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Tigre language

By E.D. Thompson

The Tigre-speaking people live in the northern corner of Eritrea, in a triangle with the Red Sea coast on one side, the Barka River on another, and the southern side being more or less a line between Massawa and Agordat. This triangle extends into the Sudan towards Suakin. The language has also spread amongst the Bani Amir, a nomadic Beja tribe living in the same area between the Barka River and the Gash River and over the border into Sudan. It is also the chief second language of Nara tribe, who live north and east of Barentu. Tigre is also spoken around Tessenei and Kesela and will doubtless have been carried into other nearby areas by the Eritrean refugees. All Bilen also speak Tigre as well as their own Agau language. In the sixties there may be at least 200,000 people that speak Tigre.
It is not clear when anybody came to realize that the Tigre language had come to differ from its parent language of Geez, or from its sister language Tigrinya. Language changes take place more rapidly under conditions of social change, such as conquest, slavery, migration, trade cultural penetration. Anything that mixes people mixes language also.

Judged by these standards it would seem that the Tigre-speaking tribes of northern Eritrea must have had a rather stable existence for some 2,000 years or more. The language seems to be more Semitic, with interesting developments of structure that have not been so fully worked out even in Arabic, for instance. Having learned to read Tigre in the Geez script, it is not big effort to read Geez with understanding. Tigre speakers told me that on occasions they, even though Muslims, have attended Orthodox Christian ceremonies, such as funerals, when the Geez Scriptures or prayers have been read they have been able to understand quite a lot of it.
However Tigre was never a written language, neither was Tigrinya. The first studies of these languages concentrated on Geez. About the first European in this field  was Ludolf, in the 17 century. The 19th century investigators moved on to include Tigrinya and Tigre were followed in the last century by Guidi, Cerulli, Littmann, Leslau and Ullendorf. The last three gave rather more attention to Tigre than the previous scholars. In particular Leslau produced a dictionary of Tigre. I have not seen it but it has been reported to me variously as Tigre-French and Tigre-German. There were others in this field also, and Leslau seems to sum up the grammatical results of these studies in “Characteristics of the Abyssinian language group of Semitic languages� He includes several of the minor Semitic languages in his comparison. Another comparatively study on Tigre is “ The Morphology of the Tigre Noun� by F.R. Palmer (1962).
The Bible was translated into Geez about the 3rd or 4th century A.D., and there are many inscriptions on stone monuments pre-dating that. The style of writing merges with that of ancient South Arabia, so the trail goes right back to the ancient Semitic languages, especially Hebrew and Arabic.

The investigators of Tigre soon realized that the language fitted right into the pattern alongside of Geez. The latest studies confirm the earlier impression that Tigre seems to be nearest to Geez of modern languages. According to Bender Tigre is closest to Geez of all the languages 71%, Tigrinya close behind 68% . Tigre and Tigrinya seem to be significantly less related to one another than they both are to Geez. My impression is that this includes grammatical structure as well as vocabulary. Consequently the scholars who investigated Tigre assumed that the spelling Tigre would be the same as that of Geez. Unfortunately their interpretations of this were influenced by the correlation of spelling and pronunciation of Amharic and Tigrinya. Thus the Catholic mission, which did not have as much concern with Tigre people as the Swedish Evangelical Mission, followed what seemed to the classical and scholarly methods of spelling Tigre and analysis its grammar, producing a combined grammar and dictionary, “Grammatrica della Lingua Tigre. On the other hand, the Swedish Evangelical Mission, based on the Geleb, went into Tigre language much more deeply. They discovered that the Tigre tribes had a notable store of poems and songs and traditions that had been verbally passed on and memorized. Karl Gustav Roden was the missionary most involved language-wise. He helped local men translate the New Testament. They also collected the genealogies, stories, poems, and customary law of the Mensa tribe, and he had them published under the title kl’e mensaE (the two mensaE). Richard Sundstrom also made an important contribution with the translation of Psalms and Isaiah, and an unpublished Grammar of Tigre. Musa Aron and Axel Berglund are following in this tradition, working at the present time on completing the whole Bible in Tigre. The Swedish Publications in Tigre use a slightly different spelling system from the Catholic Mission. .
The scholar who seemed to have made the greatest contribution to Tigre studies, other that the missionaries, was Enno Littmann. He and Sundstrom made a large collection of poems, songs and stories also.

Later Development:-

In the late sixties, some Israeli and Japanese scholars also prepared a sizeable Tigre grammar and vocabulary dictionary that focused on active verbs.
Also, during the struggle years, several Tigre text books were published by EPLF’s Department of Education. After liberation, the first Tigre news paper issued for all to read. Also, some Tigrina books have been translated into Tigre, but at this point, such effort is more highlighted upon the publication of monumental Tigre dictionary, by memhr Musa Aron. It is to be recalled the bilingual Tigre-Tigrina proverbs and riddles that he generously translated was published by Yohanna Mahtem.

This paper has been submitted in response to recent symposium on Tigre langage in Eritrea.