Hey, fellow linguonaut! Time to talk about how to learn Amharic, Ethiopia’s signature language. 🇪🇹 A language for geeks, for Africa’s lovers but also for those who think strategically.
Learning Amharic is one of those thing you can mention in public and then watch the ripples you have just created amidst your friends and acquaintances:
- The language of Jesus? (no, it’s not Aramaic 😠).
- What for? (ouch, we need so much patience with the English-is-enough theorists 😖).
- Is there a place called Amarica? 🤨
Truly, Amharic is a language that offers countless opportunities, even more so because so few outside the Horn of Africa learn it, oddly enough.
Ancient legends, cradle of mankind, crossroad of merchants and legendary kings: this is deeply historized land, towards which a myriad civilizations tried to close ties.
The Greeks were here at the height of their nation in the pre-christian era and Ethiopia, today, is all but irrelevant. 📍
Despite the scarcity of non-Ethiopians fluent in Amharic, the issue when one chooses to learn it isn’t lack of proper material, but rather too much. 😀 And once worked out this paradox of choice, we are confronted with the same pressing questions of old:
Where do I even begin? Shall I enrol in a course or learn Amharic on my own? Must I move to Ethiopia for a while to learn it? How long would it take me to master the alphabet? Should I be aware of dialects and varieties, just like English? How long it would take me to become conversational?
Thus, I decided to list some tips below, drawn from my own experience with the language. I’m no Ethiopicist, just some random Italian dude with a big passion who spent infinite hours on this all. ⌚
Let’s get started then, but before, a bit of an introduction to Amharic.
Learn Amharic: Intro
Amharic is the official language of the Ethiopian federation 🇪🇹 a country with about eighty ethnic groups and a similar number of languages.
Not all of them have official status: besides Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Afar and Tigrinya are also used at various levels and in various fields.
Arabic, English and Italian are also said to have some use, though it seems a marginal one to me: except the elite in the capital 🏙️, non-Ethiopian languages are unknown to the population.
But again: Amharic is the most official, the one that opens the doors in Ethiopia, spoken by some 26-27 million Ethiopians as mother tongue. In this regard, it is useful to clarify one thing.
Amharic was originally the language of the Amhara, the second largest ethnic group in the country, behind the Oromo: so why is Amharic the official language at the federal level rather than Oromo?❓
Well, the history of Ethiopia is very interesting, but too long to cover in a blog post.
A History of Ethiopia, by Harold G. Marcus: a great read about the country’s history.
Let’s say that Amharic has occupied the most prominent place in the Ethiopian linguistic pantheon since the 14th century: it was the language that had to be spoken, in order to have access to opportunities.
It was so in the years of Emperor Tewodros 👑, it remained so under Negus, and did not change under the later dictator Mengistu. From the 19th century to almost the 21st century, business as usual.
The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuscinski: a biography of the Negus, Ras Tafari, iconic emperor of the Ethiopians, unwilling leader of the rastafari religion, polyglot who spoke about himself in the first plural person.
In short, a man we MUST meet, introduced by a report like they don’t make anymore.
When the military junta collapsed in May 1991, the construction of Ethiopian democracy took into account the multi-ethnic and multilingual composition of the state, or at least, an attempt was made in that direction.
Until then, Ethiopia had exclusively Amharic as the official language, at all levels, throughout its territory.
Now, the local languages with more relevance enjoy co-official status, although Amharic is still the most official: as things stand, the percentage of the Ethiopian population speaking it has been increasing every year 📈 because it represents a clear opportunity.
If you travel or read about Ethiopia, you may also come across these other languages, from two different families:
- Semitic: Ge’ez, Tigrinya, Tigre, Harari, Gurage, Gafat, Argobba;
- Cushitic: Somali, Agau, Galla, Kafa, Sidamo…
Standard Amharic, the one taught at school in Ethiopia and abroad, is that of Addis Ababa, the capital: despite the fact that three quarters of the population do not have it as mother tongue, thanks to public teaching it will be possible to find Amharic speakers almost anywhere. 🇪🇹
Note: if you see a text from a long time ago that refers to the Ethiopian language, it is likely Ge’ez, the liturgical language in use in the country.
Learn Amharic: Where it comes from
Today, Ge’ez is confined to a purely ecclesiastical domain, but it was once a widespread and powerful language, so much so that parallels between Ge’ez in the Horn of Africa and Latin in Europe are not unreasonable. ✝️
The Bible was translated from Greek into Ge’ez; its alphabet was also inspired by Greek. 🏺 As you can see, Greeks and Ethiopians, in antiquity, enjoyed somewhat intense relations.
🔎 If you wish to know more about this, you may like this contribution about Greek-Ethiopian relations in the antiquity. 🔍
Finally, Ge’ez is the forerunner of the three main Semitic languages of Ethiopia, although the debate is far from over: according to some scholars, it is more likely to be a sister language, rather than their ancestor. 🌳
Today, Amharic and Tigrinya are written with the same Ge’ez alphabet; Tigre, more widely spoken in Eritrea and Sudan, is also sometimes written with the Ge’ez alphabet, although the Arabic alphabet prevails. 🇸🇦
It is thought that Ge’ez ceased to exist as a living language around the 10th century AD; nonetheless, it continued to be used in works of secular literature, chronicles of kings and history texts written until the reign of Yohannes III 👑 (mid-19th century).
In liturgy, Ge’ez is very much alive and kicking, specifically in:
- the priceless ancient texts, 📜
- the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches,
- the Ethiopian and Eritrean Catholic Churches,
- the Ethiopian Jewish communities (Falasha or Beta Israel). 🕎
Incidentally, let me say that the Ethiopian Jewry is unique.
Rescue the Ethiopian Jews! A memoir, 1955-1995 by Graenum Berger: stunning read.
But in Amharic we also have timeless documents of inestimable value.
Learn Amharic: What language is this?
We have writings in Amharic from the 14th century up to the present day. It began with, /surprise surprise/, religious literature: the Church itself promoted it in order to broaden people’s understanding of scripture. 📗
Before that, for centuries religion had been a closed circle. ☦️ Only educated churchmen knew Ge’ez, since it had ceased to exist as an everyday language.
The Church’s, however, wasn’t a truly surprising move, if you think that in the south, Muslim clerics had already begun to use Harari as a language for proselitism.
Since the 14th century, however, Amharic has conquered several spaces: press, textbooks, dictionaries, literature, newspapers, journals, magazines, essays. 📰
The Amharic alphabet would actually be more appropriately called alphasyllabary, syllabary or abugida. It is like this:
In Amharic, the alphabet is called fidäl or fidel, or “letter”. Incidentally, this is also the name of the pre-schools where children go to learn it for a couple of years before starting primary school. 🎒
I told you that it is a Semitic language: perhaps you heard it has many points in common with Hebrew and Arabic, and now you’re probably wondering:
How?? It is written from left to right, letters are not joined (as in Arabic) and they are not similar to Hebrew letters either. Besides, what’s with all these letters?
Calm down, all of you. 😑
In Amharic, to put it coarsely, a letter corresponds to a sound: it’s highly phonetic; but as we said, it is more of a syllabary than an alphabet.
The syllable is rendered writing the consonant AND tweaking it with a diacritic: it will be clearer for you if you use this excellent interactive Fidäl alphabet, structured in the ha-hu sequence (one of the two usual ones).
Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. by Chancellor Williams: an awesome coincise read about the history and fate of Africans, Ethiopians included.
This book would turn a reggaeton singer into a scholar of African Studies.
As for the similarities with other Semitic languages: they are not obvious, but there they are. The genetic filiation is Semitic, roots are triliteral, borrowings abound (for example, muhandis for “engineer”, beit for “house”). 🏠
Want to play around and see what your name might look like in the Amharic alphabet? Write your name in Amharic here.
Is Amharic difficult to learn?
Eh, a million pound question. 💷
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, letters from Italian missionaries were filled with warnings to co-religionists about to depart for Ethiopia: recommendations abounded to study hard and eat well (!) before going, because the Amharic language requires a lot of energy. 🍲
According to the most widely adopted system for defining the difficulty of a language (the FSI scale, the American Foreign Service Institute), Amharic belongs to category 4: to put things in perspective, category 1 is the easiest for a native English speaker (French, Dutch, Spanish); category 5 is the most difficult (Arabic, Japanese, Chinese).
In category 4, Amharic rubs shoulders with Croatian, Armenian, Hebrew, Icelandic.
Learn Amharic: 12 good reasons
#1 Ethiopia is nearly like India: a country that encompasses all stages of human development, from the Stone Age to the 21st century. 🚀
#2 Five times the size of the UK, with more than 110 million inhabitants, it is one of the countries with the rosiest growth perspectives. 📈
Despite some problems customary of developing countries (inflation, balance of payments, debt), Ethiopia has already proved that it can grow in double digits: it has the resources, the population and the ambition.
The trend looks set to continue in the coming years and decades.
#3 If you are interested in the culture or, even better, you are Rastafari, you can’t ignore Amharic. Ethiopia is to Rastafarians what the Vatican is to Catholics. 🦁
#4 Because of the Ethiopian economic fabric, there are a number of professional figures, worldwide, who would benefit from speaking Amharic:
- health professionals,
- forestry technicians,
- mining engineers,
- everything related to infrastructure, telecommunications, medicine, urban planning and tourism. 🧳
Just an example found in a one-minute search on Indeed: the Imperial College London looks for a Research Assistant in Infectious Disease Epidemiology. Their language requirements:
Gross salary? Between 38.000 and 43.000 GBP/year.
But anthropologists and archaeologists, historians and diplomats will also profit from speaking Amharic.
#5 For people of Ethiopian origin raised outside the culture, learning Amharic can be fruitful in terms of developing their ethnic identity. Language is essential to individuals: it helps us access the visible manifestation of our milieu.
In short, it allows us to know our place in the world. 🌍
Learning Amharic could also be useful for their beloved ones, whatever ethnic background they come from, as a way to get closer to each other. 💞
#6 It is the second most spoken Semitic language after Arabic.
Official language of the Republic, lingua franca among the more than eighty ethnic groups living in Ethiopia, also spoken by groups of people in Eritrea, Israel, USA, Canada, Lebanon, Italy.
#7 In development cooperation, it is an ace in the hole.
Do you work for the Red Cross, Peace Corps, FAO, World Food Programme or Médecins Sans Frontières? When called upon for doing projects in Ethiopia, you will hit the ground running. 👟
#8 Ethiopia has been a melting pot of civilisations.
It is said of many countries, I know, but in the case of Ethiopia it is true: Greeks, Arabs, Central Africans, Portuguese, Indians, Egyptians… a lot of people have passed through here.
The Kebra Negast (the Book of the Glory of Kings): this book is a compendium of what Ethiopian religiosity and broader spiritual culture is.
Originally written in Ge’ez, it is also part of the foundational scriptures of Rastafarianism.
Ethiopia has been Christian (the second country in the world to adopt the new religion after Armenia), Muslim and Jewish, all at once.
It is home to a most peculiar Jewish diaspora (the Falasha or Beta Israel), with sometimes relaxed, sometimes tense relations with the nearby Islamic kingdoms. Additionally, the Ark of the Covenant is still here according to tradition.
#9 Ancient and modern literature is another good reason to learn Amharic. 📚
It sheds light on much of the history of the West and East, as many documents that have disappeared in their original languages have been preserved in translation in Amharic and Ge’ez. , thus making it a valuable asset for classicists and historians alike, or… for language geeks. 😉
#10 Music in Amharic!
You don’t have to learn Amharic to enjoy it, but if you do, you enjoy it more 😉 Listen to this song:
Many are the artists who have drawn inspiration from Ethiopian culture, made covers of Amharic songs or inserted Amharic refrains into their lyrics: Misty in Roots, Lincoln Thompson, Ras Michael, The Abyssinians and Bob Marley himself. 🎵
#11 This is the first step to becoming an expert on this part of the world. The other two languages in the list would be Oromo and Tigrinya, spoken in both Ethiopia and Eritrea: by the way, BBC offers information in all three languages.
#12 Don’t expect to find many people fluent in other languages here.
English, for example, according to the latest EF EPI (English Proficiency Index) report, ranked Ethiopia among the low proficiency countries, 63rd in the chart. 📉
If I haven’t convinced you by now, nothing will. 😅 I better tell you now what I’d do, if I were you, to learn Amharic.
How to study Amharic
Not only is finding good Amharic courses to enrol to horribly difficult, but the few that are out there are also often not worth your time and money.
I have always found self-teaching a cost-effective, time-efficient, proven strategy to become fluent in languages and Amharic is no exception. ✔️
How can you teach yourself Amharic? With a mix of methods, dictionaries, exercises, oral and written practice. This is the one textbook I liked the most:
Colloquial Amharic is the one I relied on the most. I’m not 100% convinced, but I have to accept the reality: it’s the best thing out there for learning Amharic from scratch. Moreover, it does a good job in clarifying some annoyances:
- the geminate consonants, or consonants that are written in more than one way depending on the area,
- glottalised consonants,
- certain awkward pronunciations, 😵
- the gender of inanimate objects,
- formal VS informal language,
If you know of a better textbook, let me know, I’ve been looking for it for twenty years.
Then, a good dictionary is this one:
Amharic-English English-Amharic by Simon Wallenberg Press: befriending an old-fashioned dictionary is something I recommend because it helps you get intimate with the language.
Having said that, while you take your time to decide whether Amharic can be upgraded from linguistic flirt to official betrothal, 💍 you can resort to this Dictionary Abyssinica which is well done too.
A grammar book is something you’re going to need as you proceed with Colloquial Amharic, and then this is my go-too book:
Wolf Leslau is perhaps the foremost expert on the teaching of Amharic: his Introductory Grammar of Amharic is certainly an introduction, but a comprehensive one.
General suggestions for Amharic
#1 Websites and Apps
Unfortunately, the websites and Apps I have come across haven’t made a big impression: wrong alphabet, they mix Ge’ez with Tigrinya with Amharic, a big pile of mistakes. Wikipedia, I’m afraid, is no exception. 😐
#2 Practice a lot
Practice is a must: from home, in an expat club, on the Internet…. There are many chances, although the most effective for most of us will be the Internet.
There is no relevant Ethiopian communities in the UK, as far as I know, and the Irish one is negligible too.
Thus, unless you live in London, where some ten thousands Ethiopians live, you either look it up on the world wide web or you get onboard a plane and fly to the land of injera and Lalibela. ⛪
#3 Travel to Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a great place to go and practice Amharic, either on holiday or as a volunteer in an organisation: plenty are the possibilities in both cases. ✈️
As a tourist, you can practice your Amharic while visiting the churches of Lalibela, the imperial cities, the places marked by the wars against the Italians, the national parks. 🏞️
As a volunteer, you can also train your oral expression, enrich your vocabulary and broaden your knowledge of Ethiopian society by cooperating in:
- Healthcare projects,
- education, 🏫
- infrastructure and water network improvement,
- agriculture, 🌾
And… oh, have you eaten Ethiopian food yet? It’s going to be the new gastronomic trend, so get to taste it first 😉
#4 Study every day, no hurry, no pause
Amharic is not in FSI category 4 by mistake. It is complex. The key is to study every day for an extended time, even as little as half an hour if that is all the time you can allocate.
In the end, learning a language is always a long-term project. 📆
Ethiopia: Through Writers Eyes by Yves-Marie Stranger: this is a collection of history and travel literature, the like of Herodotus and Coleridge, before legions of bored untalented began fancying themselves as “writers”, tainting the genre.
#5 Recommended materials
A hundred years ago, more books about learning Amharic were printed than nowadays. Bizarre, but true. 🤨
Old textbooks are valuable: I do enjoy them, but I see them more as nourishment for purebred language geeks rather than for someone with an interest to become conversational in Amharic.
In any case, old books are hard to bump upon, unless you go rummaging in dusty, underground archives. 📒
#6 Typing in Amharic on your computer
You can start with Google Translate, before installing Amharic on your computer.
How? With the same system that is used for Chinese: you type the romanised version, i.e. as you would with Latin characters, and the translator returns a list of suggestions. You choose, et voilà. 💻
#7 Reading fluency
The Amharic alphabet requires an initial investment higher than the needed with the Hebrew and Arabic, which are Amharic’s sister languages.
It is a good investment though: once you master it, you’re not going to have the same hassle of Hebrew or Arabic, which is, unwritten vowels: you do write them in Amharic. Fiuuu. You may need a few weeks to master it, reading and writing. ✍️
Should you have the impression to progress slowly, don’t really worry: it’s not you, it’s Amharic!
#8 Music and lyrics
Ah, music: one of our best allies in any linguistic adventure. Discover new songs, read the lyrics while you listen to the tune, hum along. 🎤
When learning Amharic, countless are the songs you may love. You could start from Teddy Afro:
#9 Pronounce aloud
When beginning your Amharic journey, you will encounter phonemes you are not familiar with: the best you can do to get to own them is to pronunce aloud. 🗣️
For example, take the audio tracks of Colloquial Amharic: play them, pause them, utter them, reproduce them and pay as much as attention as you can.
How did it go? Repeat it, over and over, until you feel them in your mouth. At each iteration, you’ll do it better. Leave shame aside: you have to get as close as possible to a native speaker like your life depends on it. 🥴
#10 Enjoy your passions through Amharic
This is another formidable way to learn Amharic, successfully and pleasantly.
I got initially involved with Amharic because I wanted to translate ancient literature. Ehm, I’m just kidding: I had a crush on a girl who worked in an Ethiopian restaurant 😀 She installed the trojan virus of the Amharic language in my head. Then, it spiralled out of control.
With the girl, it went nowhere; however, with Amharic, it went far. 🚄
Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John, by Lev Gumilev: the legend of Prester John populated much of Europe’s Middle Ages.
In an era of intense clashes with muslim powers, Prester John was thought to be the head of a Christian kingdom: some placed it in central Asia, some in Ethiopia. It’s hard to comprehend the medieval times without the knowledge of this shadowy individual.
It’s a deeply engrossing topic but I will spare spoilers.
There are copious things I got hooked to: the ancient history of Ethiopia, legends about the origin of Menelik, the Ark of the Covenant, the Birtukan or Ethiopians with Portuguese blood.
And then: food, traditional architecture, rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, the Danakil depression, the origins of mankind in the Horn of Africa. 💀
The magazine of the Ethiopian airlines, Selamta, is cool to read: it covers a broad range of topics, but those Ethiopia-related usually are spot-on.
While waiting to have enough level to read essays, novels and other hard stuff in Amharic, there is stuff you can already read in English to familiarise yourself with language and country.
The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, by Alex de Waal: a high-resolution account of where the current politics stands in this part of Africa, within and beyond Ethiopia’s borders.
Learn Amharic: Conclusions
I hope you enjoyed this brief guide about how to learn Amharic: in it, I poured my years of love, experiments, successes and failures with learning the language, getting to know its people and culture. 🇪🇹
Are you going to take in a language with a gorgeous future ahead?
Among the last Amharic learners who have reached fluency that I have met, some enjoy now high-paying roles in: regional councils, Unilever, International Airlines, Mondi, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, British Petroleum, HSBC, Metropolitan Police, Lloyds, Coca Cola, Rio Tinto, AstraZeneca.
Far from negligible, huh?
Whatever the reason, I’m sure you’re going to love Amharic. And just in case your love for the continent comes from afar, you may like the post about this other gorgeous African language: Learn Swahili: The Most Fashionable African Language (coming soon).
Now, if I may, I need to ask you a tiny favour. 🙏🏻
Learning enough Amharic to stalk you with and drafting all this post in a readable format has proved an exhausting duty: should you have found it valuable, would you please share it? For you, it’s no more than a couple of clicks, but to me, it means a lot. 💚
Thank you for the time you invested in read this and ደህና ሁን 😉
Your personal Ethiopicist,