Ethio-Semitic Language Groups
Source: Based on information from Malau Wubneh and
Yohannis Abate, Ethiopia, Boulder Colorado, 1989, 129; and M.
Bender (ed.) The Non-Semetic Languages of Ethiopia, East
Figure 8. Principal Ethnolinguistic Groups, 1991
The most important Ethio-Semitic language is Amharic. It
was the empire's official language and is still widely used
in government and in the capital despite the Mengistu
regime's changes in language policy. Those speaking Amharic
as a mother tongue numbered about 8 million in 1970, a
little more than 30 percent of the population. A more
accurate count might show them to constitute a lesser
proportion. The total number of Amharic speakers, including
those using Amharic as a second language, may constitute as
much as 50 percent of the population.
The Amhara are not a cohesive group, politically or
otherwise. From the perspective of many Amhara in the core
area of Gonder, Gojam, and western Welo, the Amhara of Shewa
(who constituted the basic ruling group under Menelik II and
Haile Selassie) are not true descendants of the northern
Amhara and the Tigray and heirs to the ancient kingdom of
Aksum. Regional variations notwithstanding, the Amhara do
not exhibit the differences of religion and mode of
livelihood characteristic of the Oromo, for example, who
constitute Ethiopia's largest linguistic category. With a
few exceptions, the Amhara are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians
and are highland plow agriculturists.
The Tigray (whose language is Tigrinya) constitute the
second largest category of Ethio-Semitic speakers. They made
up about 14 percent of the population in 1970. Like the
Amhara, the Tigray are chiefly Ethiopian Orthodox
Christians, and most are plow agriculturists. Despite some
differences in dialect, Tigray believe, as anthropologist
Dan Franz Bauer has noted, "that they have a common tenuous
kinship with other Tigray regardless of their place of
The number of persons speaking other Ethio-Semitic
languages is significantly smaller than the number who speak
Amharic and Tigrinya. Moreover, unlike the Amhara and
Tigray, members of other Ethio-Semitic groups do not share
the Aksumite heritage and Orthodox Christianity, and their
traditional economic base is different.
Of the seven Ethio-Semitic languages found among the Gurage
of southern Shewa, four are single tongues and three are
dialect clusters, each encompassing four or five dialects.
All correspond to what anthropologist William A. Shack calls
tribes, which, in turn, consist of independent
Glossary) chiefdoms. Although most people accept the name
Gurage, they are likely to specify a tribal name in
The traditional social organization and religion of the
Gurage resemble those of the neighboring East
Cushitic-speaking Sidama and related peoples. In some cases,
Orthodox Christianity or Islam has displaced the traditional
religious system, in whole or in part. The Gurage
traditionally depended on the ensete plant (known locally as
false banana) rather than grain for their staple food and
used the hoe rather than the plow.
In 1970 there were more than 500,000 speakers of Gurage
tongues, but no single group numbered more than 100,000.
Substantial numbers, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of all Gurage,
live in urban centers, particularly Addis Ababa, where they
work at a range of manual tasks typically avoided by the
Amhara and the Tigray.
In 1970 a total of 117,000 persons were estimated to speak
Tigre, which is related to Tigrinya; but that figure was
likely an underestimate. The ten or so Eritrean groups or
clusters of groups speaking the language do not constitute
an ethnic entity, although they share an adherence to Islam.
Locally, people traditionally used the term Tigre to refer
to what has been called the serf class, as opposed to the
noble class, in most Tigre-speaking groups.
Perhaps the most numerous of the Tigre-speaking peoples are
the Beni Amir, a largely pastoral people living in the
semiarid region of the north and west along the Sudanese
border. A large number of the Beni Amir also speak Beja, a
North Cushitic language. Other groups are, in part at least,
cultivators, and some, who live along the Red Sea coast and
on nearby islands, gain some of their livelihood from
Except for the fact that the distinction between nobles and
serfs seems at one time to have been pervasive, little is
known of early social and political organization among these
groups except for the Beni Amir, who were organized in a
tribal federation with a paramount chief. The other groups
seem to have been autonomous units.
The Hareri are of major historical importance, and their
home was in that part of Ethiopia once claimed by Somali
irredentists. The Hareri ("people of the city") established
the walled city of Harer as early as the thirteenth century
A.D. Harer was a major point from which Islam spread to
Somalia and then to Ethiopia.
The Argobba consist of two groups. Living on the hilly
slopes of the Great Rift Valley escarpment are small groups
of Northern Argobba. The Southern Argobba live southwest of
Harer. Northern Argobba villages, interspersed among
Amharic- or Oromo-speaking communities, stretch from an area
at roughly the latitude of Addis Ababa to southeasternmost
Welo. Most Argobba speak either Amharic or Oromo in addition
to their native tongue.
Data as of 1991