics, "Nilotic" is only part of "Nilo-Saharan", a segment of the larger Nilo-Saharan family.
- Anuak language (also in South Sudan)
- Berta language
- Gumuz language
- Kacipo-Balesi language (also in South Sudan)
- Komo language
- Kwama language
- Kwegu language
- Majang language
- Me'en language
- Murle language (also in South Sudan)
- Mursi language
- Nuer language (also in South Sudan)
- Nyangatom language
- Opuuo language
- Shabo language
- Suri language
- Uduk language (also in Sudan)
- Weyto language (extinct — could have been Cushitic or Semitic)
- Ongota (moribund — possibly Omotic or an independent branch of Afroasiatic or not Afroasiatic at all)
- Rer Bare language (extinct — maybe Bantu)
A number of Ethiopian languages are endangered: they may not be spoken in one or two generations and may become extinct, victims of language death, as Weyto, Gafat, and Mesmes have and Ongota very soon will. The factors that contribute to language death are complex, so it is not easy to estimate which or how many languages are most vulnerable. Hudson wrote, "Assuming that a language with fewer than 10,000 speakers is endangered, or likely to become extinct within a generation", there are 22 endangered languages in Ethiopia (1999:96). However, a number of Ethiopian languages never have had populations even that high, so it is not clear that this is an appropriate way to calculate the number of endangered languages in Ethiopia. The real number may be lower or higher. The new language policies after the 1991 revolution have strengthened the use of a number of languages. Publications specifically about endangered languages in Ethiopia include: Appleyard (1998), Hayward (1988), Zelealem (1998a,b, 2004)
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- Hayward, Richard J. 1998. The Endangered Languages of Ethiopia: What’s at Stake for the Linguist? In Endangered Languages in Africa, edited by Matthias Brenzinger, 17–38. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
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- Zelealem Leyew. 1998a. An Ethiopian Language on the Verge of Extinction. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 134: 69–84.
- Zelealem Leyew. 1998b. Some Structural Signs of Obsolescence in K’emant. In Endangered Languages in Africa. Edited by Matthias Brenzinger. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
- Zelealem Leyew. 2004. The fate of endangered languages in Ethiopia. On the margins of nations : endangered languages and linguistic rights. proceedings of the eighth FEL Conference, Eds. Joan A. Argenter & Robert McKenna Brown, 35–45. Bath: Foundation for Endangered Languages.