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Languages of Ethiopia

A glance at any linguistic map of Ethiopia will show the small yet compact Semitic island stretching from northern Erit­rea to Addis Abeba in the south. There are, perhaps, seven million Semitic speaking Ethiopians and nearly as many who speak lan­guages of the Cushitic and Neolithic groups. The Semitic langua­ges of Ethiopia represent next to Arabic, the living Semitic ton­gues spoken by the largest number of people; Amharic is well in the lead, followed by Tigrinia.

In the many classification schemes that have been proposed for the Semitic languages the position of Ethiopic has always been: a South Semitic language which is to be grouped with South Arabic. The linguistic significance of the Ethiopian languages lies not only in their geographical position as a bridge between Asia and Africa and their proximity to the area, i. e. South Arabia, which is frequently considered to have been the original habitat of the Semites, but especially in their close contacts with the Hamitic tongues. In Ethiopia we find the most favourable condi­tions for observing the interaction of Semitic and Cushitic and thus for revealing the original unity of the Hamito-Semitic lan­guages.

Considering the comparatively small distinctions between the various dialects of epigraphic South Arabic, we are unlikely to find any indications of those rather minute differences in the fully developed Ge'ez language. Nor does there appear to be any need to make Amharic claim descent from an unknown "sister" tongue of Ge'ez. The evolution of Amharic and the other modern languages can be best envisaged in this way: classical Ethiopic, in the course of time, spread over a fairly large area and, when political and other circumstances were propitious, eventually be­came differentiated to such an extent that the varying speech forms were mutually unintelligible.

It is obviously quite impossible to be precise about the time when Ge'ez had ceased to be South Arabic and had become a different language no longer intelligible to traders from the east coast of the Red Sea. The process was, of course, slow and gra­dual, but the distinctive identity of Ge'ez must have been establi­shed by the beginning of the first century A.D. The South Ara­bic inscriptions in Ethiopia were followed a few centuries la­ter by Ethiopic epigraphic documents in which Ge'ez makes its first appearance as a new language — quite distinct from South Arabic. We possess no Ethiopic literature from that period, and, as far as we can judge at present, the life of Ge'ez as a spoken language seems to have been relatively short. So, of course, was the full bloom of the Aksumite Kingdom. Its decline began in the seventh or eighth century and followed, some 200 years or so la­ter, by the eclipse of Ge'ez as a living tongue, though it conti­nued to be Ethiopia's literary and ecclesiastical language to al­most the present day. It is, however, interesting to note that the classical period of Ge'ez literature was between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, i. e. hundreds of years after it had ceased to be a living language used in the day-to-day life of the people.


Date: 2016-03-03; view: 175

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