Monday, November 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Ethiopia

Just one month ago we looked into the linguistic makeup of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Today we're turning our attention to another African nation, Ethiopia, which is the most populous landlocked country in the world. It is located in the northeast African peninsula known as the Horn of Africa and boasts a population of just over 87 million people.

The Official Language

The sole official language of Ethiopia is Amharic. It is a member of the Semitic language family and is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic. Amharic has been an important language used by the government of Ethiopia for centuries.

The Most Spoken Language

Despite Amharic's long-standing status as the official language of Ethiopia, it is not actually the most spoken language in the country. That honor falls to Oromo, a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Oromo is spoken by approximately 34% of the Ethiopian population, while Amharic's usage is a slightly smaller 30%. 

Historically, the use of Oromo in print or broadcast media was quite limited. However, the Ethiopian government has implemented literacy efforts in recent years that feature published materials and radio broadcasts in Oromo. It has also been used as a language of instruction in some schools during the past two decades. 

The Semien Mountains of northern Ethiopia
Other Languages

If two-thirds of the Ethiopian population speak Amharic and Oromo, then what does the rest of the population speak? It turns out that Ethiopia is quite linguistically diverse due to its ethnic diversity, and is therefore home to approximately 90 languages which principally fall into two categories: Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan languages.

Afro-Asiatic Languages

The third most spoken language in Ethiopia is Somali, one of the official languages of neighboring Somalia. Somali is spoken by approximately 4.6 million Ethiopians, which amounts to 6% of the population. It is followed by the Tigrinya language, which has slightly fewer speakers. This Semitic language is primarily spoken in northern Ethiopia and parts of neighboring Eritrea.

Sidamo, the language of the Sidama people of southern Ethiopia, is spoken by nearly 5% of the population. Wolaytta language speakers comprise another 2% of the Ethiopian population. Their language is distinctive because of its frequent use of proverbs in daily speech. The Gurage and Afar languages are also each spoken by around 2% of the population.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

While the vast majority of Ethiopians speak Afro-Asiatic languages, several Nilo-Saharan languages are also used in the country. These include Nuer and Anuak, which are also spoken in the relatively new country of South Sudan which gained its independence in 2011. Other Nilo-Saharan languages only spoken in Ethiopia include Nyangatom, Me'en, Majang, and Mursi, whose numbers of speakers all range in the thousands.