Issue № 17 (May 2005)

The Ethiopic Alphabet

The Ethiopic script belongs to the south Semitic group, a number of scripts of Arabic cultures that existed before the development of the Arabic alphabet, and that had already ceased to exist when Islam started to spread. It is also called Old Abyssinian or Amharic and it is the only script in this group that is still in use.

The oldest written documents in this script date from the fourth century and are written in Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopian language. This name actually provides the link between the south Arabic culture that developed it and the African country in which it is used: Ge’ez is a south Arabic word and means “the emigrants”. In fact a number of groups had emigrated from the Arabian peninsula to Africa since the 6th century BC and settled there. The kingdom they created reached its cultural height around the 4th century AD, and this is also the time when the new script was developed. The original script of these people was the Sabaean script used in the Arabic Peninsula. During the 4th century King Ezana declared the Christian religion as State religion, and that brought along prolonged contacts with the Greek culture. Probably it was Christian missionaries that switched the writing direction to left-to-right and started to vocalise the glyphs (like all Semitic scripts, the Sabaean one only wrote consonants). But there are still arguments going on about this supposed connection.

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The vocalisation of the Ethiopic script did not occur as asingle reform but was a long process which started by marking vowels hesitantly and inconsequently. However, the custom of indicating them spread more and more around and was finally done consequently and being standardised.

It is not too easy to classify the script as alphabet or syllabary. The outer impression is clearly that of a syllabary, and indeed every glyph codes a consonant-vowel couple. On the other hand the script origins in an abjad (a consonant alphabet), and this origin is still clearly visible: All glyphs with the same consonant have the same basic shape that changes according to the attached vowel. Therefore it is typologically still a consonant alphabet, except that in contrast to the Arabic or Hebrew alphabets the vocalisation is carried out always and consequently and forms an inherent part of the glyph’s shape. As basic form is considered the combination of consonant plus short “a”, a property which is also found in many Indian alphabets.

The alphabet which is used to write Ge’ez (which no longer is a living language but still remains used as liturgical language), Tigré and Tigrinya, consists of 26 basic glyphs. 24 of those were adapted from the 28 letters of the Sabaean abjad and two were added later. Every one of these glyphs exists in seven different variations to mark the seven possible vowels. Four glyphs – q, kh, k, g – have five more forms for a combination of consonant plus “w” plus vowel. In total that gives an inventory of 202 glyphs – a number which is again more characteristic for syllabaries.

Amharic is also written with the same alphabet. But as the phonological structure of Amharic differs from the one in Ge’ez, seven additional glyphs had to be created. These were derived from existing glyphs for similar sounds. Thus the Amharic variant of the alphabet has an additional 49 glyphs (seven consonants times seven vowels).

The Ethiopic script also has its own glyphs for punctuation and numbers. The punctuation glyphs are mostly groups of dots, some of them accompanied by strokes. The number glyphs have been derived from the old Greek “numbers” (the Greeks did not know separate number glyphs, every letter had also a numerical value), and it is still easy to discover the letters of the Greek alphabet, framed by vertical brackets, in many of the Ethiopic numbers. Modern Amharic texts, however, also make extensive use of the Latin numbers.

Written and translated by
Kubi (Christian Witjes)