Monday, December 21, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Eritrea

Last week's county profile focused on the languages of Jordan, and today we're moving south to Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa. In addition to being located in the same part of the world, both countries also happen to share a common language, Arabic.

The National Languages

A beautiful Italian cemetery in Asmara,
the capital of Eritrea.
Unlike many other countries around the world, the government of Eritrea doesn't recognize any official languages. In fact, its constitution states that all Eritrean languages are to be considered equal under the law, which we think is great!

However, there are a few languages that are so widely used throughout the country that they are sometimes referred to as Eritrea's national languages: Tigrinya, Arabic and English. The most spoken of these languages is Tigrinya, which is the native language of over 2.5 million Eritreans. Tigrinya is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and is also spoken in neighboring Ethiopia.

Arabic and English, on the other hand, are most often used as second languages. Both play an important role in Eritrea's educational system, as well as other areas of daily life. In terms of varieties of Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic is primarily taught in schools. However, Eritrea is also home to some native Arabic speakers. Approximately 100,000 Eritreans speak Sudanese Arabic, while about 23,000 speak Hejazi Arabic, which is primarily spoken in Saudi Arabia.

Other Languages

Eritrea is also home to several other languages, most of which belong to the Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan language families. The most spoken of these languages is Tigre, an Afro-Asiatic language that is the native language of over 1 million Eritreans. It is followed by the Saho, Kunama, and Beja languages, which all have between 150,000 and 200,000 native speakers. Saho and Beja are also Afro-Asiatic languages, while Kunama is a Nilo-Saharan language spoken by the Kunama ethnic group.

The Bilen and Nara languages also have between 80,000 and 100,000 native speakers in Eritrea. Bilen is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken by an ethnic group of the same name, while Nara is a Nilo-Saharan language.

Finally, we should mention the Dahalik and Italian languages. Dahalik is an Afro-Asiatic language that is natively spoken by over 2,000 Eritreans, primarily on islands in the Dahlak Archipelago, which is located off the coast of Eritrea in the Red Sea. Italian, on the other hand, was introduced to the area in the late 1800s when it became an Italian colony. While the British eventually took control of Eritrea from Italy in the mid-1900s, there are still some native Italian speakers in the country, though the exact number is unknown.