camel Eritrean website featuring resources relevant to Tigre history and culture


 Languages and Cultures -                       Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Origin of Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre Languages

Ge’ez is the root language for the three related langauges 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.

Semitic Family
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.

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 is descpiptive, list and 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 commparative 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 gorups 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.

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 Amahara 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.