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.
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
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