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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Languages of Ethiopia
Official language(s) Amharic
Main language(s) Amharic (32.7%), Oromo (31.6%)
Main foreign language(s) English, Arabic

Ethiopia has many indigenous languages (some 84 according to the Ethnologue, 77 according to the 1994 census), most of them Afro-Asiatic (Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic), as well as some that are Nilo-Saharan.

Charles Ferguson proposed the Ethiopian Language Area, characterized by shared grammatical and phonological features (1976). This language area includes the Afro-Asiatic languages of Ethiopia, not the Nilo-Saharan languages. More recently, Mauro Tosco has questioned the validity of Ferguson's original proposal (2000). There is still no unanimity among scholars on this point, but Tosco has at least weakened Ferguson's original claim.

English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is the medium of instruction in secondary schools and universities. Amharic was the language of primary school instruction, but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromifa and Tigrinya.

After the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, the new constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia granted all ethnic groups the right to develop their languages and to establish mother tongue primary education systems. This is a marked change to the language policies of previous governments in Ethiopia.

Afro-Asiatic languages

Endangered languages

A number of Ethiopian languages are endangered: they may not be spoken in one or two generations and may become extinct, victims of language death, as Weyto has and Ongota soon will. The factors that contribute to language death are complex so it is not easy to estimate which or how many languages are most vulnerable. Hudson wrote, "Assuming that a language with fewer than 10,000 speakers is endangered, or likely to become extinct within a generation", there are 22 endangered languages in Ethiopia (1999:96). However, a number of Ethiopian languages never have had populations even that high, so it is not clear that this is an appropriate way to calculate the number of endangered languages in Ethiopia. The real number may be lower or higher. The new language policies after the 1991 revolution have strengthened the use of a number of languages. Publications specifically about endangered languages in Ethiopia include: Appleyard (1998), Hayward (1988), Zelealem (1998a,b, 2004)


  • Appleyard, David. 1998. Language Death: The Case of Qwarenya (Ethiopia). In Endangered Languages in Africa, edited by Matthias Brenzinger. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Ferguson, Charles. 1976. The Ethiopian Language Area. Language In Ethiopia, ed. by M. Lionel Bender, J. Donald Bowen, R.L. Cooper, Charles A. Ferguson, pp. 63-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hayward, Richard J. 1998. The Endangered Languages of Ethiopia: What’s at Stake for the Linguist? In Endangered Languages in Africa, edited by Matthias Brenzinger, 17-38. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Hudson, Grover. 1999. Linguistic Analysis of the 1994 Ethiopian Census. Northeast African Studies Vol. 6, No. 3 (New Series), pp. 89-108.
  • Hudson, Grover. 2004. Languages of Ethiopia and Languages of the 1994 Ethiopian Census. Aethiopica: International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies 7: 160-172.
  • Leslau, Wolf. 1965. An annotated bibliography of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Tosco, Mauro. 2000. Is There an ‘Ethiopian Language Area’? Anthropological Linguistics 42,3: 329–365.
  • Unseth, Peter. 1990. Linguistic bibliography of the Non-Semitic languages of Ethiopia. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University. (Classification charts, pp. 21 ff.)
  • Zelealem Leyew. 1998a. An Ethiopian Language on the Verge of Extinction. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 134: 69–84.
  • Zelealem Leyew. 1998b. Some Structural Signs of Obsolescence in K’emant. In Endangered Languages in Africa. Edited by Matthias Brenzinger. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Zelealem Leyew. 2004. The fate of endangered languages in Ethiopia. On the margins of nations : endangered languages and linguistic rights. proceedings of the eighth FEL Conference, Eds. Joan A. Argenter & Robert McKenna Brown, 35-45. Bath: Foundation for Endangered Languages.

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