Old Ethiopian language

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Old Ethiopian language ( ግዕዝ Gəʿəz )

Spoken in

Ethiopia , Eritrea
speaker unknown
Official status
Official language in (extinct)
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3


Old Ethiopian , also known as Ge'ez ( ግዕዝ Gəʿəz; ) in professional circles , was the language of the late ancient empire of Aksum and was the main written language in Eritrea and Ethiopia for a long time until the 19th century. To this day it is the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox Churches as well as the Ethiopian Jews .


A surviving Bible manuscript in Old Ethiopian, here the beginning of the Gospel of John.

In the 19th century the language was often simply called Ethiopian , for example by August Dillmann , the best expert on the ancient Ethiopian language of his time. For example, he called his grammatical work on Old Ethiopian simply the grammar of the Ethiopian language . In recent times the term Old Ethiopian is mostly used. The self-name Ge'ez is only used in specialist circles. Josef Tropper calls his grammar from 2002 Old Ethiopian: Grammar of Ge'ez with exercise texts and glossary . Stephan Procházka calls his grammar from 2004 Old Ethiopian Study Grammar , Stefan Weninger his work from 2001 The Verbal System of Old Ethiopian . Another problem with the name Ge'ez is that there is no adjective for it in German. For the name usage in German see also the bibliography below. The term Aksumite is also rarely used, but it refers more to the earliest times of the ancient Ethiopian language.

Linguistic classification

Old Ethiopian, along with the Tigre and Tigrinya languages , belongs to the northern group of the Ethiosemitic languages , a branch of the South Semitic languages native to Ethiopia and Eritrea . Typologically, Old Ethiopian stands between the classical Semitic languages and the modern Eritrean and Northern Ethiopian languages, in that on the one hand it has significant innovations in phonology and morphology, but on the other hand it is much more ancient than, for example, Amharic . Through contact with speakers of Cushitic languages , non-Semitic vocabulary also penetrated into ancient Ethiopian in prehistoric times.


Although the first lexical and grammatical texts were written in medieval Ethiopia, actual scientific research only began after the first texts in Old Ethiopian had become known in Europe in the first half of the 16th century. One of the first to deal with this was Anna Maria von Schürmann , who wrote her first grammar around 1645. During this pioneering period, Job Ludolf earned particular merit , who published a grammar in 1661 and a lexicon of ancient Ethiopian in 1699. Although Old Ethiopian became known so early in Europe, it has no status comparable to Hebrew or Arabic in research and teaching within Semitic studies.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hebraist and Semitist Franz Praetorius (1847–1927), who taught oriental studies at the University of Wroclaw from 1880, from 1893 to 1909 in Halle and then again in Wroclaw, devoted himself to research into the Ethiopian languages.

History and lore

The oldest ancient Ethiopian inscriptions are some Aksumite inscriptions, partly from the time before Ezana's conversion to Christianity in the fourth century. Among them are about a dozen royal and several hundred private, usually very short, texts. From the first centuries after the introduction of Christianity comes an extensive Christian literature, which has only been preserved in much later copies, including the two Gospel books by Garima (approx. 400–650), most of which come from Greek and later also from Coptic and Arabic, has been translated. After the fall of the Aksumite Empire around 600 AD, literary activity in Ethiopia declined sharply, so that almost no written records of ancient Ethiopian have survived from a few centuries.

Towards the end of the 1st millennium AD, Old Ethiopian is likely to have been replaced as the spoken language by Amharic and Tigrinya, but in the following centuries a larger amount of sacred, including the Confessio of Claudius , and profane literature was produced, including historical works, the Ethiopian national epic Kebra Nagast and individual scientific writings are to be mentioned.

As the main written language of Ethiopia, ancient Ethiopian was replaced in modern times by Amharic , which had been the language of the royal court since the 13th century, but was only used to a limited extent in writing. To this day, the Ethiopian language serves as the sacred language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Catholic Church .


Genesis 29
: 11-16 in Old Ethiopian

Main article: Ethiopian script

The earliest Ethiopian inscriptions were written in ancient South Arabic script . Soon afterwards, a slightly modified form of the old South Arabic script emerged, which, like this, was initially a pure consonant script. By adding small lines and circles to consonant signs, a syllabary was formed from this, which could reproduce syllables of the form consonant-vowel (CV) and individual consonants. In this way, the 30-character uncocalized Old Ethiopian was expanded to a 202-character syllabary.


Although Old Ethiopian has been handed down for centuries, the phonology of ancient Old Ethiopian is poorly known, as the traditional pronunciation is strongly influenced by Amharic. The script reproduces 26 consonantic phonemes and four labiovelars . Like most Afro-Asian languages, ancient Ethiopian had, in addition to voiceless and voiced consonants, emphatic consonants , which, as in all modern South Semitic languages, were probably realized by glottalization . The existence of three non-voiced bilabials is unique among all Semitic languages: All other Semitic languages ​​have either f or p, while ancient Ethiopian has p, f and an emphatic variant ṗ, the etymology of which has not yet been fully clarified. Four labiovelars are also unusual. Overall, the following reconstruction of the ancient Ethiopian consonant system can claim at least a certain probability:

Bilabial Alveolar Lateral Postalveolar /
Velar Labiovelar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Plosives unvoiced p t k ʾ [ʔ]
voiced b d g [ɡ] [ɡʷ]
empathic [pʼ] [tʼ] q [q, kʼ] [qʷ, kʷʼ]
Affricates unvoiced
empathic [ʦʼ]
Fricatives unvoiced f s ś [ɬ] [χ] ḫʷ [χʷ] [ħ] H
voiced z ʿ [ʕ]
empathic [ɬʼ]
Nasals m n
Approximants l y [j] w
Vibrants r

The reconstruction of the vowel system is simpler. In the script (in the traditional Ethiopian order) the seven vowels a, u, i, ā, e, ə and o are distinguished. When a is a half-open central vowel ā is similar to a German a, but further realizes back. Vowel quantities are not differentiated, as they are no longer meaningful due to a series of sound shifts in ancient Ethiopian. Here go ə and a on old short vowels, ā, i and u on long vowels and e and o the diphthongs * ai and * au back. The transcription characters a and ā are historicizing, in addition the characters ä and a are used, which come closer to the actual sound values.

It is not known where the word accent was in antiquity; In traditional pronunciation it is mostly on the penultimate syllable for verbs, but on the last syllable for nouns and most pronouns.

Some phonetic processes are important for verb morphology: the vowels a and ə are exposed to some changes in the vicinity of the “ laryngalsʾ, ʿ, ḫ, and h , cf. z. B. sam ā ʿ-ku 'I heard' with śar a b-ku 'I drank'.


Nominal morphology


In Old Ethiopian nouns distinguish the two genera masculine and feminine , which is marked with a suffix -t for certain words . The number singular is unmarked, the plural can be formed both by the suffix -āt ("outer plural") and by changing the vowel structure ("inner / broken plural"):

  • Outer plural: ʿāmat - ʿāmatāt 'year (s)', māy - māyāt 'water' (NB: In contrast to the adjectives and other Semitic languages, both genera can form their plural with -āt )
  • Inner plural: The formation of the inner plural is very diverse, examples of particularly common forms of formation are: bet - ʾābyāt 'house, houses'; qərnəb - qarānəbt 'eyelid (s)'.

The noun also differentiates between the nominative and accusative cases . The nominative is unmarked, the accusative has the ending -a: bet - bet-a 'house'. The accusative mainly marks the direct object of a verb and represents the status constructus of other Semitic languages , which essentially expresses a property relationship : sarḥa nəguś bet-a 'the / a king built a / the house'; bet-a nəguś 'house of a king'. The accusative object and possessive constructions can also be paraphrased . The determination is generally not marked, but the personal pronouns of the third person can be used for this: dabr-u 'the mountain', literally 'his mountain'.


The morphology of adjectives does not differ significantly from that of nouns, but the gender is marked more consistently; the outer plural of masculine adjectives is not formed with -āt, but with -ān . In attributive use, the adjective comes after the noun it refers to: nobā qayḥ 'red nubians'.

Pronominal morphology

Old Ethiopian distinguishes between two series of personal pronouns (Note: Certain variants of the pronominal suffixes occur depending on the preceding sound.) . The basic division into two rows corresponds to the other Semitic languages, in the 3rd persons of the absolute pronouns, however, strong deviations from related languages ​​are noticeable:

number person Free personal pronouns Pronominal suffixes
After nouns After verbs
Singular 1. ʾĀna -ya -ni
2. masculine ʾĀnta -ka
2. feminine anti -ki
3. masculine wəʾətu - (h) u
3. feminine yəʾəti -(Ha
Plural 1. nəḥna -n / A
2. masculine ʾĀntəmu -kəmu
2. feminine ʾĀntən -kən
3. masculine wəʾətomu / əmuntu - (h) omu
3. feminine wəʾəton / əmāntu - (h) on

The independent personal pronouns usually mark the subject: wəʾətu ṣaḥafa 'he wrote', nəguś ʾāna 'I am king'. In addition, they can also appear as a copula in the 3rd person . The pronominal suffixes, on the other hand, when attached to nouns, mark a relationship of ownership: bet-ya 'my house', behind a verb and prepositions their object: qatala-ni 'he killed me', la-ka 'to you'.

To express particular emphasis , some forms combined with the help of the pronominal suffixes can also be used, such as in the nominative lalli-ka 'you (self)' and in the accusative kiyā-hu 'him; that same '.

Verbal morphology

Stem formation

The basis of word formation in old Ethiopian is usually three root consonants extensive root . Twelve different stems can (theoretically) be derived from each root . By means of affixes four different classes can initially be formed, which Tropper 2002 designated with the letters 0, A, T and Ast , but there are also deviating terms. Without further additions, the QTL root can 'kill' the forms (in the perfect tense) qat (a) la, ʾaqtala, taqat (a) la, ʾastaqtala . The root stem 0 has the unmodified meaning of the root; the stem A forms factitive or causative verbs: satya 'he drank' - ʾa-staya 'he soaked'. The T stem, on the other hand, is intransitive-passive and is thus used as a means of differentiating between diathesis ; the branch stem links the causative stem with the passive stem: t-agabʾa 'he surrendered' - ʾast-agbʾa 'he conquered'.

From these four stems, two extended stems can be derived from the inclusion of the stem vowel ā or the gemination of a stem consonant. Each of these stems forms its own lexeme, the meaning of which, however, can generally be derived from the meaning of the root.


As a West Semitic language, Old Ethiopian basically distinguishes between two different types of conjugation: the past tense, which is mainly conjugated with prefixes, and the perfect tense, which is conjugated with suffixes. The past tense distinguishes the two modes indicative and imperative / jussive by changing the vocalization . The conjugation of qatala ' to kill' is:

person Perfect
Past tense
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 perfect is mainly used for actions that are completed from the speaker's point of view, while the indicative is used for actions that are not completed. The jussive is used to express wishes as well as in final and consecutive subordinate clauses as well as in object clauses after verbs of the command and the like. Ä .; the imperative, which formally resembles a jussive without personal affixes, is limited to the 2nd person.

Verbal nouns

Old Ethiopian inherited various forms of formation for participles from Proto-Semitic , for example the prefixation of ma-: mak w annən 'judge' to k w annana 'he ruled, judged '. However, these formations are only of lexical importance, since they could no longer be freely formed in historical times. In contrast, two nouns actionis are widespread : the gerund , which has the form qatila- . His subject (in contrast to the other verbal forms, not his object) is expressed with the personal suffixes: qatila-ka (2nd person singular masculine) etc. It is used to form temporal clauses , so śarab-a qatila-ka can either 'er drank after you killed 'or' he drank when you killed '. In addition, there is the actual infinitive , which has the form qatil in the basic stem , but is formed in all other stems by suffixing -o or before personal suffixes -ot .


Sentence structure

In ancient Ethiopian, the verbal predicate usually comes before subject and object : sarḥ-a bet-a 'he built a house', but other positions are also possible. In contrast to European languages, the predicate of a sentence can also be formed from a noun or pronoun, whereby the absolute personal pronouns can appear as copula: N. N. wəʾətu nəguś ‚N. N. is king '.


Subordinate clauses are introduced by different types of particles and follow the usual sentence order:

Main clause - conditional clause - temporal clause
main clause Conditional clause Temporal clause
wa-yəkʷ ennənəwomu kʷ əllo gize la-ʾəmma ʾI-taʿaraqa məsla biṣu ba-ʾənta ḫāṭiʾatu ʾƏmqədma təḍāʾ nafsu ʾƏm-śəgāhu
and-they torment-him the whole time if no-he's made up With To be next because of Sin-his before going out Soul-his to be out of body
and they tormented him all the time if he has not reconciled himself to his neighbor because of his sin before his soul went out of his body

In ancient Ethiopian, relative clauses are particularly frequent subordinate clauses, since participles were no longer freely formable in historical times. The relative pronoun has the forms za- (masculine singular), ʾənta- ( feminine singular) and ʾəlla (plural): bəʾəsi za-yaḥawər 'the / a man who walks'.


The most common means of negation is the prefix ʾi-, which is prefixed in sentences with a verbal predicate:

nəḥna ʾI-nəkl ḥawira
we not-we can go
we can't go

Individual evidence

  1. Jürgen W. Schmidt : No case of "ritual blood drawing" - the criminal trials against the rabbinate candidate Max Bernstein in Brelau 1889/90 and their sexual psychological background. In: Specialized prose research - Crossing borders. Volume 8/9, 2012/2013 (2014), pp. 483-516, here: p. 496.
  2. Rochus Zuurmond, Curt Niccum: The Ethiopic version of the New Testament , in: Barth D. Ehrman, Michael W. Holmes: The text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research . 2nd edition Brill, 2013, pp. 231-252.
  3. Tried reconstructions under the standard grammars: Dillmann, Grammar § 59



  • August Dillmann : Carl Bezold: Grammar of the Ethiopian Language . 2nd Edition. Tauchnitz, Leipzig 1899
  • Thomas O. Lambdin: Introduction to Classical Ethiopic. ( Harvard Semitic Studies, No. 24) Missoula 1978. ISBN 0-89130-263-8 .
  • Enno Littmann : The Ethiopian Language. In: Bertold Spuler (Hrsg.): Handbuch der Orientalistik. Vol. I.3, Brill. Leiden 1954, pp. 350-374
  • Josef Tropper: Old Ethiopian. Ge'ez grammar with exercise texts and glossary. Ugarit-Verlag, Münster 2002, ISBN 3-934628-29-X
  • Stefan Weninger: The verbal system of ancient Ethiopian. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2001


  • August Dillmann: Chrestomathia Aethiopica, Leipzig 1866
  • Stephan Procházka: Old Ethiopian study grammar. ( Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis. Subsidia linguistica, Volume 2) Academic Press, Friborg / Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2004, ISBN 3-7278-1521-3 ; ISBN 3-525-26409-7


  • August Dillmann : Lexicon linguæ Æthiopicæ cum indice Latino, Lipsiae 1865. (monumental dictionary with references to references)
  • Wolf Leslau: Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic): Ge'ez-English, English-Ge'ez, with an Index of the Semitic Roots. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1987, ISBN 3-447-02592-1 .
  • Wolf Leslau : Concise Dictionary of Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic). Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1989, ISBN 3-447-02873-4 .

Epigraphy and paleography

  • Roger Schneider , E. Bernard , Abraham Johannes Drewes : Recueil des inscriptions de l'Ethiopie des périodes pré-axoumite et axoumite. Boccard, Paris:
    • Tome I. Les documents. 1991.
    • Tome II. Les planches. 1991.
    • Tom III. Traductions et commentaires. Fasc. A. Les inscriptions grecques 2000.
  • Siegbert Uhlig: Ethiopian palaeography. Steiner-Verlag, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-515-04562-7


  • Enno Littmann: The Ethiopian literature. In: Bertold Spuler (Hrsg.): Handbuch der Orientalistik. Vol. I.3 Brill, Leiden 1954, pp. 375-385.

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