Amharic: A Language Apart from a Land Apart

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | Ethiopia (map)

A Ge'ez inscription at the Debre Libanos monastery
Though geographically landlocked, culturally speaking Ethiopia is an island, distinguished from its neighbors by its unique history, ethnicities, cuisine, calendar, and most of all by its language.

Amharic, the mother tongue of the Amhara (Ethiopia's dominant ethnic group) and official language of the country, is central Ethiopia's uniqueness. Though technically a Semitic language (and thus distantly related to Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew), Amharic seemed to me to share few roots or words in common with those languages.

After years of studying Arabic, and forcing my mouth to make some very unfamiliar noises, I still had great difficulty emulating the sounds of Amharic. (Is it even possible to combine a consonant and glottal stop? Apparently so, but my tongue can't manage it.) At times, the snippets of conversation floating along the streets reminded me fleetingly of Arabic—no wait, Hebrew—no wait,
Swahili—no wait, Chichewa...

Amharic's script is also one of a kind. The Ge'ez alphabet looks a bit like symbols you could make by kinking your hands in weird positions, as if each letter were sign language diagrammed, or a shadow puppet on the wall. Diacritical (vowel) markers attach to the letters, and these extra hooks and loops make it seem as if there are four times as many letters as there really are. Deciphering them can take some work, but I enjoyed tinkering at it over the course of our trip.

Ethiopia is one of the few places in my life that I've visited without knowing the local language. Luckily upon arrival we discovered that, thanks to an ambitious government program, Ethiopians speak a surprising amount of English. Having an English-speaking local guide around certainly helped, too.

Of course, Jacqueline and I made it a priority to recognize and even reproduce a few key Amharic phrases: selam ("hello"), amesege'nallo ("thank you"—yes, it takes six syllables to say "thank you"), e'shi ("OK"), chigger'ellem ("no problem"), yellem ("there aren't any"—hotel desk clerks liked this word), ferenj ("foreigner"), and a few of the numbers. But to be honest, learning these words took a back seat to the bare necessities: k'azk'aza ("cold") and birra ("beer").

Besides the unusual sound of the language, I loved the little gasping intakes of breath that Ethiopians make (meaning "yes"), among other interesting tics. The unspoken ways in which people communicate can be just as fascinating as languages themselves.

Someday I would love to return to Ethiopia and explore Amharic further. But at least for now, back in Washington, DC (home to the largest Ethiopian expat community in the United States) I can still make good use of a well-timed amesege'nallo.

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