Amharic language

From Academic Kids

Amharic (አማርኛ)
Spoken in: Ethiopia
Region: East Africa
Total speakers: 21 million (17.4 million native)
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Afro-Asiatic


Official status
Official language of: Ethiopia
Regulated by:
Language codes
ISO 639-1am
ISO 639-2amh
See also: LanguageList of languages

Amharic (አማርኛ) is a Semitic language spoken in Northern Central Ethiopia, where it is the official language. Outside Ethiopia, Amharic is the language of some 2.7 million emigrants (notably in Egypt, Israel and Sweden). It is written using a writing system called fidel or abugida, adapted from the one used for the now-extinct Ge'ez language.


Sounds and orthographies

Bilabial Dental Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosives voiceless
fricatives voiceless
Front Central Back

Amharic Abugida Symbols ("Fidels" ፊደል)

Template:IPA notice Please note that this chart is incomplete. Some phonemes have more than one series of possible symbols; only illustrative examples for and are shown (the latter has four series!). While the consonants have been grouped by manner of articulation (refer to the phoneme chart above), the vowels are listed in citation order. The citation form for each series is the consonant+/E/ form, i.e. the first column of fidels. You will need a font that supports Ethiopic, such as GF Zemen Unicode (available at ), in order to view the fidels.

Non-speakers are often disconcerted or astonished by the remarkable similarity of many of the symbols. This is mitigated somewhat because like many Semitic languages, Amharic uses triconsonantal roots in its verb morphology. The upshot of this is that a fluent speaker of Amharic can decipher written text by observing which consonants are noted, with the vowel variants being supplemental detail.

Chart of Amharic Fidels
  u i a e ə o




Amharic nouns can be primary or derived. A noun like əgər 'foot, leg' is primary, and a noun like əgr-aɲɲa 'pedestrian' is a derived noun.


Amharic nouns can have a masculine or feminine gender. There are several ways to express gender. An example is the old suffix -t for feminity. This suffix is no longer productive and is limited to certain patterns and some isolated nouns. Nouns and adjectives ending in -awi usually take the suffix -t to form the feminine form, e.g. ityop':eya-(a)wi 'Ethiopian (m.)' vs. ityop':eya-wi-t 'Ethiopian (f.)'; smay-awi 'heavenly (m.) vs. smay-awi-t 'heavenly (f.)'. This suffix also occurs in nouns and adjective based on the pattern k'et(t)ul, e.g. nəgus 'king' vs. nəgəs-t 'queen' and k'əddus 'holy (m.)' vs. k'əddus-t 'holy (f.)'.

Some nouns and adjectives take a feminine marker -it: lək' 'child, boy' vs. lək'-it 'girl'; bg 'sheep, ram' vs. bg-it 'ewe'; s'əmagəlle 'senior, elder (m.)' vs. s'əmagəll-it 'old woman'; t'ot'a 'monkey' vs. t'ot'-it 'monkey (f.)'. Some nouns have this feminine marker without having a masculine opposite, e.g. s'rar-it 'spider', azur-it 'whirlpool, eddy'. There are, however, also nouns having this -it suffix that are treated as masculine: sraw-it 'army', ngar-it 'big drum'.

The feminine gender is not only used to indicate biological gender, but may also be used to express smallness, e.g. bet-it-u 'the little house' (lit. house-FEM-DEF). The feminine marker can also serve to express tenderness or sympathy.

Gender specifiers

Amharic has special words that can be used to indicate the gender of people and animals. For people, wnd is used for masculinity and set for feminity, e.g. wnd lək' 'boy', set lək' 'girl'; wnd hakim 'physician, doctor (m.)', set hakim 'physician, doctor (f.)'. For animals, the words tbat, awra, or wnd (less usual) can be used to indicate masculine gender, and anəst or set to indicate feminine gender. Examples: tbat tə'k'a 'calf (f.)'; awra doro 'cock (rooster)'; set doro 'hen'.


The plural suffix -oc': is used to express plurality of nouns. Some morphophonological alternations occur depending on the final consonant or vowel. For nouns ending in a consonant, plain -oc': is used: bet 'house' becomes bet-oc': 'houses'. For nouns ending in a back vowel (-a, -o, -u), the suffix takes the form -woc':, e.g. wəssa 'dog', wəssa-woc': 'dogs'; kbro 'drum', kbro-woc': 'drums'. Nouns that end in a front vowel pluralize using -woc': or -yoc':, e.g. s'hafi 'scholar', s'hafi-woc': or s'hafi-yoc': 'scholars'. Another possibility for nouns ending in a vowel is to delete the vowel and use plain oc':, as in wəss-oc': 'dogs'.

Besides using the normal external plural (-oc':), nouns and adjectives can be pluralized by way of reduplicating one of the radicals. For example, wyzro 'lady' can take the normal plural, yielding wyzr-oc':, but wyzazər 'ladies' is also found.

Some kinship-terms have two plural forms with a slightly different meaning. For example, wndəmm 'brother' can be pluralized as wndəmm-oc': 'brothers' but also as wndəmamm-ac': 'brothers of each other'. Likewise, əhət 'sister' can be pluralized as əhət-oc': ('sisters'), but also as ətəmm-am-ac': 'sisters of each other'.

In compound words, the plural marker is suffixed to the second noun: bet krəstiyan 'church' (lit. house christians) becomes bet krəstiyan-oc': 'churches'.

Archaic plural forms

Some nouns have preserved old plural forms from Classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez). There are two archaic pluralizing strategies, called external and internal plural. The external plural consists of adding the suffix -an (usually masculine) or -at (usually feminine) to the singular form. The internal plural employs vowel quality or apophony to pluralize words, similar to English man vs. men and goose vs. geese. Sometimes combinations of the two systems are found. The archaic plural forms are not productive anymore, which means that they can not be used to form new plurals.

  • Examples of the external plural: mmhər 'teacher', mmher-an; t'bib 'wise person', t'bib-an; kahən 'priest', kahən-at.
  • Examples of the internal plural: dəngəl 'virgin', dnagəl; hagr 'land', hagur.
  • Examples of combined systems: nəgus 'king', ngs-t; kokb 'star', kwakəb-t.


If a noun is definite or specified, this is expressed by a suffix, the article. In singular forms, this article distinguishes between the male and female gender; in plural forms this distinction is absent. As in the plural, morphophonological alternations occur depending on the final consonant or vowel.


Amharic has various ways to derive nouns from other words or other nouns. One way of nominalizing consists of a form of vowel agreement (similar vowels on similar places) inside the three-radical structures typical of Semitic languages. For example:

  • CəCC: — t'əbb 'wisdom'; həmm 'sickness'
  • CəCCəC-e: — wəffar-e 'obesity'; c'əkkan-e 'cruelty'
  • CəCC-t: — rət'bt 'moistness'; əwt-t 'knowledge'

There are also several nominalizing suffixes.

  • -ənna: — 'relation'; krəst-ənna 'Christianity'; sənf-ənna 'lazyness'; k'əs-ənna 'priesthood'.
  • -e, suffixed to place name X, yields 'a person born in X': gok':am-e 'someone born in Gok'am'.
  • -ɲ:a and -tɲ:a serve to express profession, or some relationship with the base noun: əgr-ɲ:a 'pedestrian' (from əgr 'foot'); brr--ɲ:a 'gate-keeper' (from brr 'horse').



Along with the infinitive and the present participle, the gerund is one of three non-finite verb forms. The infinitive is a nominalized verb, the present participle expresses incomplete action, and the gerund expresses completed action, e.g. ali mısa blto wd gbya hed 'Ali, having eaten lunch, went to the market'. There are several usages of the gerund depending on its morpho-syntactic features.

Verbal use

The gerund functions as the head of a subordinate clause (see the example above). There may occure more than one gerund in one sentence. The gerund is used to form the following tense forms:

  • present perfect ngro -all/nbbr 'He has said'.
  • past perfect ngro nbbr 'He had said'.
  • possible perfect ngro yıhonall 'He (probably) has said'.
Adverbial use

The gerund can be used as an adverb: alfo alfo yısıqall 'Sometimes he smiles'. ıne dgmo mmţat ıfllıgallıhu 'I also want to come'.


Adjectives are words or constructions used to qualify nouns. Adjectives in Amharic can be formed in several ways: they can be based on nominal patterns, or derived from nouns, verbs and other parts of speech. Adjectives can be nominalised by way of suffixing the nominal article (see Nouns above). Amharic has few primary adjectives. Some examples are dgg 'kind, generous', dəda 'mute, dumb, silent', bəc'a 'yellow'.

Formed from nominal patterns

CCCaC — kbbad 'heavy'; lggas 'generous'
CC(C)iC — rk'iq 'fine, subtle'; mrir 'bitter'; addis 'new'
CC(C)aCa — sbara 'broken'; tmama 'bent, wrinkled'
CəC(C)əC — bələh 'intelligent, smart'; dəbbək' 'hidden'
CəC(C)uC — kəbur 'worthy, dignified'; t'ək'ur 'black'; k'əddus 'holy'

Formed by denominalizing suffixes

-ɲɲa — hayl-ɲɲa 'powerful' (from hayl 'power'); əwnt-ɲɲa 'true' (from əwnt 'truth')
-tɲɲa — alm-tɲɲa 'secular' (from alm 'world'
-awi — ləb-awi 'intelligent' (from ləb 'heart'); mədr-awi 'earthly' (from mədr 'earth'); haymanot-awi 'religious' (from haymanot 'religion')

With prefix y 'from'

y-ktma 'urban' (lit. 'from the city'); y-krəstənna 'christian' (lit. 'of christianity'); y-wəct 'wrong' (lit. 'of falsehood')

In the same way, a relative perfectum or imperfectum can be used as an adjective by prefixing y:

y-bssl 'ripe, done' (lit. 'what has been cooked/prepared'); y-k'oyy 'old' (lit. 'what remained'); y-mmikkttl 'following' ('that what is following', from t-kttl 'to follow'); y-mmittay 'visible' (let. 'what is seen')

Adjective+Noun complex

The adjective and the noun together are called the 'adjective+noun complex'. In Amharic, the adjective precedes the noun, e.g. kəfu geta (lit. bad master) 'a bad master'; təllək' bet srra (lit. big house he-built) 'he built a big house'. If the adjective+noun complex is definite, the definite article is affixed to the adjective and not to the noun, e.g. təllək'-u bet (lit. big-def house) 'the big house'. In a possessive construction, the adjective takes the definite article and the noun takes the pronominal possessive suffix, e.g. təllək'-u bet-e (lit. big-def house-mine) 'my big house'.

When enumerating adjectives using -nna 'and', both adjectives take the definite article: k'ongo-wa-nna astway-wa ləg mt':ac:' (lit. pleasant-def-and intelligent-def girl came) 'the pleasant and intelligent girl came'. In the case of an indefinite plural adjective+noun complex, the noun is plural and the adjective may be used in singular or in plural from. Thus, 'diligent students' can be rendered təgu tmariwoc: (lit. diligent student-PLUR) or təguwoc': tmariwoc: (lit. diligent-PLUR student-PLUR).

Amharic Translation Companies

Because of the rapid growth of Ethiopian communities in Europe and America as well as in Canada several public service organizations started to offer Amharic language translation and interpretation services. Cities like Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Seattle, Washington are some of the cities who are offering Amharic educational materials to Ethiopians.


Many Rastafarians learn Amharic as a second language because their religion believes it is the original and a sacred language. Various roots reggae musicians including Lincoln Thompson and Misty-in-Roots have written songs in Amharic, thus bringing the sound of this relatively unknown language to a wider audience.


  • Abraham, Roy Clive (1968) The Principles of Amharic. Occasional Publication / Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. [rewritten version of 'A modern grammar of spoken Amharic', 1941]
  • Bennet, M.E. (1978) Stratificational Approaches to Amharic Phonology. PhD thesis, Ann Arbor: Michigan State University.
  • Cohen, Marcel (1936) Trait de langue amharique. Paris.
  • Leslau, Wolf (1995) Reference Grammar of Amharic. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.
  • Praetorius, Franz (1879) Die amharische Sprache. Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, Halle

External links


ar:أمهرية bg:Амхарски език de:Amharische Sprache et:Amhari keel fr:Amharique he:אמהרית nl:Amhaars id:Bahasa Amharik ja:アムハラ語 pl:Język amharski sk:Amharčina sl:Amharščina sv:Amhariska zh:阿姆哈拉语


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