Silt'e language

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Native toSouthern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, Ethiopia
Native speakers
940,000 Silt'e proper (2007 census)[1]
125,000 speakers of Wolane dialect
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
stv – Silt'e
wle – Wolane
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Silt'e (ስልጥኘ [siltʼiɲɲə] or የስልጤ አፍ [jəsiltʼe af]) is an Afroasiatic language spoken in central Ethiopia. One of the Ethiopian Semitic languages, its speakers are the Silt'e, who mainly inhabit the Silte Zone in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region. Speakers of the Wolane dialect mainly inhabit the Kokir Gedebano district of Gurage Zone, as well as the neighbouring Seden Sodo district of Oromia. Some have also settled in urban areas in other parts of the country, especially Addis Ababa.

Speakers and dialects[edit]

Dialects of the Silt'e language include: Azernet-Berbere, Silti, Wuriro, Ulbareg and Wolane. There are about 940,000 native Silt'e speakers (2007 census); 125,000 speakers of Wolane.

Sounds and orthography[edit]

Consonants and vowels[edit]

Silt'e has a fairly typical set of consonants for an Ethiopian Semitic language. There are the usual ejective consonants, alongside plain voiceless and voiced consonants and all of the consonants, except /h/ and /ʔ/, can be geminated, that is, lengthened. However, Silt'e vowels differ considerably from the typical set of seven vowels in languages such as Amharic, Tigrinya and Ge'ez. Silt'e has the set of five short and five long vowels that are typical of the nearby Eastern Cushitic languages, which may be the origin of the Silt'e system. There is considerable allophonic variation within the short vowels, especially for a; the most frequent allophone of /a/, [ə], is shown in the chart. All of the short vowels may be devoiced preceding a pause.

The charts below show the phonemes of Silt'e. For the representation of Silt'e consonants, this article uses a modification of a system that is common (though not universal), among linguists who work on Ethiopian Semitic languages, but differs somewhat from the conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet. When the IPA symbol is different, it is indicated in brackets in the charts. The symbols /p/ and /ʔ/ (glottal stop) appear in parentheses, because they play only a marginal role in the system, /p/, because it appears in only a few words in the Azarnat dialect and /ʔ/, because (as in Amharic), it is often omitted.

Velar Glottal
Stops Voiceless (p) t k (ʔ)
Voiced b d ɡ
Affricates Voiceless t͡ʃ ⟨č⟩
Voiced d͡ʒ ⟨ǧ⟩
Ejective t͡ʃʼ ⟨čʼ⟩
Fricatives Voiceless f s ʃ ⟨š⟩ h
Voiced z ʒ ⟨ž⟩
Nasals m n ɲ ⟨ñ⟩
Approximants w l j ⟨y⟩
Flap/Trill r
Front Central Back
High i, ii u, uu
Mid e, ee [ə] ⟨a⟩ o, oo
Low aa


Since at least the 1980s, Silt'e has been written in the Ge'ez alphabet (Ethiopic), originally developed for the now-extinct Ge'ez language and most familiar today in its use for Amharic and Tigrinya.

This orthographic system makes distinctions among only seven vowels. Some of the short-long distinctions in Silt'e are therefore not marked. In practice, this probably does not interfere with comprehension because there are relatively few minimal pairs based on vowel length. In written Silt'e, the seven Ge'ez vowels are mapped onto the ten Silt'e vowels as follows:

  • äa: አለፈ alafa 'he passed'
  • uu, uu: ሙት mut 'death', muut 'thing'
  • i
    • ii: ኢን iin 'eye'
    • word-final i: መሪ mari 'friend'
    • i ending a noun stem: መሪከ marika 'his friend'
    • impersonal perfect verb i suffix: ባሊ baali 'people said'; በባሊም babaalim 'even if people said'
  • aaa: ጋራሽ gaaraaš 'your (f.) house'
  • ee, ee: ኤፌ eeffe 'he covered'
  • ǝ
    • i (except as above): እንግር ingir 'foot'
    • consonant not followed by a vowel: አስሮሽት asroošt 'twelve'
  • oo, oo: ቆጬ k'oč'e 'tortoise', k'ooč'e 'he cut'

Language vitality[edit]

Meshesha Make Jobo reports that the use of the Silt'e language is being replaced by the use of Amharic by some speakers for some domains. He points to large political and social factors, many from the national level. He also points out smaller, local factors, such as the lack of creatively genres.[3]


  1. ^ Silt'e at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Wolane at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Silte–Wolane". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Meshesha Make Jobo. 2016. Indigenous language shift in Siltie: Causes, effects and directions for revitalization. Journal of Languages and Culture 7(7): 69-78.


  • Dirk Bustorf 2011: Lebendige Überlieferung: Geschichte und Erinnerung der muslimischen Silt’e Äthiopiens. With an English Summary. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz (Aethiopistische Forschungen 74).
  • Cohen, Marcel (1931). Études d'éthiopien méridional. Société Asiatique, Collection d'ouvrages orientaux. Paris: Geuthner.
  • Drewes, A.J. (1997). "The story of Joseph in Sïlt'i Gurage", in: Grover Hudson (ed.), Essays on Gurage language and culture: dedicated to Wolf Leslau on the occasion of his 90th birthday, November 14, 1996, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 69–92.
  • Gutt, E.H.M. & Hussein Mohammed (1997). Silt'e–Amharic–English dictionary (with a concise grammar by E-A Gutt). Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.
  • Gutt, E.-A. (1983). Studies in the phonology of Silti. Journal of Ethiopian Studies 16, pp. 37–73.
  • Gutt, E.-A. (1991). "Aspects of number in Silt'i grammar", in: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (Addis Ababa), pp. 453–464.
  • Gutt, E.-A. (1997). "Concise grammar of Silt'e", in: Gutt, E.H.M. 1997, pp. 895–960.
  • Leslau, W. (1979). Etymological Dictionary of Gurage (Ethiopic). 3 vols. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. ISBN 3-447-02041-5
  • Wagner, Ewald (1983). "Selt'i-verse in arabischer Schrift aus dem Schlobies-Nachlass", in: Stanislav Segert & András J.E. Bodrogligeti (eds.), Ethiopian studies dedicated to Wolf Leslau, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 363–374.

External links[edit]