Languages and Cultures
Ge’ez is the root language for the three related languages Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre. How did these three evolve from Ge'ez? What preceded Ge’ez? What is their relation to ancient Hebrew? What is the language of the Falasha people who are genetically Hebrew Ethiopians?
You are right that Tigre, Tigrinya and Amharic are all descended from the earlier language Ge`ez. The descent is not a linear one-to-one relationship, however, as one might think.
The three major forms we now refer to are "sister" languages, all jointly developing from the one language in parallel. I am not fluent in these languages, but from my experience and comparative study, it appears that Tigre is closer to Tigrinya than to Amharic, which makes sense given the cultural and geographical contact over the centuries.
Ge`ez is one of several languages in the Semitic group. It is more distant from the others, like Arabic and Aramaic than some of the others are to each other. Classical Arabic and Biblical Hebrew are very similar. Of course, there are over 30 languages of Arabic today, and many of them are not mutually intelligible with each other.
Historical and Comparative linguists make it their business to gather, analyze and compare available written or oral forms of current and historical languages. This provides a consistent pattern to indicate how the languages are related. This indicates the relationship between various current languages, the older forms of these languages and finally the possible form of languages in which any known records exist. This branch of linguistics is a specialized science. Specialists in each language are involved in this process.
When these languages are all compared in grammar and vocabulary, along with the oral traditions and other historical indicators, it is clear that these all developed, as did all other human languages, from an even earlier form of speech for which we have no written testimony. Phonetic patterns discerned in all human languages, and the specific patterns of these related languages, can indicate the forms of vocabulary and grammar a predecessor language might have had.
Such reconstructed proposed forms to account for all the current related forms are referred to as Proto-language. Thus the common term for all these related Semitic languages is Proto-Semitic. Changes occur constantly in human languages. Much of this is simply because of the learning process.
Every child and generation learns the language of the parent and previous generation. The learning always introduces minor differences. Every person and every child learns the language a little bit "imperfectly." Usually differences are so minor, we don't even think about them and they don't usually hinder communication. The change from what is recorded in ancient texts as Ge'ez into what is now known as Amharic, Tigrinya and other related languages, occurred very gradually, but very early. Specialists report that "the earliest written example of Tigrinya is a text of local laws found in the district of Logosarda, southern Eritrea, which dates from the 13th century" ["Tigrinya," Wikipedia].
Every individual speaks somewhat differently. The speech of each generation changes. Some languages change faster than others. Some events cause any language to change faster at some times. Change is gradual. (Many other articles on this website deal with language change and language learning.)
Over a long period of centuries a language can change so much that the speakers cannot understand the older forms of the languages. Like in English, it is almost impossible for a modern speaker of a dialect of English to read and understand the stories of Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote in the 1300s. It takes special training even to read the plays of Shakespeare or the King James Bible from the 1500s and 1600s. The same occurred in the Semitic languages like Ge'ez. The English of the 800s has to be translated totally as a foreign language.
The relationships between the Semitic languages is well established in various literature. You can do some checking under Comparative Linguistics, Semitic, or Historical Linguistics for these details. For a quick authoritative reference, you should refer to the Ethnologue, the World authority on languages of the World.
The Ethnologue presents a genetic relationship in description, in list and in tree form. The codeset developed by the Ethnologue is the official the ISO standard codeset referencing the 6,909 living languages of the world, plus important extinct languages like Ge'ez.
Early Hebrew Practices
Among the Ethiopic peoples we find Semitic characteristics that are similar to the old Hebrew and even the later Jewish practices. It is thought these are at least in part inherited from the old common culture from before the time when the Ethiopic peoples moved from southern Arabic onto the African mainland.
Genetically, of course, as well as culturally, the various peoples that live in the area now known as Ethiopia and Eritrea are very mixed. The Horn of Africa has long been a passage point of migration from Africa to Asia, as witnessed by recent extensive DNA comparison across the human race.
This region has been a center of human migration from pre-history, which previous archaeology tells us, as well as recent comparative DNA studies. Human populations have crossed and recrossed this narrow passage from Africa to Asia since the first humans crossed over from Africa to populate the rest of the world.
In the Horn of Africa, there is a strong base of Cushitic stock that was absorbed by dominant groups represented by the current Amhara and Tigrinya. The early Cushitic peoples are now represented primarily in the Beja cluster. The Tigre are somewhat related, but the Tigre and Beja peoples are also greatly mixed with various Arab strains from the Jaaliya and direct lines from Aden (now Yemen). The Islamic cultures are influenced culturally and genetically by the Yemeni Arab-Cushite genetic strain from the Yemeni missionary movements in the 1700s and 1800s.
It is in this crux of culture and language that the Falasha, or Beta Israel people fit. They originally spoke a dialect of the language called Qimant, in the Western group of Cushitic languages. This language is almost extinct now. In recent years, the Falasha have come to speak mostly Tigrinya. Those who migrated to Israel have proceeded to learn modern Hebrew, as with other immigrant peoples in Israel.
There is much of interest to challenge our understanding the complex culture and language map of the Horn of Africa. Further to this topic, a reader named Harley Pennington wrote to contribute these comments:
I've been learning to speak Tigrigna for about 10 years. During that I’ve also been studying the cultures and history. The Ethiopian Coptic maintain a diet that is almost Kosher. I will send you more information regarding the differences between the Tigray Tigrigna people and the Eritrean Tigrigna people. The primary difference being the subjugation of the Eritreans under the Italian colonialist that the Tigrayans were not subjected to. A little bit of a side note is that the Amhara use the words Tigray and Tigrigna as a derogatory label. The word for foot being ‘igri’ pronounced ‘igree’ and the word tigri meaning under foot. There has been two competing lines of royalty the Amhara and the Tigray. Both peoples call themselves ‘Habisha’ which comes from the Arabic meaning mixed. If you know Habisha people they look distinctively different from the rest of Africans who they call ‘Baria’ loosely meaning slave.
Amhara – Cultural Profile
Beja – Cultural Profile
Tigre, Tigrinya, Tigray – Ethnicities, Languages and Politics
Also related on the Internet
The Falasha: Beta Israel – Wikipedia
"Ge'ez Script," Wikipedia
Qimant – Ethnologue
Semitic Languages – the Ethnologue
Tigrinya – Ethnologue
Western Cushitic languages – Ethnologue.
First written in an answer to email query 14 March 2007.
Finalized as an article and posted 24 January 2009
Last revised 11 April 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.