As the official language of Ethiopia, Amharic (also known as Abyssinian, Amarigna, Amarinya, Amhara, and Ethiopian) is spoken by more than 25 million people in Ethiopia and an additional 4 million emigrants abroad.
Amharic is the day-to-day language of the courts, business, and daily life throughout the country; and has been since the 12th century.
In addition to its use in Ethiopia, Amharic is widely used by the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel and is one of 7 languages offered by government services in Washington D.C. (more Ethiopians are living in Washington D.C. than in any city outside of Addis Ababa! 🙂).
Additionally, Amharic is considered to be a Holy Language of the Rastafari faith and is used by its followers around the world.
Amharic is an Ethio-Semitic language with its roots in the Semitic language group.
This means that it is similar to languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, but only loosely as it has continued to evolve on its own over the last several centuries. Still, any experience with a Semitic language will make learning Amharic much easier.
As such, there are still at least three primary dialects of Amharic: Gondar, Gojjami, and Showa. These three differ in pronunciation, minor grammatical forms, and some vocabulary, however, all three are mutually intelligible.
The standard spoken dialect is that which is spoken in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
Amharic writing system (Ge’ez)
When you start to learn Amharic, you’ll very quickly realize that the writing system bears little resemblance to anything else you’ve seen.
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Unlike European languages, Amharic does not technically use an alphabet, it uses what’s known as an abugida - or alphasyllabary - known as Ge’ez (Ge’ez is to Amharic as Latin is to English, it uses the same script, but today Ge’ez is used only as a liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church).
So, what does that actually mean?
Well, let’s take a look at the Latin script as an example.
In the majority of European languages, each symbol represents one sound (this varies from language to language, but it’s generally true).
However, in the Amharic writing system, each symbol (known as a fidel) represents a consonant-vowel combination.
Example: Coca-Cola has eight letters, each one represents a distinct sound.
In Amharic, it’s written as ኮካ-ኮላ.
As you can see, this has only four characters, each representing a consonant and a vowel. Transliterated, this reads as ko ka ko la.
The Amharic writing system is quite complex when compared to many European languages.
It contains over 300 unique fidels including nine punctuation marks and 20 numerals. This creates several problems for transliterating Amharic words into the Latin alphabet.
There is no officially agreed upon style for Amharic to Latin transliteration, which can make learning difficult, as the same word may be referenced with multiple different spellings.
It’s highly recommended to familiarize yourself with the Amharic writing system if you wish to learn the language, as relying on transliterated sources will only serve to confuse you.
The one thing Amharic has in common with the Latin script (and where it differs from Arabic and Hebrew) is that it is read from left to right.
Despite its difficulty for many Europeans, Amharic is supported by Unicode, accepted by Google search, and is contained as a standard font in most major operating systems.
The grammar of Amharic is as complex and full of exceptions as any other language.
In basic terms, Amharic forms sentences with a subject and a predicate, with the verb coming at the end of the sentence.
For example, the English sentence “He came to the city” contains the subject “he” and the predicate “came (to the city)”.
In Amharic, this would be written as:
እሱ ወደ ከተማ መጣ
Amharic uses two genders (masculine and feminine) and does not have cases (with the exception of the accusative for certain nouns in certain situations).
In Amharic, verb-subject agreement is required according to number, gender, and person (first, second, or third).
Lastly, Amharic makes wide use of prefixes and suffixes to both nouns and verbs.
These affixes are used to denote prepositions, gender, verb tense, plurals, and several other important pieces of information.
How to learn Amharic
Most people will not likely have much day-to-day contact with Amharic, which can make learning it far more difficult.
However, there is no difference between the skills and techniques used for learning Amharic and those needed for any other language. Learners who have already picked up a second (or third, or fourth) language will likely find Amharic no more difficult than these.
So, where to start?
The first and most important thing is to learn the Amharic writing system.
As mentioned above, this will be the most difficult part for someone who has only ever learned an Indo-European language.
However, anyone who is familiar with Hindi, Burmese, or even Japanese Kana should be able to pick it up with little difficulty.
If you have any background in Arabic or Hebrew, Amharic will be a walk in the park after you get the Ge’ez under your belt.
While the single best way to learn any language is through daily exposure in real-world settings, that is, obviously, not always a valid option for many learners. Thankfully, we live in an age where access to information has never been greater.
I recommend getting on italki, which offers Amharic as a language option at an affordable rate.
Best resources (courses, books and more) for learning Amharic
Below, I’ve compiled a list of some of the very best resources available to help you on your Ethiopian journey.
Books for learning Amharic
The Essential Guide to Amharic: The National Language of Ethiopia by Abraham Teklu & Andrew Tadross: This book is exactly as the name implies; a truly essential resource for anyone interested in learning Amharic. This book was written by a collaboration between a native and non-native speaker, so it is specifically focused on teaching Amharic as a second language. Here, you will find more than 150 pages of exercises and information on Amharic grammar, vocabulary, and writing.
Colloquial Amharic by David Appleyard: at a whopping 572 pages, this perhaps the single most in-depth book available for beginner-level Amharic learners. This book lays out very clean, concise lessons with concrete goals and step-by-step instructions. Designed as part of a much larger series of language learning books, Colloquial Amharic is intended for serious learners who have little to no previous knowledge of the language.
Amharic Student Dictionary: It’s not flashy, but it’s an absolute must. Never underestimate the value of a good bilingual dictionary, and this is the definitive edition for anyone studying Amharic. This book serves as both an English-Amharic & Amharic-English dictionary with more than 26,000 entries.
Introducing Amharic: An Interactive Workbook by T. Michael W. Halcomb - With more than 150 pages, this book offers several engaging exercises designed to familiarize learners with all of the fundamentals needed to begin learning Amharic. With a focus on reading, writing, and speaking this book covers the Ge’ez script, numbers, days, months, daily vocabulary, and the fundamentals of grammar.
Let’s Learn the Amharic Alphabet! from Sheba’s Jewels: With more than 130 worksheets and over 200 vocab words, this is a truly fundamental text for Amharic learners. This book includes four distinct worksheets for each Amharic fidel category, allowing learners to focus on the formation and construction of the Amharic script.
Best online Amharic courses
Cudoo: Cudo offers paid courses in over 1,000 skills including more than 160 languages. All courses are bought as a complete package with a one-time fee. For $25 you get access to nearly 20 complete lessons ranging from basic introductions up to basic grammar forms and verb conjugations.
17 Minute Languages: A popular course site for dozens of languages which includes Amharic. Surprisingly good Ethiopian course with high quality audio at low cost.
FSI Language Courses: The Foreign Service Institute was created as a free online resource for US diplomatic workers to learn the relevant language skills for wherever they were posted. The Amharic course contains two full-length textbooks as well as several hours of recorded audio supplements - all available for free. FSI courses offer some of the best free online resources available.
Amharic Teacher: This page has several free small vocabulary lists with pictures, audio, English and Amharic text, and a pronunciation guide. The lessons cover the most basic aspects of Amharic; from numbers and letters to jobs and animals. They also have a few flashcard style quizzes to test your progress. You won’t pick up much grammar, but learning the most basic words goes a long way.
italki: italki is a lesson facilitator that connects language learners from around the world with native speakers experienced in teaching. Here, you can connect with a native Amharic speaker for private lessons tailored to your needs and goals. All prices are negotiated between the student and the teacher.
Omniglot: Omniglot is one of the Internet’s best sources for language learning. Here you will find a breakdown of the Amharic writing system, as well as several useful links for further reading.
SBS Amharic: SBS is an Australian, government-funded media network that has independent language sections for many different languages. There’s an entire Amharic news section with its own radio station. A premium resource.
Lexilogos: Here you will find an online keyboard allowing you to experiment with the Amharic writing system. You can also download Amharic and Ge’ez fonts for use.
Forvo: The popular pronunciation dictionary which includes Amharic. There’s not a lot on there (only a few hundred entries), but if you can find what you’re looking for, it’s great (see Forvo review here).
YouTube channels to teach you Amharic
How to Speak Amharic: Here, you’ll find dozens of videos breaking down topics ranging from verb conjugation to ordering at a restaurant. The videos aren’t terribly in-depth, but they do provide an excellent jumping-off point.
Amharic - A Semitic language of Ethiopia: This video provides an accessible and easy-to-understand introduction to the basics of Amharic. It’s a great place to start as they assume that anyone watching does not already have any actual knowledge of the language.
Amharic Fairy Tales: Exactly what it sounds like. This channel has more than 100 videos ranging from 5-15 minutes. All of the dialogue is in Amharic, however, every video also has English subtitles. The content is straight-forward and designed for young native speakers, but even adults will find it useful for practicing their listening skills. What’s more, is that these videos also serve as a great first step into the culture surrounding the language by referencing Ethiopian folklore and cultural norms.
Let’s Learn Amharic: Lesson 1: The first video in a short four-part series that aims to introduce new speakers to a few of the most basic words and phrases in Amharic. While not providing a lot of real explanation, it’s a great place to learn a few words and to practice hearing and making the sounds.
Similarities Between Arabic and Amharic: As the two languages have a great deal in common, anyone familiar with Arabic will find this video to be extremely helpful in isolating the concrete similarities and differences. The same channel also has a video comparing Amharic with Assyrian Aramaic.
Learn Amharic - Learn English: A great selection of videos focused not just on Amharic, but also on learning English for Amharic speakers, giving it a very unique take on things. Here, you can find playlists with lessons on basic vocabulary, numbers, the calendar, and more.
Learn Amharic Basics!: This is a fairly short podcast series with only 4 episodes, though the most recent update was at the end of September 2020, so there may be more on the way. Here, you will find a few podcasts with some basic listen/repeat style exercises. There isn’t a lot of hands-on explanation of the content, but it is a good place to practice listening and checking your comprehension.
Amharic Pod: This is a great place to get some practice for learners at all levels as they have several short episodes from beginner to advanced. The nice thing about this podcast is that they break down exactly what each word means, how it fits into the context of the sentence, and some basic explanations of the grammar as you go.
Voice of Ethiopia: Unlike most of the other resources on this list, this is not an actual language learning resource, per se. Voice of Ethiopia is a Canadian radio broadcast covering current events, news, music, and radio dramas in the Amharic language. It’s designed for native speakers, so don’t expect to understand much of anything if you’re just getting started, but getting yourself used to hearing the language spoken fluently is fantastic practice on its own.
The Ethiopian language is easier than you think
No matter your motivation or goals for learning Amharic, there’s no wrong reason for learning a new skill.
Especially for those who don’t already have an ethnic or cultural connection to Ethiopia, learning Amharic can open up access to an entirely new world of culture and perspective.
As the world’s second-most spoken Semitic language, there’s a wealth of information available in Amharic - much of which has not yet been translated to English.
Hopefully, the above links have given you enough of a place to start your journey.
መልካም ዕድል 😊
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