Have you ever heard of the Ge’ez language? It may not be the most common language in the world, and you may not have ever heard of it, but it is truly fascinating. This language is the precursor to Ethiopia’s three major languages, a bit like Latin is to the West. If you find the evolution of countries’ vernaculars as fascinating as we do, then learning the history of Ethiopia’s first language will surely pique your interest. So, how did it all start? And why is it so fascinating? Here is everything you ever wanted to know about the Ge’ez language.
In the beginning
When south Arabian immigrants traveled into Ethiopia, they bought their own language with them – the Sabean language, which was spoken by the Queen of Sheba, herself. This is thought to have been as early as the first millennium BCE, although the Ethiopian version of the language didn’t actually start being used until early into the next millennium. 24 symbols were taken from the Sabean writing system, and Ge’ez wasn’t actually spoken until much later. The earliest forms of Ge’ez were written in boustrophedon, which is when you write from left to right and then left to right on alternate lines. There were also no vowels used in the earliest form of Ge’ez, but as Ethiopia changed, so did the language…
The evolution of Ge’ez
When the Aksumites (those from the Kingdom of Aksum in Northern Ethiopia), converted to Christianity, the Ge’ez language changed. It is thought that this may have been due to a desire to make Biblical texts easier to understand, for those who had just learned to read. Around the fourth century, vowels were introduced into the Ge’ez language, so that the Bible could be translated. The Ge’ez bible was then translated into Greek, and it is thought that some influences from the Ancient Greek alphabet can be seen within the organization of the Ge’ez letters.
It is thought that around the tenth century CE, Ge’ez started to die out as a spoken language. In its place, three major Semitic languages started to be used in Ethiopia. The first is Amharic, which is the most common language in the country and considered to be the official language. There is also Tigrinya, which is spoken in the north and northeastern regions of Ethiopia, and Tigré which is spoken in Eritrea, an independent nation that used to be part of Ethiopia. However, as a written language, Ge’ez was the only officially used version in Ethiopia until almost the turn of the 20th century. Nowadays, Ge’ez is only used as the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
While Ge’ez is now no longer used, it was an extremely important part of Ethiopia that formed the languages they speak today – as much as Latin is to English and other Western languages. It is interesting to see how such a language was formed and how it led to the making of the new, Semitic languages which are used in Ethiopia today.