A language belonging to the Ethiopic Semitic subcategory of the southern group of Semitic, Ethiopic is more specifically known as classical Ethiopic or Ge῾ez (Eth., gǝ῾ǝz, perhaps derived from a root g῾z “become free”; less probably, “depart,” “change camp”). Ethiopic Semitic, a highly differentiated family of some fifteen languages, probably developed out of a lingua franca based on one or more varieties of South Semitic imported into the Horn of Africa from Southern Arabia (modern Yemen), perhaps in connection with Southern Arabian migration or trading activity at some time during the first millennium BCE. Ge῾ez belongs to the Northern group of Ethiopic Semitic languages, as does its close relative Tigrinya, the language of modern Eritrea). It is attested in its full classical form by the fourth century CE but probably had disappeared as a spoken language by the tenth century. Ge῾ez has survived as an ecclesiastical and liturgical language. Until the nineteenth century, it was, for all practical purposes, the sole written language of Ethiopia. The official language of modern Ethiopia is Amharic, one of a dozen or more languages making up the Southern group of Ethiopic Semitic languages.


TABLE 1. Ethiopic writing systems. Columns 1-8 show the Ethiopic syllabary (each sign represents the row/column consonant-vowel combination); columns 9-10 show the Old South Arabian alphabet (OSA signs for s, theta, delta, z<underdot>), and gamma not used in Ethiopic.

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The writing system used for all Ethiopic Semitic languages (see table 1) clearly developed from a South Semitic consonantal script of the type attested in Epigraphic South Arabic. A unique feature distinguishing this from all other West Semitic scripts is its evolution in the direction of a syllabary by the introduction of a distinct modification of the basic consonantal character for each of the seven vowels (/i e a ā ǝ o u/) of the language. There is, however, no special sign for a consonant not followed by a vowel (the sign is used), or for consonant gemination (doubling), an important feature of Ge῾ez morphology. The consonantal inventory of Ge῾ez contains most of the “emphatic” and laryngeal consonants expected in a Semitic language. It is important to note, however, that the set of consonants is unique in having both an “emphatic” (glottalized) /p'/ and a class of “labio-velar” consonants (velars with a w-offglide) /kw gw qw hw/.

In verbal morphology Ge῾ez shares with other Western Semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic) the development of a perfective (past) tense based on suffixed subject elements; its imperfective (present-future), however, preserves an archaic construction found elsewhere only in Akkadian. In the paradigm of the base form of the perfective and imperfective of the verb qtl (“kill”) shown in table 2, note also the /k/ in the first person singular and second person perfective subject suffixes, instead of the /t/ found in the other languages.

Of the three Common Semitic nominal case suffixes, nominative /-u/, genitive /-i/, accusative /-a/, only the accusative survives in Ge῾ez. Like Arabic and South Arabian, Ge῾ez forms the plural of a large portion of its nouns by replacing the vowel pattern of the singular: kalb/aklāb “dog/dogs,” wald/wǝlud “son/sons,” kanfar/kanāfǝr “lip/lips.” Syntactically, Ge῾ez tends to follow the verb-subject-object clause word-order pattern favored in West Semitic languages but less rigorously than some of the other languages.

The written attestation of Ge῾ez starts with a limited number of monumental inscriptions in an archaic nonvocalized form of the script. By the time of the fourth-century CE king Ezana, we find a number of long, vocalized, and monumental texts on stelae (essentially campaign narratives) from the capital, Axum, monotheistic (presumably Christian) in content, which show both the language and script in their essentially classic form. There are earlier polytheistic texts in nonvocalized Ethiopic script from the same ruler. Some of these texts are accompanied by Greek translations and transcriptions into South Arabian script. Properly speaking, the earliest period of Ge῾ez literature seems to date from the evangelization of Ethiopia, perhaps from the sixth century. (Few, if any, of the preserved Ge῾ez manuscripts can be dated confidently before the twelfth century.) This literature consists largely of translations and adaptations from Greek and possibly Syriac: the Bible and Apocrypha, liturgical texts, rules of Pachomius, collections of extracts from the Church Fathers, and hagiographical accounts. After a “dark period,” which began in the eighth century and lasted for several hundred years, the literary tradition picks up again in connection with new monastic foundations and reestablishment of a link with the Alexandria patriarchate in the eleventh century. There is still a strong translation component, now largely from Arabic (itself in turn frequently a translation from Greek, Coptic, or Syriac), but there are also new, original, and indigenous works in an ecclesiastical vein. These works include hagiography, local chronicles, and liturgical, devotional, and apocalyptic literature. Furthermore, court literature includes royal chronicles, a “national epic” (Kǝbra Nagast—“The Glory of Kings”—recounting the origins of the ruling dynasty from a union of Solomon and Sheba, here, an Ethiopian queen), and legal documents. A tradition of magical texts continues into the twentieth century, its most visible manifestation being the ubiquitous “magic scrolls” composed in Ge῾ez for individual clients by learned clerics and worn as an amulet, rolled up in a leather case.

Table 2. Perfective and Imperfective of the Verb Qtl (“Kill”)

Sg. Pl. Sg. Pl.
1 qatal-ku qatal-na ∂- qatt∂l n∂-qatt∂l
2 m qatal-ka qatal- k∂mmu t∂-qatt∂l t∂- qatt∂l-u
2 f qatal-ki qatal- k∂n t∂-qatt∂l-i t∂- qatt∂l-ā
3 m qatal-a qatal-u y∂- qatt∂l y∂-qatt∂l-u
3 f qatal-at qatal-ā t∂-qatt∂l y∂-qatt∂l-ā

[See also Semitic Languages.]


  • Dillmann, August. Lexicon linguae aethiopicae. Leipzig, 1865. The basic lexicographic work, with Ethiopic script, textual citations, headwords ordered according to script order, and translations into Latin. The etymologies are unreliable and should be consulted with Leslau (1987).
  • Dillmann, August. Ethiopic Grammar. 2d ed. London, 1907. The basic grammar.
  • Hetzron, Robert. Ethiopian Semitic: Studies in Classification. Journal of Semitic Studies, Monograph no. 2. Manchester, 1972. Consult for the relations of Ethiopic Semitic languages to one another, and to Semitic generally.
  • Lambdin, Thomas O. Introduction to Classical Ethiopic (Ge῾ez). Harvard Semitic Studies, no. 24. Missoula, Mont., 1978. Good for self-instruction; exercises and grammar given in Roman transcription only.
  • Leslau, Wolf. An Annotated Bibliography of the Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. La Haye, 1965.
  • Leslau, Wolf. Comparative Dictionary of Ge῾ez (Classical Ethiopic). Wiesbaden, 1987. Entries and subentries in Roman transcription, ordered by transcription alphabet, with up-to-date and reliable etymologies.
  • Leslau, Wolf. Concise Dictionary of Ge῾ez (Classical Ethiopic). Wiesbaden, 1989. Same basic vocabulary coverage as above, excluding etymologies. Entries are given in Ethiopic script, according to Ethiopic script order.
  • Ricci, Lanfranco. “Ethiopian Christian Literature.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 3, pp. 975–979. New York, 1991. Contains extensive bibliography.

Gene Gragg