What Languages do People Speak in Ethiopia?

The two most widely spoken languages in Ethiopia are Oromo and Amharic.

Ethiopia is the world’s second largest land-locked nation, with a population of over 100 million. It is located in an area known as the Horn of Africa and shares a border with Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya. Ethiopia was known historically as Abyssinia and has been the site of many great kingdoms and empires. It has been sovereign for most of its history while being a point of contact for many different cultures. As such, it has a vibrant history and culture that attract many avant-garde tourists every year. Today, though, due to being landlocked as well as other factors, it is one of the poorest countries in the world.

While Western powers – notably France, Portugal, and the UK – were colonizing Africa, Ethiopia was one of only two countries (the other being Liberia) to remain independent. As a result, it has retained its own indigenous languages rather than importing a European language, like Portuguese or French, as the official language. Today, about 88 languages are spoken in Ethiopia, with about 77 being local languages.

A Brief Overview of the Languages Spoken in Ethiopia

Some of the oldest human fossils in the world have been found in Ethiopia. Human civilizations developed by at least the Neolithic era, if not before, and at that same time, people there began speaking Afroasiatic languages. Most of the languages that are expressed in Ethiopia today are of the Afroasiatic language family. Afroasiatic language groups in Ethiopia include Ethiopian Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic (though its classification remains uncertain). Additionally, there are dozens of Nilo-Saharan languages, as well as some languages that are unclassified. There are also some regional versions of sign language that are used by the deaf population.

Out of the 88 languages that ethnologue includes as representative of Ethiopia, two of them are extinct, five are almost gone, eight are in danger of becoming obsolete, 41 are institutional, 18 are vigorous, and 14 are developing. Additionally, the Ge’ez language is considered to be extinct in common usage but is still used as a liturgical language. Most of the languages are written in the Ge’ez script, which is also used in some of the neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa.

In addition to the local, indigenous languages of Ethiopia, the most common foreign language is English. English is becoming more and more widely used as a medium of instruction in schools and other institutions. Because about one-third of the population of Ethiopia identifies as Muslim, Arabic is also commonly understood, to some degree, by the Muslim community. Arabic is also an official language for some of the neighboring countries in the Horn of Africa.

The Most Widely Spoken Languages of Ethiopia

The two most widely spoken languages in Ethiopia are Oromo, which has about 25,000,000 speakers (about 34% of the population) and Amharic, which has approximately 21.5 million speakers (about 30% of the population). Amharic, which is from the Ethiopian Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family, is the language that is most commonly associated with Ethiopia (sometimes referred to as “Ethiopian” or “Ethiopic”) and is used in most government and other official publications. Many Ethiopians speak it as a second language, as it is still commonly used in schools as a medium of instruction. Oromo is from the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family and is also widely spoken in the neighboring country of Kenya.

Other commonly spoken languages include Somali, which is expressed by about 6.25% of the population (many of whom are from Somalia), Tigrinya, which is spoken by about 6%, Sidami, which is vocalized by about 5%, Wolaytta, which is spoken by about 2.2%, Gurange, which is expressed by about 2%, and Afar, which is spoken by about 1.75%.

The Endangered Languages of Ethiopia

When a language has not been spoken for two generations, it becomes in danger of extinction. Two of the languages of Ethiopia that have become extinct include Weyto, which may have been either Cushitic or Emitic and Rer Bare, which may have been a Bantu language. No one alive today is able to understand those languages. Additionally, the Ongota language is considered to be moribund, meaning that likely it, too, will be extinct within a generation. Twenty-two languages in Ethiopia are deemed to be endangered to some degree because they have 10,000 speakers or fewer today.

Conservation of Ethiopian Languages

Today, in efforts to preserve local languages and cultures in the face of globalization, there have been changes to language policies by the Ethiopian government. The new Ethiopian Constitution, which was ratified in 1995, gave permission to all of the country’s different ethnic groups to use their own native languages for primary education.

Sources:

“Ethiopia.” CIA World Factbook. “Languages of Ethiopia.” Wikipedia. “Ethiopia.” Ethnologue.

Primary Languages

Other Languages

What Languages do People Speak in Ethiopia?