Ethiosemitic languages are a subgroup of the Semitic languages, forming the South Semitic branch together with New South Arabic (the language of certain parts of modern Yemen). All derive (communis opiniofrom a common Proto-ethiosemitic which split from the Proto-Semitic language some time before 4000 B.C., and display substantial lexical, phonological, and grammatical Cushitic substrata due to continuous contact with Cushitic and Nilotic languages in the Ethiopian area. Other generally features include the glottalisation and palatisation of consonants, extensive use of gerund forms, and SOV word order.

Ethiosemitic is commonly divided into two further groups, North and South Ethiopic.North Ethiopic is the more conservative of the two, e.g. the initial set of five laryngals are still differentiated in pronunciation, and feminine forms have the semitic -t marker. The group consists of:

  • Old Ethiopic, natively called Ge'ez, the language of the Aksumite empire and liturgical language of the Ethiopian church. It is the oldest attested Ethiosemitic language, in continuous productive use from the 3rd to the 19th century A.D. Statements that it displays substantial pidginization or creolization are wholly unjustified.
  • Tigre, attested in a few scattered fragments and a translation of the Bible commissioned by Swedish missionaries in the 19th century, now spoken mainly in Eritrea. An Arabic-influenced creole has developed as a trade dialect along the Red Sea coast.
  • Tigrinya, also attested since the 19th century, now the official language of Eritrea (along with Arabic). It is the second largest language in the Ethiosemitic family, and, despite a strong Agaw substratum, displays the greatest number of Proto-Ethiosemitic markers.

Numerous attempts have been made to derive either Tigre or Tigrinya linearly from Old Ethiopic, but the great time between the periods of spoken Old Ethiopic and attested Tigre and Tigrinya, not to mention the centuries of Arabic and Cushitic influences in between, make this rather impossible. It is best to consider these languages as equal derivatives of a Proto-Northethiopic.

Some time shortly after the 1st century A.D., Southethiopic split off from the northern branch. A traditional theory, proposed in the 1950s by Robert Hetzron, states that this southward migration took place along two routes, a direct path into the Southeast and a transversal route along the western coast. The theory remains unprovable, but provides a working hypothesis for the grouping of the southern languages into Outer South Ethiopic and Transversal South Ethiopic. The languages of the latter are:

  • Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, the language of government and education, with some 15 Million native speakers today the 2nd largest living semitic language, the 5th largest language in Africa. It is continuously attested from the 14th century to the present.
  • Argobba, sometimes referred to as an Amharic dialect, spoken today in the Muslim Argobba province. It is quickly dying out under pressure from Amharic, and is spoken today by relatively few, mostly with ad hoc mixtures of Amharic. Nevertheless, it displays certain conservative features that lead scholars in the 1940s to declare it an earlier Amharic dialect that has become independant.
  • Harari, the language of a small group of Muslims in the walled inner city of Harar (the outer city speaks Amharic, the surrounding countryside Oromo). It is the only Ethiosemitic language commonly written in Arabic rather than Old Ethiopic characters.
  • East Gurage, with the dialects Selti, Wolane, and Zway. The classification of the Gurage cluster is one of the greatest problems of Ethiosemitic studies, better described under its own node. Suffice to say that Gurage as a whole, though its languages are most likely derived from a Proto-Gurage, is better used as an ethnographic determination.
  • Gafat, formerly spoken in the Gafat region of eastern Ethiopia, officially extinct since the 1940s (unconfirmed rumours say otherwise). The last native speakers were interviewed and recorded by the great Wolf Leslau.

Outer South Ethiopic consists only of North and West Gurage. These languages, again, are best described under their own nodes.

A rather lengthy bibliography:
General:
Leslau, W., An Annotated Bibliography of the Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. The Hague 1965.
Gafat:
Leslau, W., Etude descriptive et comparative du Gafat. Paris 1956.
Ge’ez:
Dillman, A., Grammatik der äthiopischen Sprache. Leipzig 1899.
Dillman, A., Lexicon linguae aethiopicae cum indice latino. Leipzig 1865.
Leslau, W., Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopic). Wiesbaden 1991.
Amharic:
Hartmann, J., Amharische Grammatik. Wiesbaden 1980.
Kane, T.L., Amharic-English Dictionary. Wiesbaden 1990.
Leslau, W., Concise Amharic Dictionary. Wiesbaden 1976.
Leslau, W., Reference Grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden 1995.
Argobba:
Leslau, W., Ethiopic Documents: Argoba Grammar and Dictionary. Wiesbaden 1997.
Harari:
Cerulli, E., Studi etiopici, I. La lingua e la storia di Harar. Rom, 1936.
Leslau, W., Etymological Dictionary of Harari. Berkeley 1958.
Gurage:
Leslau, W., Gurage Studies: Collected Articles. Wiesbaden 1992.
Leslau, W., Etymological Dictionary of Gurage (Ethiopic). Wiesbaden 1979.

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