Ge'ez language: Wikis


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Ge'ez, Ethiopic
ግዕዝ Gəʿəz
Pronunciation [ɡɨʕɨz]
Spoken in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Israel
Language extinction Extinct[1]. Ceased to be a spoken tongue (in 4th century CE according to [2])(sometime before the 10th century CE according to [3]), remains in use as a liturgical language[4]
Language family Afro-Asiatic
Writing system Ge'ez alphabet
Official status
Official language in Liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Ethiopic Catholic Church,[4] and Beta Israel[5]
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 gez
ISO 639-3 gez
Drawing of the Virgin Mary 'with her beloved son,' from a Ge'ez manuscript copy of Weddasé Māryām, circa 1875.

Ge'ez (ግዕዝ, Gəʿəz, IPA: [ɡɨʕɨz]; also transliterated Gi'iz, and less accurately referred to as Ethiopic) is an ancient South Semitic language that developed in the current region of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. It later became the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum and Ethiopian imperial court.

Today Ge'ez remains only as the main language used in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, and also the Beta Israel Jewish community. However, in Ethiopia Amharic (the main lingua franca of modern Ethiopia) or other local languages, and in Eritrea and Tigray Region in Ethiopia, Tigrinya may be used for sermons.




  • a /æ/, later *e < Proto-Semitic *a
  • u /uː/ < Proto-Semitic *ū
  • i /iː/ < Proto-Semitic *ī
  • ā /aː/, later *a < Proto-Semitic *ā
  • e /eː/ < Proto-Semitic *ay
  • i /i/ < Proto-Semitic *i, *u
  • o /oː/ < Proto-Semitic *aw

also transliterated as ǎ, û, î, â, ê, ě, ô.


Ge'ez consonants have a triple opposition between voiceless, voiced, and ejective (or emphatic) obstruents. The Proto-Semitic "emphasis" in Ge'ez has been generalized to include emphatic . Ge'ez has phonologized labiovelars, descending from Proto-Semitic biphonemes. Ge'ez ś Sawt (in Amharic, also called śe-nigūś, i.e. the se letter used for spelling the word nigūś "king") is reconstructed as descended from a Proto-Semitic voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ]. Like Arabic, Ge'ez merged Proto-Semitic š and s in (also called se-isat: the se letter used for spelling the word isāt "fire"). Apart from this, Ge'ez phonology is comparably conservative; the only other Proto-Semitic phonological contrasts lost may be the interdental fricatives and ghayin.

In the chart below, IPA values are shown. When transcription is different from the IPA, the character is shown in angular brackets.

Labial Dental Palatal Velar / Uvular Pharyn-
plain lateral plain labialized
Nasal m n
Plosive voiceless p t k ʔ <’>
voiced b d ɡ ɡʷ
emphatic1 <ṭ> <ḳ> kʷʼ <ḳʷ>
Affricate emphatic t͡sʼ <ṣ>
Fricative voiceless f s ɬ <ś> χ <ḫ>2 ħ <ḥ> h
voiced z ʕ <‘>
emphatic ɬʼ <ṣ́>
Trill r
Approximant l j <y> w
  1. In Ge'ez, Emphatic consonants are phonetically ejectives. As is the case with Arabic, emphatic velars may actually be phonetically uvular ([q] and [qʷ]).
  2. Though not emphatic, <ḫ> is also uvular rather than velar.



Ge'ez distinguishes two genders masculine and feminine, which in certain words is marked with the suffix -t. There are two numbers singular and plural. The plural can be constructed either by suffixing -āt to a word, or by internal plural.

  • Plural using suffix: ʿāmat – ʿāmatāt 'year(s)', māy – māyāt 'water(s)' (Note: In contrast to adjectives and other semitic languages the -āt suffix can be used for constructing the plural of both genders).
  • Internal plural: bet – ʾābyāt 'house, houses'; qərnəb – qarānəbt 'eyelid, eyelids'.

Nouns also have two cases, the nominative which is not marked and the accusative which is marked with final -a (e.g. bet, bet-a).

Internal plural

Internal plurals follow certain patterns. Triconsonantal nouns follow one of the following patterns.

Patterns of internal plural for triconsonantal nouns.[3][6] (C=Consonant, V=Vowel)
Pattern Singular Meaning Plural
ləbs 'garment' ālbās
faras 'horse' āfrās
bet 'house' ābyāt
ṣom 'fast' āṣwām
səm 'name' āsmāt
ādg 'ass' āʾdug
hagar 'city' āhgur
rəʾs 'head' arʾəst
gbr 'slave' āgbərt
bagʾ 'sheep' ābāgəʾ
gānen 'devil' āgnānənt
əzn 'ear' əzan
əgr 'foot' əgar
əd 'hand' ədaw
ab 'father' ābaw
əḫʷ 'brother' āḫaw

Quadriconsonantal and some triconsonantal nouns follow the following pattern. Triconsonantal nouns that take this pattern must have at least one long vowel[3]

Patterns of internal plural for quadriconsonantal nouns.[3][6] (C=Consonant, V=Vowel)
Pattern Singular Meaning Plural
dəngəl 'virgin' danāgəl
masfən 'prince' masāfənt
kokab 'planet' kawākəbt
qasis 'priest' qasāwəst

Pronominal morphology

Number Person Isolated personal pronoun Pronominal suffix
With noun With verb
Singular 1. ʾāna -ya -ni
2. masculine ʾānta -ka
2. feminine ʾānti -ki
3. masculine wəʾətu -(h)u
3. feminine yəʾəti -(h)a
Plural 1. nəḥna -na
2. masculine ʾāntəmu -kəmu
2. feminine ʾāntən -kən
3. masculine wəʾətomu / əmuntu -(h)omu
3. feminine wəʾəton / əmāntu -(h)on

Verb conjugation

Person Perfect
Singular 1. qatal-ku ʾə-qattəl ʾə-qtəl
2. m. qatal-ka tə-qattəl tə-qtəl
2. f. qatal-ki tə-qattəl-i tə-qtəl-i
3. m. qatal-a yə-qattəl yə-qtəl
3. f. qatal-at tə-qattəl tə-qtəl
Plural 1. qatal-na nə-qattəl nə-qtəl
2. m. qatal-kəmmu tə-qattəl-u tə-qtəl-u
2. f. qatal-kən tə-qattəl-ā tə-qtəl-ā
3. m. qatal-u yə-qattəl-u yə-qtəl-u
3. f. qatal-ā yə-qattəl-ā yə-qtəl-ā



The common way of negation is the prefix ʾi- which descends from ʾey- (which is attested in Axum inscriptions) from ʾay from proto-semitic *ʾal by palatization[3], it is prefixed to verbs as following:

nəḥna ʾi-nəkl ḥawira
we (we) cannot go
we cannot go

Writing system

Genesis 29.11–16 in Ge'ez

Ge'ez is written with Ethiopic or the Ge'ez abugida, a script which was originally developed specifically for this language. In languages which use it, eg Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is called Fidäl, which means script or alphabet.

Ge'ez is read from left to right.

The Ge'ez script has been adapted to write other languages, usually Semitic ones. The most widespread use is for Amharic in Ethiopia and Tigrinya in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is also used for Sebatbeit, Me'en, Agew and most other languages of Ethiopia. In Eritrea it is used for Tigre, and it is often used for Blin, a Cushitic language. Some other languages in the Horn of Africa, such as Oromo, used to be written using Ge'ez but have switched to Latin-based orthographies.

The script has 26 basic consonant signs used to write Ge'ez:

translit. h l m ś r s b t n ʾ
translit. k w ʿ z y d g ṣ́ f p

It also uses 4 symbols for labialized velar consonants, which are variants of the non-labialized velar consonants:

Basic sign k g
Labialized variant ḳʷ ḫʷ

History and literature

Although it is often said that Ge'ez literature is dominated by the Bible including the Deuterocanon, in fact there are many medieval and early modern original texts in the language. Most of its important works are also the literature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which include Christian liturgy (service books, prayers, hymns), Lives of Saints, and Patristic literature. For instance, around 200 texts were written about indigenous Ethiopian saints from the fourteenth through the nineteenth century. This religious orientation of Ge'ez literature was a result of traditional education being the responsibility of priests and monks. "The Church thus constituted the custodian of the nation's culture", notes Richard Pankhurst, and describes the traditional education as follows:

Traditional education was largely biblical. It began with the learning of the alphabet, or more properly, syllabary... The student's second grade comprised the memorization of the first chapter of the first Epistle General of St. John in Geez. The study of writing would probably also begin at this time, and particularly in more modern times some arithmetic might be added. In the third stage the Acts of the Apostles were studied, while certain prayers were also learnt, and writing and arithmetic continued. ... The fourth stage began with the study of the Psalms of David and was considered an important landmark in a child's education, being celebrated by the parents with a feast to which the teacher, father confessor, relatives and neighbours were invited. A boy who had reached this stage would moreover usually be able to write, and might act as a letter writer.[7]

However works of history and chronography, ecclesiastical and civil law, philology, medicine, and letters were also written in Ge'ez.

The Ethiopian collection in the British Library comprises some 800 manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, notably including magical and divinatory scrolls, and illuminated manuscripts of the 16th to 17th centuries. It was initiated by a donation of 74 codices by the Church of England Missionary Society in the 1830s and 1840s, and substantially expanded by 349 codices, taken by the British from the Emperor Tewodros II's capital at Magdala in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia.


The Ge'ez language is classified as a South Semitic language. It evolved from an earlier proto-Ethio-Semitic ancestor used to write royal inscriptions of the kingdom of Dʿmt in Epigraphic South Arabian. Ge'ez language is no longer thought, as previously assumed, to be an offshoot of Sabaean or Old South Arabian[2], and there is linguistic evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia since at least 2000 BC.[citation needed] However, the Ge'ez alphabet later replaced Epigraphic South Arabian in the Kingdom of Aksum (Epigraphic South Arabian letters were used for a few inscriptions into the 8th century, though not any South Arabian language since Dʿmt). Early inscriptions in Ge'ez and Ge'ez alphabet have been dated[8] to as early as the 5th century BC, and in a sort of proto-Ge'ez written in ESA since the 8th century BC. Ge'ez literature properly begins with the Christianization of Ethiopia (and the civilization of Axum) in the 4th century, during the reign of Ezana of Axum.[citation needed]

5th to 7th centuries

Almost all texts from this early "Aksumite" period are religious (Christian) in nature, many of them translations from Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and later also Arabic. The translation of the Christian Bible was undertaken by Syrian monks known as the Nine Saints, who had come to Ethiopia in the 5th century fleeing the Byzantine persecution of the Monophysites. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of the Old Testament and 35 of the New. A number of these Books are called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal" according to certain Western theologians), such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch, Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, Moses and Tobit. The Book of Enoch in particular is notable since its complete text has survived in no other language.

Also to this early period dates Qerlos, a collection of Christological writings beginning with the treatise of Saint Cyril known as Hamanot Rete’et, or De Recta Fide, the theological foundation of the Ethiopic Church. Another work is Ser'ata Paknemis, a translation of the monastic Rules of Pachomius. Non-religious works translated in this period include Physiologus, a work of natural history also very popular in Europe.[9]

13th to 14th centuries

After the decline of the Aksumites, a lengthy gap follows; no works have survived that can be dated to the years of the 8th through 12th centuries. Only with the rise of the Solomonic dynasty around 1270 can we find evidence of authors committing their works to writings. Some writers consider the period beginning from the 14th century an actual "Golden Age" of Ge'ez literature—although by this time Ge'ez was no longer a living language. While there is ample evidence that it had been replaced by the Amharic language in the south and by the Tigrigna and Tigre languages in the north, Ge'ez remained in use as the official written language until the 19th century, its status comparable to that of Medieval Latin in Europe.

Important hagiographies from this period include:

Also at this time the Apostolic Constitutions was translated in Ge'ez, which provided another set of instructions and laws for the Ethiopian Church. Another translation from this period is Zena 'Ayhud, a translation (probably from an Arabic translation) of Joseph ben Gurion's "History of the Jews" ("Sefer Yosephon") written in Hebrew in the 10th century, which covers the period from the Captivity to the capture of Jerusalem by Titus.

Apart from theological works, the earliest contemporary Royal Chronicles of Ethiopia are date to the reign of Amda Seyon I (1314-44). With the appearance of the "Victory Songs" of Amda Seyon, this period also marks the beginning of Amharic literature.

The 14th century Kəbrä Nägäst or "Glory of the Kings" by the Nebura’ed Yeshaq of Aksum is among the most significant works of Ethiopian literature, combining history, allegory and symbolism in a retelling of the story of the Queen of Sheba (i.e. Saba), King Solomon, and their son Menelik I of Ethiopia. Another work that began to take shape in this period is the Mashafa Aksum or "Book of Axum".[10]

15th to 16th centuries

The early 15th century Fekkare Iyasus "The Explication of Jesus" contains a prophecy of a king called Tewodros, which rose to importance in 19th century Ethiopia as Tewodros II chose this throne name.

Literature flourished especially during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob. Written by the Emperor himself were Matshafa Berhan ("The Book of Light") and Matshafa Milad ("The Book of Nativity"). Numerous homilies were written in this period, notably Retu’a Haimanot ("True Orthodoxy") ascribed to John Chrysostom. Also of monumental importance was the appearance of the Geez translation of the Fetha Negest ("Laws of the Kings"), thought to have been around 1450, and ascribed to one Petros Abda Sayd — that was later to function as the supreme Law for Ethiopia, until it was replaced by a modern Constitution in 1931.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Islamic invasions put an end to the flourishing of Ethiopian literature. A letter of Abba 'Enbaqom (or "Habakkuk") to Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim, entitled Anqasa Amin ("Gate of the Faith"), giving his reasons for abandoning Islam, although probably first written in Arabic and later rewritten in an expanded Ge'ez version around 1532, is considered one of the classics of later Ge'ez literature.[11] During this period, Ethiopian writers begin to address differences between the Ethiopian and the Roman Catholic Church in such works as the Confession of Emperor Gelawdewos, Sawana Nafs ("Refuge of the Soul"), Fekkare Malakot ("Exposition of the Godhead") and Haymanote Abaw ("Faith of the Fathers"). Around the year 1600, a number of works were translated from Arabic into Ge'ez for the first time, including the Chronicle of John of Nikiu and the Universal History of Jirjis ibn al'Amid Abi'l-Wasir (also known as al-Makin).

Current usage in Ethiopia and Israel

According to an article in the Jerusalem Post on November 3, 2009, Gez is the language of Ethiopian Jews, and used in prayer and in scheduled public celebrations. Reference : .


The first sentence of the Book of Enoch:

ቃለ፡ በረከት፡ ዘሄኖክ፡ ዘከመ፡ ባረከ፡ ኅሩያነ፡ ወጻድቃነ፡ እለ፡ ሀለው፡ ይኩኑ፡
በዕለተ፡ ምንዳቤ፡ ለአሰስሎ፡ ኲሉ፡ እኩያን፡ ወረሲዓን።
Ḳāla barakat za-Hēnok zakama bārraka ḫirūyāna waṣādiḳāna ʾila halaw yikūnū
baʿilata mindābē laʾasaslō kʷīlū ʾikūyān warasīʿān
"Word of blessing of Henok, wherewith he blessed the chosen and righteous who would be alive in the day of tribulation for the removal of all wrongdoers and backsliders."


  1. ^ [GEE]
  2. ^ Evans De Lacy O'Leary, 2000"Comparative grammar of the semitic languages". Routledge. p23
  3. ^ a b c d e Gene Gragg 1997. "The Semitic Languages". Taylor & Francis. Robert Hetzron Ed. ISBN 0415057671
  4. ^ a b "No longer in popular use, Ge'ez has always remained the language of the Church", [CHA]
  5. ^ "They read the Bible in Geez" (Leaders and Religion of the Falashas); "after each passage, recited in Geez, the translation is read in Kailina" (Festivals). [PER]. Note the publication date of this source.
  6. ^ a b Gene Gragg, 2008. "The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Aksum". Cambridge University Press. Roger D. Woodard Ed.
  7. ^ [PAN], pp. 666f.; cf. the EOTC's own account at its official website
  8. ^ [MAT]
  9. ^ [BUD], pp. 566f.
  10. ^ [BUD], p. 574
  11. ^ [PAN03]

See also


  • [BUD] Budge, E. A. Wallis. 1928. A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia, Oosterhout, the Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1970.
  • CHA Chain, M. Ethiopia transcribed by: Donahue M. in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. + John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
  • [DIR] Diringer, David. 1968. The Alphabet, A Key To The History of Mankind.
  • GEE The Ge'ez language info card at Ethnologue
  • [KOB] Kobishchanov, Yuri M. 1979. Axum in SomeCollectionOfWritings[citation needed], edited by Joseph W. Michels; translated by: Lorraine T. Kapitanoff. University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-271-00531-9.
  • MAT Matara Aksumite & Pre-Aksumite City Webpage
  • [MUN] Munro-Hay Stuart. 1991. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: University Press. ISBN 0-7486-0106-6.
  • [PAN68] Pankhurst, Richard K.P. 1968.An Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935, Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press.
  • PAN03 Pankhurst, Richard K.P. A Glimpse into 16th. Century Ethiopian History Abba 'Enbaqom, Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim, and the "Conquest of Abyssinia". Addis Tribune. November 14, 2003.
  • PER Perruchon, J. D. and Gottheil, Richard. Falashas in The Jewish Encyclopidia. 1901-1906.

Further reading


  • Aläqa Tayyä, Maṣḥafa sawāsəw. Monkullo: Swedish Mission 1896/7 (= E.C. 1889).
  • Chaîne, Marius, Grammaire éthiopienne. Beyrouth: Imprimerie catholique 1907, 1938 (Nouvelle édition). (electronic version at the Internet Archive).
  • Cohen, Marcel, "la pronunciation traditionelle du Guèze (éthiopien classique)", in: Journal asiatique (1921) Sér. 11 / T. 18 (electronic version in Gallica digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France PDF).
  • Dillmann, August; Bezold, Carl, Ethiopic Grammar, 2nd edition translated from German by James Crichton, London 1907. ISBN 1-59244-145-9 (2003 reprint). (Published in German: ¹1857, ²1899).
  • Gäbrä-Yohannəs Gäbrä-Maryam, Gəss - Mäzgäbä-ḳalat - Gə'əz-ənna Amarəñña; yä-Gə'əz ḳʷanḳʷa mämmariya (A Grammar of Classical Ethiopic). Addis Ababa 2001/2002 (= E.C. 1994)[1]
  • Gene Gragg "Ge`ez Phonology," in: Phonologies of Asia and Africa (Vol 1), ed. A. S. Kaye & P. T. Daniels, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana (1997).
  • Kidanä Wäld Kəfle, Maṣḥafa sawāsəw wagəss wamazgaba ḳālāt ḥaddis ("A new grammar and dictionary"), Dire Dawa: Artistik Matämiya Bet 1955/6 (E.C. 1948).
  • Lambdin, Thomas O., Introduction to Classical Ethiopic, Harvard Semitic Studies 24, Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press 1978. ISBN 0-89130-263-8.
  • Ludolf, Hiob, Grammatica aethiopica. Londini 1661; 2nd ed. Francofurti 1702.
  • Praetorius, Franz, Äthiopische Grammatik, Karlsruhe: Reuther 1886.
  • Weninger, Stefan, Ge‘ez grammar, Munich: LINCOM Europa, ISBN 3-929075-04-0 (1st edition, 1993), ISBN 3-89586-604-0 (2nd revised edition, 1999).
  • Weninger, Stefan, Das Verbalsystem des Altäthiopischen: Eine Untersuchung seiner Verwendung und Funktion unter Berücksichtigung des Interferenzproblems", Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2001. ISBN 3447044845.
  • Tropper, Josef, Altäthiopisch: Grammatik der Ge'ez mit Übungstexten und Glossar, Elementa Linguarum Orientis (ELO) 2, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2002. ISBN 3-934628-29-X
  • Vittorio, Mariano, Chaldeae seu Aethiopicae linguae institutiones, Roma 1548.
  • Wemmers, Linguae aethiopicae institutiones, Roma 1638.



  • Dillmann, August, Lexicon linguæ Æthiopicæ cum indice Latino, Lipsiae 1865.
  • Leslau, Wolf, Comparative Dictionary of Geez (Classical Ethiopic): Geez-English, English-Geez, with an Index of the Semitic Roots, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1987. ISBN 3-447-02592-1.
  • Leslau, Wolf, Concise Dictionary of Ge‘ez (Classical Ethiopic), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1989. ISBN 3-447-02873-4.
  • Ludolf, Hiob, Lexicon Aethiopico-Latinum, Ed. by J. M. Wansleben, London 1661.
  • Wemmers, J., Lexicon Aethiopicum, Rome 1638.

External links

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