Ethiopia is a country like no other, with a diverse culture, rich history, and spectacular natural environment. It is also one of the world’s oldest countries, with its history as a nation stretching back to at least 980 BCE.
It is home to people of the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, Somali, Sidamo, Gurage, Welayta, and many other ethnic groups. This diversity is one of the reasons why Ethiopia is such a vibrant and exciting place.
The diversity of the country’s inhabitants means that many languages are spoken. There are almost 90 languages in use throughout Ethiopia, most of which belong to the Afroasiatic family of languages (Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic) or Nilo-Saharan family (Nilotic).
If you were looking to discover about Ethiopian languages, you have reached the right place. Continue reading to discover the languages most commonly used and where they are spoken.
Languages of Ethiopia
Most language experts believe that over 86 different languages are spoken across Ethiopia. A census performed in 1994 confirmed that at least 77 languages are spoken locally.
The majority of the languages spoken in Ethiopia are from the Afroasiatic family of languages. There are over 300 languages in this family, mostly spoken in the Horn of Africa, West Asia, North Africa and some parts of the Sahel. There are also Nilo-Saharan languages spoken by the Nilotic people, one of the minority groups within Ethiopia.
Of the 86 languages spoken, 41 are institutional and they are very common. About 13 of the languages are in danger of extinction and the remainder are still developing. Researchers have discovered 2 extinct languages in the region.
Most Spoken Languages In Ethiopia include:
Afan Oromo (33%) — An Afroasiatic language from the Cushitic branch. It is primarily spoken in the central and southern parts of Ethiopia and the working language of the Oromia region. It is the first language of the Oromo people.
Amharic (30%) — An Afroasiatic language from the Semitic branch, Amharic is spoken in the central and northern parts of Ethiopia. Amharic is also the official Ethiopian language and also the main language of the Amhara region.
Amharic is also the most spoken language in Addis Ababa, the capital city of the country. Amharic is the only language spoken across the country as well as the most spoken as a second language. It has the largest number of speakers out of all Ethiopian semitic languages.
Somali (6%) — An Afroasiatic language belonging to the Cushitic branch. It is a working language in the Somali Region of Ethiopia. It is also the main language of Somalia.
Tigrinya (5%) — A Semitic language spoken in the northern part of Ethiopia, in the Tigray region. Tigrinya is also spoken in some parts of Afar and Amhara regions.
Sidamo (2%) — An Afro-Asiatic language, from the Highland East Cushitic branch of the Cushitic family. The language is spoken in the southern part of Ethiopia by the Sidama people. Sidam has recently regained autonomy and become the 10th region of Ethiopia.
Wolaytta (2%) — North Omotic language of the Welayta people of Ethiopia.
Gurage (2%) — A dialect-continuum language belonging to the Ethiosemitic-South Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. It is spoken in the Gurage Zone which is part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region in south west of Ethiopia.
Afar (1.7%) — An Afroasiatic language belonging to the Cushitic branch. It is the main language of the Afar people of Ethiopia. It is also spoken in Eritrea and Djibouti.
Hadiyya (1.7%) — The Afroasiatic language of the Hadiya people of Ethiopia.
Gamo (1.5%) — An Omotic language of the Afroasiatic family often spoken in the Dawro, Gamo Gofa and Wolaita Zones of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region of Ethiopia.
Gedeo (1.3%) — A Highland East Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic family. The language is spoken in the south and central parts of Ethiopia.
Kafa (1.1%) — A North Omotic Language spoken in Ethiopia at the Keffa Zone.
English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is often used in educational institutions.
Official Languages of Ethiopia
The Ethiopian constitution states that all languages in Ethiopia are recognised by the state. However, Amharic and Afan Oromo are the languages most often used by the federal government, as they are the most common. Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia and the primary language of the federal government of Ethiopia.
Most people living in the northern and central parts of Ethiopia speak Semitic languages including Tigrinya, Amharic, Gurage, Geʿez, and Hareri. Geʿez is the ancient language of the Aksumite empire and is primarily used in religious texts. Ge’ez is also the predecessor of the Semitic languages in Ethiopia.
Tigrinya is particularly common in the northeastern part of the country, where it is spoken as a mother tongue. Amharic is native to the central and northwestern areas. Gurage and Hareri are less common and mostly spoken by people in the south and east of the country.
The most common Cushitic languages are Somali, Afan Oromo, and Afar. Oromo is often spoken in the western, southwestern, southern, and eastern areas of Ethiopia. Somali is common amongst the inhabitants of the Ogaden and Hawd. Afar is often spoken in the Danakil Plain.
The Omotic languages are less common than the other languages spoken in Ethiopia. They are mostly found in the less populated areas to the southwest of Ethiopia. The Nilotic language group is native to the Western Lowlands of Ethiopia.
A census performed in 2007 confirmed that the Oromo is the most spoken language, with 24,930,424 people speaking the language (33.8%). This is closely followed by Amharic, with 21,634,396 users (29.3%). The number of Amharic speakers is increasing as it is the language used by the Ethiopian federal government. Amharic is also the most used language in cities and border towns all over Ethiopia.
In terms of writing systems, Ethiopia’s primary orthography is the Ge’ez script which is also known as the Ethiopian or Amharic alphabet. It has been in use since the fifth century BC and is currently used as a writing system for several local languages. Ge’ez is also a common liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches.
There are several other writing systems in use in Ethiopian communities including Arabic script and Sheikh Bakri Sapalo’s script (used for Afan Oromo). Many Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan languages are now written using Roman/Latin script.
The Ge’ez script is supported by most computer systems and online Amharic keyboards can be used to write in Amharic, Tigrigna and other Ethiopic languages.
Conservation of Languages in Ethiopia
Over the years, several Ethiopian languages have become extinct, including Mesmes, Gafat, and Weyto. Some languages are at risk of extinction as they are only spoken by a very small number of people. Linguistic experts believe that any language with less than 10,000 speakers is at risk of extinction.
The Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 gives all ethnic groups in Ethiopia the right to establish first language primary education systems and develop their own languages. This has been an important addition to the constitution, as it has allowed many types of languages to thrive. It has helped to preserve the rich linguistic heritage and culture of the many ethnic groups indigenous to Ethiopia.