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About Amharic Language

Amharic is a Semitic language. It is spoken by the Amhara in North Central Ethiopia. It ranks as the second most spoken Semitic language in the world. Furthermore, it is the “official working” language of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and is used throughout the nation. Amharic also serves as the official language of several states within the federal system, such as the Amhara Region, the Southern Nations, and the People’s Region. It has been the official working language of the government, military, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

Amharic is also spoken by approximately 2.7 million people outside Ethiopia in countries such as Egypt, Israel, Sweden, and Eritrea. In total, Amharic is spoken as a first language by a total of 27 million people, and as a second language by approximately 7 to 15 million people.

Gemination

As in most other Ethiopian Semitic languages, gemination is contrastive in Amharic. That is, consonant length can distinguish words from one another; for example, alä 'he said', allä 'there is'; yǝmätall 'he hits', yǝmmättall 'he is hit'. Gemination is not indicated in Amharic orthography, but Amharic readers seem not to find this to be a problem. This property of the writing system is analogous to the vowels of Arabic and Hebrew or the tones of many Bantu languages, which are not normally indicated in writing. The noted Ethiopian novelist Haddis Alemayehu, who was an advocate of Amharic orthography reform, indicated gemination in his novel Fǝqǝr Ǝskä Mäqabǝr by placing a dot above the characters whose consonants were geminated, but this practice has not caught on.

Gender

Amharic nouns can have a masculine or feminine gender. There are several ways to express gender. An example is the old suffix -t for feminity. This suffix is no longer productive and is limited to certain patterns and some isolated nouns. Nouns and adjectives ending in -awi usually take the suffix -t to form the feminine form, e.g. ityop':ya-(a)wi 'Ethiopian (m.)' vs. ityop':ya-wi-t 'Ethiopian (f.)'; sämay-awi 'heavenly (m.)' vs. sämay-awi-t 'heavenly (f.)'. This suffix also occurs in nouns and adjective based on the pattern qət(t)ul, e.g. nəgus 'king' vs. nəgəs-t 'queen' and qəddus 'holy (m.)' vs. qəddəs-t 'holy (f.)'.

Some nouns and adjectives take a feminine marker -it: ləǧ 'child, boy' vs. ləǧ-it 'girl'; bäg 'sheep, ram' vs. bäg-it 'ewe'; šəmagəlle 'senior, elder (m.)' vs. šəmagəll-it 'old woman'; t'ot'a 'monkey' vs. t'ot'-it 'monkey (f.)'. Some nouns have this feminine marker without having a masculine opposite, e.g. šärär-it 'spider', azur-it 'whirlpool, eddy'. There are, however, also nouns having this -it suffix that are treated as masculine: säraw-it 'army', nägar-it 'big drum'.

The feminine gender is not only used to indicate biological gender, but may also be used to express smallness, e.g. bet-it-u 'the little house' (lit. house-FEM-DEF). The feminine marker can also serve to express tenderness or sympathy.

Specifiers

Amharic has special words that can be used to indicate the gender of people and animals. For people, wänd is used for masculinity and set for femininity, e.g. wänd ləǧ 'boy', set ləǧ 'girl'; wänd hakim 'physician, doctor (m.)', set hakim 'physician, doctor (f.)'. For animals, the words täbat, awra, or wänd (less usual) can be used to indicate masculine gender, and anəst or set to indicate feminine gender. Examples: täbat t'əǧa 'calf (m.)'; awra doro 'cock (rooster)'; set doro 'hen'.

Plural

The plural suffix -očč is used to express plurality of nouns. Some morphophonological alternations occur depending on the final consonant or vowel. For nouns ending in a consonant, plain -očč is used: bet 'house' becomes bet-očč 'houses'. For nouns ending in a back vowel (-a, -o, -u), the suffix takes the form -ʷočč, e.g. wəšša 'dog', wəšša-ʷočč 'dogs'; käbäro 'drum', käbäro-ʷočč 'drums'. Nouns that end in a front vowel pluralize using -ʷočč or -yočč, e.g. s'ähafi 'scholar', s'ähafi-ʷočč or s'ähafi-yočč 'scholars'. Another possibility for nouns ending in a vowel is to delete the vowel and use plain očč, as in wəšš-očč 'dogs'.

Besides using the normal external plural (-očč), nouns and adjectives can be pluralized by way of reduplicating one of the radicals. For example, wäyzäro 'lady' can take the normal plural, yielding wäyzär-očč, but wäyzazər 'ladies' is also found (Leslau 1995:173).

Some kinship-terms have two plural forms with a slightly different meaning. For example, wändəmm 'brother' can be pluralized as wändəmm-očč 'brothers' but also as wändəmmam-ač 'brothers of each other'. Likewise, əhət 'sister' can be pluralized as əhət-očč ('sisters'), but also as ətəmm-am-ač 'sisters of each other'.

In compound words, the plural marker is suffixed to the second noun: betä krəstiyan 'church' (lit. house of Christian) becomes betä krəstiyan-očč 'churches'.

 

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