Languages of Ethiopia

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Languages of Ethiopia
OfficialAfar, Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya[1]
Signedseveral local sign languages

The languages of Ethiopia include the official languages of Ethiopia, its national and regional languages, a large number of minority languages, as well as foreign languages.


Distribution of languages of Ethiopia (2007)[2]
Other languages

There are 92 individual languages indigenous to Ethiopia according to Ethnologue,[3] 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, but their classification as Afroasiatic remains disputed). 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 spoken in Ethiopia.

Of the languages spoken in Ethiopia, 91 are living and 1 is 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.[3]

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.[4] 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[5][6] and Sheikh Bakri Sapalo's script for Oromo.[7] Today, many Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan languages are written in Roman/Latin script.[citation needed]


According to data from the 2021 Ethnologue,[8] the largest first languages are:

  • Oromo speakers numbering 37,446,700;
  • Amharic speakers numbering 31,800,000;
  • Somali speakers numbering 6,720,000;
  • Tigrinya speakers numbering 6,390,000;
  • Sidama speakers numbering 4,340,000;
  • Wolaytta speakers numbering 2,380,000;
  • Sebat Bet Gurage speakers numbering 2,170,000;
  • Afar speakers numbering 1,840,000.

Arabic, which also belongs to the Afroasiatic family, is spoken in some areas of Ethiopia.[9][10] Many Muslim Ethiopians are also able to speak Arabic because of their religious background.[11]

English is the most widely spoken foreign language which is also taught in many schools.[12][1][13]

Special status of Amharic[edit]

Amharic has been the official working language of Ethiopian courts and its armed forces, trade and everyday communications since the late 12th century. Although now it is only one of the five official languages of Ethiopia, together with Oromo, Somali, Afar, and Tigrinya - until 2020 Amharic was the only Ethiopian working language of the federal government.[13][14][1][15][16] Amharic is the most widely spoken and written language in Ethiopia. As of the 2018, Amharic was spoken by 31.8 million native speakers in Ethiopia[8] with over 25 million secondary speakers in the nation.[8]

Additionally, three million emigrants outside of Ethiopia speak Amharic.[citation needed] Most of the Ethiopian Jewish communities in Ethiopia and Israel speak it too.[17][citation needed]

In Washington DC, Amharic became one of the six non-English languages in the Language Access Act of 2004, which allows government services and education in Amharic.[18]

Furthermore, Amharic is considered a holy language by the Rastafari religion and is widely used among its followers worldwide.


Sign in Amharic at the Ethiopian millennium celebration.



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.



Endangered languages[edit]

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), and Zelealem (1998a,b, 2004)


  1. ^ a b c Shaban, Abdurahman. "One to five: Ethiopia gets four new federal working languages". Africa News.
  2. ^ "Africa :: ETHIOPIA". CIA The World Factbook.
  3. ^ a b Ethnologue page on Ethiopian languages
  4. ^ Rodolfo Fattovich, "Akkälä Guzay" in Uhlig, Siegbert, ed. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz KG, 2003, p. 169.
  5. ^ Pankhurst, Alula. "Indigenising Islam in Wällo: ajäm, Amharic verse written in Arabic script." Proceedings of the Xlth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa 1991. 1994.
  6. ^ Andreas Wetter on Arabic script for writing Amharic
  7. ^ Hayward and Hassan, "The Oromo Orthography of Shaykh Bakri Saṗalō", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 44 (1981), p. 551
  8. ^ a b c Eberhard, David M.; Simons, Gary F.; Fennig, Charles D. "Ethnologue: Ethiopia". Ethnologue. SIL International. Retrieved 21 July 2021.
  9. ^ Yigezu, Moges (2012). Language Ideologies and Challenges of Multilingual Education in Ethiopia. African Books Collective. p. 143. ISBN 9994455478.
  10. ^ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Ethiopia: Information on whether Arabic is used in the Oromo and Ogaden regions, 1 January 1996, Retrieved 19 November 2017
  11. ^ Grimes, Barbara F.: "Languages of the World", 1992. 12th ed., Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, p. 248.
  12. ^ Ethiopia. The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency.
  13. ^ a b "ETHIOPIA TO ADD 4 MORE OFFICIAL LANGUAGES TO FOSTER UNITY". Ventures Africa. Ventures. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  14. ^ "Ethiopia is adding four more official languages to Amharic as political instability mounts". Nazret. Nazret. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  15. ^ Meyer, Ronny (2006). "Amharic as lingua franca in Ethiopia". Lissan: Journal of African Languages and Linguistics. 20 (1/2): 117–131 – via
  16. ^ Teferra, Anbessa (2013). "Amharic: Political and social effects on English loan words". In Rosenhouse, Judith; Kowner, Rotem (eds.). Globally Speaking: Motives for Adopting English Vocabulary in Other Languages. Multilingual Matters. p. 165.
  17. ^ "Israel's Ethiopian Jews keep ancient language alive in prayer". Al-Monitor. 29 June 2017. Retrieved 26 July 2017.
  18. ^ "Language Access Act Fact Sheet" (PDF). 5 October 2011. Retrieved 11 October 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Appleyard, David. 1998. Language Death: The Case of Qwarenya (Ethiopia). In Endangered Languages in Africa, edited by Matthias Brenzinger. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Ferguson, Charles. 1976. The Ethiopian Language Area. Language In Ethiopia, ed. by M. Lionel Bender, J. Donald Bowen, R.L. Cooper, Charles A. Ferguson, pp. 63–76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 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.
  • Hudson, Grover. 1999. Linguistic Analysis of the 1994 Ethiopian Census. Northeast African Studies Vol. 6, No. 3 (New Series), pp. 89–108.
  • Hudson, Grover. 2004. Languages of Ethiopia and Languages of the 1994 Ethiopian Census. Aethiopica: International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies 7: 160–172.
  • Leslau, Wolf. 1965. An annotated bibliography of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Tosco, Mauro. 2000. Is There an ‘Ethiopian Language Area’? Anthropological Linguistics 42,3: 329–365.
  • Unseth, Peter. 1990. Linguistic bibliography of the Non-Semitic languages of Ethiopia. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University. (Classification charts, pp. 21 ff.)
  • 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.

External links[edit]