Ge'ez language

Ge'ez language

Infobox Language
nativename=Unicode|ግዕዝ "transl|sem|Gəʿəz" Ethiopic
pronunciation= [ɡɨʕɨz]
states=Ethiopia, Eritrea and Israel
extinct=Extinct [GEE] ] by the 13th centuryFact|date=February 2007, remains in use as a liturgical language"No longer in popular use, Gheez has always remained the language of the Church", [CHA] ]
fam3=South Semitic
fam5=North Ethiopic
script=Ge'ez alphabet
nation=Liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Ethiopic Catholic Church, and Beta Israel"They read the Bible in Geez" (Leaders and Religion of the Falashas); "after each passage, recited in Geez, the translation is read in Kailina" (Festivals). [PER] . Note the publication date of this source.]

Ge'ez (ግዕዝ, "transl|sem|Gəʿəz", IPA2|ɡɨʕɨz; also transliterated "Gi'iz", and referred to as "Ethiopic") is an ancient South Semitic language that developed in the current region of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. It later became the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum and Ethiopian imperial court.

Today Ge'ez remains only as the main language used in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, and also the Beta Israel Jewish community. However, in Ethiopia Amharic (the main lingua franca of modern Ethiopia) or other local languages, and in Eritrea and Tigray Region in Ethiopia Tigrinya may be used for sermons.



*a IPA|/æ/, later *e < Proto-Semitic *a
*u IPA|/uː/ < Proto-Semitic *ū
*i IPA|/iː/ < Proto-Semitic *ī
IPA|/aː/, later *a < Proto-Semitic *ā
*e IPA|/eː/ < Proto-Semitic *ay
*i IPA|/i/ < Proto-Semitic *i, *u
*o IPA|/oː/ < Proto-Semitic *aw

also transliterated as Unicode|ǎ, û, î, â, ê, ě, ô.


Ge'ez consonants have a triple opposition between voiceless, voiced, and ejective (or emphatic) obstruents. The Proto-Semitic "emphasis" in Ge'ez has been generalized to include emphatic Unicode|p̣. Ge'ez has phonologized labiovelars, descending from Proto-Semitic biphonemes. Ge'ez Unicode|ś unicode|ሠ Sawt (in Amharic, also called "Unicode|śe-nigūś", i.e. the "se" letter used for spelling the word "Unicode|nigūś" "king") is reconstructed as descended from a Proto-Semitic voiceless lateral fricative IPA| [ɬ] . Like Arabic, Ge'ez merged Proto-Semitic š and s in unicode|ሰ (also called "Unicode|se-isat": the "se" letter used for spelling the word "isāt" "fire"). Apart from this, Ge'ez phonology is comparably conservative; the only other Proto-Semitic phonological contrasts lost may be the interdental fricatives and ghayin.

In the chart below, IPA values are shown. When transcription is different from the IPA, the character is shown in angular brackets.

Writing system

Ge'ez is written with Ethiopic or the Ge'ez abugida, a script which was originally developed specifically for this language. In languages which use it, eg Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is called "transl|sem|Fidäl", which means script or alphabet.

Unlike other Semitic scripts, Ge'ez is read from left to right.

The Ge'ez script has been adapted to write other languages, usually Semitic ones. The most widespread use is for Amharic in Ethiopia and Tigrinya in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is also used for Sebatbeit, Me'en, Agew and most other languages of Ethiopia. In Eritrea it is used for Tigre, and it is often used for Blin, a Cushitic language. Some other languages in the Horn of Africa, such as Oromo, used to be written using Ge'ez but have switched to Latin-based orthographies.

The script has 26 basic consonant signs used to write Ge'ez:

History and literature

Ge'ez literature is dominated by the Bible including the Deuterocanon. Most of its important works are also the literature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which include Christian liturgy (service books, prayers, hymns), Lives of Saints, and Patristic literature. This religious orientation of Ge'ez literature was a result of traditional education being the responsibility of priests and monks. "The Church thus constituted the custodian of the nation's culture", notes Richard Pankhurst, and describes the traditional education as follows:

: Traditional education was largely biblical. It began with the learning of the alphabet, or more properly, syllabary... The student's second grade comprised the memorization of the first chapter of the first Epistle General of St. John in Geez. The study of writing would probably also begin at this time, and particularly in more modern times some arithmetic might be added. In the third stage the Acts of the Apostles were studied, while certain prayers were also learnt, and writing and arithmetic continued. ... The fourth stage began with the study of the Psalms of David and was considered an important landmark in a child's education, being celebrated by the parents with a feast to which the teacher, father confessor, relatives and neighbours were invited. A boy who had reached this stage would moreover usually be able to write, and might act as a letter writer. [PAN] , pp. 666f.; cf. the EOTC's own account at [ its official website] ]

However works of history and chronography, ecclesiastical and civil law, philology, medicine, and letters were also written in Ge'ez.

The Ethiopian collection in the British Library comprises some 800 manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, notably including magical and divinatory scrolls, and illuminated manuscripts of the 16th to 17th centuries. It was initiated by a donation of 74 codices by the Church of England Missionary Society in the 1830s and 1840s, and substantially expanded by 349 codices, taken by the British from the Tewodros II's capital at Magdala in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia.


The Ge'ez language is classified as a South Semitic language. It evolved from an earlier proto-Ethio-Semitic ancestor used to write royal inscriptions of the kingdom of Unicode|Dʿmt in Epigraphic South Arabian. Ge'ez language is no longer thought, as previously assumed, to be an offshoot of Sabaean or Old South Arabian [2] , and there is linguistic evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia since at least 2000 BC.Fact|date=August 2008 However, the Ge'ez alphabet later replaced Epigraphic South Arabian in the Kingdom of Aksum (Epigraphic South Arabian letters were used for a few inscriptions into the 8th century, though not any South Arabian language since Unicode|Dʿmt). Early inscriptions in Ge'ez and Ge'ez alphabet have been dated [MAT] ] to as early as the 5th century BC, and in a sort of proto-Ge'ez written in ESA since the 8th century BC. Ge'ez literature properly begins with the Christianization of Ethiopia (and the civilization of Axum) in the 4th century, during the reign of Ezana of Axum.Fact|date=February 2007

5th to 7th centuries

Almost all texts from this early "Aksumite" period are religious (Christian) in nature, many of them translations from Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and later also Arabic. The translation of the Christian Bible was undertaken by Syrian monks known as the Nine Saints, who had come to Ethiopia in the 5th century fleeing the Byzantine persecution of the Monophysites. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of the Old Testament and 35 of the New. A number of these Books are called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal" according to certain Western theologians), such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch, Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, Moses and Tobit. The Book of Enoch in particular is notable since its complete text has survived in no other language.

Also to this early period dates Qerlos, a collection of Christological writings beginning with the treatise of Saint Cyril known as "Hamanot Rete’et", or "De Recta Fide", the theological foundation of the Ethiopic Church. Another work is "Ser'ata Paknemis", a translation of the monastic Rules of Pachomius. Non-religious works translated in this period include "Physiologus", a work of natural history also very popular in Europe. [BUD] , pp. 566f.]

13th to 14th centuries

After the decline of the Aksumites, a lengthy gap follows; no works have survived that can be dated to the years of the 8th through 12th centuries. Only with the rise of the Solomonic dynasty around 1270 can we find evidence of authors committing their works to writings. Some writers consider the period beginning from the 14th century an actual "Golden Age" of Ge'ez literature -- although by this time Ge'ez was no longer a living language. While there is ample evidence that it had been replaced by the Amharic language in the south and by the Tigrigna and Tigre languages in the north, Ge'ez remained in use as the official written language until the 19th century, its status comparable to that of Medieval Latin in Europe.

Important hagiographies from this period include:
*the "Gadle Sama’etat" "Acts of the Martyrs"
*the "Gadle Hawaryat" "Acts of the Apostles"
*the "Senkessar" or "Synaxarium", translated as "The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church"
*Other Lives of Saint Anthony, Saint George, Saint Tekle Haymanot, Saint Gabra Manfas Qeddus

Also at this time the "Apostolic Constitutions" was translated in Ge'ez, which provided another set of instructions and laws for the Ethiopian Church. Another translation from this period is Zena 'Ayhud, a translation (probably from an Arabic translation) of Joseph ben Gurion's "History of the Jews" ("Sefer Yosephon") written in Hebrew in the 10th century, which covers the period from the Captivity to the capture of Jerusalem by Titus.

Apart from theological works, the earliest contemporary Royal Chronicles of Ethiopia are date to the reign of Amda Seyon I (1314-44). With the appearance of the "Victory Songs" of Amda Seyon, this period also marks the beginning of Amharic literature.

The 14th century "Kəbrä Nägäst" or "Glory of the Kings" by the Nebura’ed Yeshaq of Aksum is among the most significant works of Ethiopian literature, combining history, allegory and symbolism in a retelling of the story of Queen Sheba, King Solomon, and their son Menelik I of Ethiopia. Another work that began to take shape in this period is the "Mashafa Aksum" or "Book of Axum". [BUD] , p. 574]

15th to 16th centuries

The early 15th century "Fekkare Iyasus" "The Explication of Jesus" contains a prophecy of a king called "Tewodros", which rose to importance in 19th century Ethiopia as Tewodros II chose this throne name.

Literature flourished especially during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob. Written by the Emperor himself were "Matshafa Berhan" ("The Book of Light") and "Matshafa Milad" ("The Book of Nativity"). Numerous homilies were written in this period, notably "Retu’a Haimanot" ("True Orthodoxy") ascribed to John Chrysostom. Also of monumental importance was the appearance of the Geez translation of the Fetha Negest ("Laws of the Kings"), thought to have been around 1450, and ascribed to one Petros Abda Sayd &mdash; that was later to function as the supreme Law for Ethiopia, until it was replaced by a modern Constitution in 1930.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Islamic invasions put an end to the flourishing of Ethiopian literature. A letter of Abba 'Enbaqom (or "Habakkuk") to Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim, entitled "Anqasa Amin" ("Gate of the Faith"), giving his reasons for abandoning Islam, although probably first written in Arabic and later rewritten in an expanded Ge'ez version around 1532, is considered one of the classics of later Ge'ez literature. [PAN03] ] During this period, Ethiopian writers begin to address differences between the Ethiopian and the Roman Catholic Church in such works as the "Confession" of Emperor Gelawdewos, "Sawana Nafs" ("Refuge of the Soul"), "Fekkare Malakot" ("Exposition of the Godhead") and "Haymanote Abaw" ("Faith of the Fathers"). Around the year 1600, a number of works were translated from Arabic into Ge'ez for the first time, including the "Chronicle" of John of Nikiu and the "Universal History" of Jirjis ibn al'Amid Abi'l-Wasir (also known as al-Makin).


The first sentence of the Book of Enoch::Unicode|ቃለ፡ በረከት፡ ዘሄኖክ፡ ዘከመ፡ ባረከ፡ ኅሩያነ፡ ወጻድቃነ፡ እለ፡ ሀለው፡ ይኩኑ፡ :Unicode|በዕለተ፡ ምንዳቤ፡ ለአሰስሎ፡ ኲሉ፡ እኩያን፡ ወረሲዓን።:"transl|sem|Ḳāla barakat za-Hēnok zakama bārraka ḫirūyāna waṣādiḳāna ʾila halaw yikūnū" :"transl|sem|baʿilata mindābē laʾasaslō kʷīlū ʾikūyān warasīʿān"

:"Word of blessing of Henok, wherewith he blessed the chosen and righteous who would be alive in the day of tribulation for the removal of all wrongdoers and backsliders."



* [BUD] Budge, E. A. Wallis. 1928. "A History of Ethiopia: Nubia and Abyssinia", Oosterhout, the Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1970.
* [ CHA] Chain, M. "Ethiopia" transcribed by: Donahue M. in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. + John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
* [DIR] Diringer, David. 1968. "The Alphabet, A Key To The History of Mankind."
* [ GEE] The Ge'ez language info card at Ethnologue
* [KOB] Kobishchanov, Yuri M. 1979. Axum in "SomeCollectionOfWritings"Fact|date=February 2007, edited by Joseph W. Michels; translated by: Lorraine T. Kapitanoff. University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-271-00531-9.
* [ MAT] Matara Aksumite & Pre-Aksumite City Webpage
* [MUN] Munro-Hay Stuart. 1991. "Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity". Edinburgh: University Press. ISBN 0-7486-0106-6.
* [PAN68] Pankhurst, Richard K.P. 1968."An Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935", Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press.
* [ PAN03] Pankhurst, Richard K.P. "A Glimpse into 16th. Century Ethiopian History Abba 'Enbaqom, Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim, and the "Conquest of Abyssinia". Addis Tribune. November 14, 2003.
* [ PER] Perruchon, J. D. and Gottheil, Richard. Falashas in "The Jewish Encyclopidia". 1901-1906.

Further reading


*Aläqa Tayyä, "Maṣḥafa sawāsəw". Monkullo: Swedish Mission 1896/7 (= E.C. 1889).
*Chaîne, Marius, "Grammaire éthiopienne". Beyrouth: Imprimerie catholique 1907, 1938 (Nouvelle édition). ( [ electronic version] at the Internet Archive).
*Cohen, Marcel, "la pronunciation traditionelle du Guèze (éthiopien classique)", in: "Journal asiatique" (1921) Sér. 11 / T. 18 ( [ electronic version] in Gallica digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France PDF).
*Dillmann, August; Bezold, Carl, "Ethiopic Grammar", 2nd edition translated from German by James Crichton, London 1907. ISBN 1-59244-145-9 (2003 reprint). (Published in German: ¹1857, ²1899).
*Gäbrä-Yohannəs Gäbrä-Maryam, "Gəss - Mäzgäbä-ḳalat - Gə'əz-ənna Amarəñña; yä-Gə'əz ḳʷanḳʷa mämmariya" (A Grammar of Classical Ethiopic). Addis Ababa 2001/2002 (= E.C. 1994) []
*Gene Gragg "Ge`ez Phonology," in: "Phonologies of Asia and Africa" (Vol 1), ed. A. S. Kaye & P. T. Daniels, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana (1997).
*IPA|Kidanä Wäld Kəfle, "IPA|Maṣḥafa sawāsəw wagəss wamazgaba ḳālāt ḥaddis" ("A new grammar and dictionary"), Dire Dawa: Artistik Matämiya Bet 1955/6 (E.C. 1948).
*Lambdin, Thomas O., "Introduction to Classical Ethiopic", Harvard Semitic Studies 24, Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press 1978. ISBN 0-89130-263-8.
*Ludolf, Hiob, "Grammatica aethiopica. Londini 1661; 2nd ed. Francofurti 1702.
*Praetorius, Franz, "Äthiopische Grammatik", Karlsruhe: Reuther 1886.
*Weninger, Stefan, "Ge‘ez grammar", Munich: LINCOM Europa, ISBN 3-929075-04-0 (1st edition, 1993), ISBN 3-89586-604-0 (2nd revised edition, 1999).
*Weninger, Stefan, "Das Verbalsystem des Altäthiopischen: Eine Untersuchung seiner Verwendung und Funktion unter Berücksichtigung des Interferenzproblems", Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2001. ISBN 3447044845.
*Tropper, Josef, "Altäthiopisch: Grammatik der Ge'ez mit Übungstexten und Glossar", Elementa Linguarum Orientis (ELO) 2, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag 2002. ISBN 3-934628-29-X
*Vittorio, Mariano, "Chaldeae seu Aethiopicae linguae institutiones", Roma 1548.
*Wemmers, "Linguae aethiopicae institutiones", Roma 1638.


*Taddesse Adera, Ali Jimale Ahmed (eds.), "Silence Is Not Golden: A Critical Anthology of Ethiopian Literature", Red Sea Press (1995), ISBN 0-932415-47-4.
*Jon Bonk, "Annotated and Classified Bibliography of English Literature Pertaining to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church", Atla Bibliography Series, Scarecrow Pr (1984), ISBN 0-8108-1710-1.
*Dillmann, August, "Chrestomathia Aethiopica". Leipzig 1866. ( [ Online version] at the Internet Archive)


*Dillmann, August, "Lexicon linguæ Æthiopicæ cum indice Latino", Lipsiae 1865.
*Leslau, Wolf, "Comparative Dictionary of Geez (Classical Ethiopic): Geez-English, English-Geez, with an Index of the Semitic Roots", Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1987. ISBN 3-447-02592-1.
*Leslau, Wolf, "Concise Dictionary of Ge‘ez (Classical Ethiopic)", Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1989. ISBN 3-447-02873-4.
*Ludolf, Hiob, "Lexicon Aethiopico-Latinum", Ed. by J. M. Wansleben, London 1661.
*Wemmers, J., "Lexicon Aethiopicum", Rome 1638.

ee also

* Kingdom of Aksum
* Kebra Nagast
* 1 Enoch
* Ge'ez alphabet
* [ Geez usage]

External links

* [ Ethiopian Collections] of the British Library
* [ The role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Literature and Art] by Adamu Amare and Belaynesh Mikael (1970)
* [ J. M.Harden, "An Introduction to Ethiopic Christian Literature" (1926)]
* [ Unicode Chart]
* [ Senamirmir Projects: Free Ethiopic Font (Win32, MacOS, Linux)]

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