The language commonly called Ethiopic is the language in which the inscriptions of the kings of the ancient Aksumitic (Axumite) empire and most of the literature of Christian Abyssinia are written. It is called lesana Ge`ez, "the tongue of Ge`ez," by the Abyssinians themselves, most probably because it was originally the dialect of the Ge`ez tribe, who in antiquity must have dwelt in or near Aksum (Axum).
The names Ethiopia and Ethiopians have been used in many different meanings by various peoples. To the Greeks, Ethiopia was a country South of Egypt, and in this sense the word is generally used in the histories of Egypt. The Ethiopian kings came from that country which is now called Nubia in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In Hellenistic times the term received a wider meaning, and Ethiopia was the name of all the land between the Red Sea and the Nile, south of Egypt proper. Sometimes "Indian" and "Ethiopian" were synonymous, or Ethiopia was even considered to stretch as far as to the Atlantic Ocean in the West. But of these countries the Greeks and Romans had very little exact geographical knowledge.
The fact that Ethiopia at some time meant the country between the Red Sea and the Nile prompted the pagan kings of Aksum in northern Abyssinia to adopt this name for their own country and to give it a narrower sense than the one which it had at that time. Therefore in the bilingual inscription of King Aeizanas (`Ezana), the word Aithiopia, is a rendering of the Semitic Chabashat ("Abyssinia," but here more specially referring to Northern Abyssinia). Under this same king, about 350 AD, Abyssinia became Christian; and after the Bible had been translated into the Ge`ez language, the Abyssinians found that Ethiopia was mentioned there several times. Their national pride was flattered by the thought that their country should be referred to in the Holy Scriptures, and for this reason they were all the more ready to apply the name in question to their own country. Up to the present day they call it Ethiopia ('Itiopiya), and themselves Ethiopians; their legends speak even of an ancestor Itiopis.
We may then, if we choose to do so, speak of a Nubian and an Abyssinian Ethiopia, but the term "Ethiopic language" has come into general usage as an equivalent of lesana Ge`ez, and should therefore be applied only to the ancient literary language of Abyssinia.
This language is closely allied to the languages of Southern Arabia:
it represents the southwestern branch of the southern division of the Semitic languages. The most important branch of this division is, of course, the Arabic language, and with this Ethiopic has a great deal in common. On the other hand there are many words and forms in Ethiopic which are not found in Arabic, but in Hebrew or even in Babylonian and Assyrian. It has been held that the home of the Semites was in Africa; and if that were the case, the people who spoke the Ethiopic language may never have migrated very much. But the majority of scholars who have expressed their opinion upon the subject believe that Asia was the home of the Semites; this is the opinion of the writer of this article also. Then the Semitic inhabitants of Abyssinia must have come from across the Red Sea. Their migration must have begun many centuries BC. It has hardly ever stopped, since Arabs in smaller, and sometimes in larger, numbers have been drifting into Abyssinia at all periods.
The Semitic conquerors of Abyssinia found peoples of two different races in the country where they settled:
(1) African aborigines and (2) Kushites, a branch of the Hamitic family. Their languages were different from each other and, of course, different from that of the Semites also; some of them are spoken up to the present day. When the Semites first came and formed their literary language, they did not allow the languages of the country to influence their own speech very much; but gradually this influence grew stronger and stronger, and it is very evident in the modern Semitic languages of Abyssinia. An outline of the history of the Ethiopic language is as follows: Its oldest monument known so far is the Semitic part of the bilingual inscription of King `Ezana, which dates from the first half of the 4th century AD. Before that time Ethiopic must have been spoken, without doubt, but it was not written: Greek and Sabean were written instead. At the time of King `Ezana the knowledge of the Sabean language seems to have been very little; but Sabean script was still used. The Semitic part of the inscription just mentioned is in the Ethiopic language, but carved once in Sabean script and a second time in the native Ethiopic script which had been derived from the Sabean. In the first of these two "editions" two or three Sabean words are used instead of their Ethiopic equivalents. A few other ancient inscriptions found in the Aksumitic empire may also be dated from the same period.
Possibly in the same 4th century the translation of the Bible into Ethiopic was begun; and this fact marks the beginning of a real Ethiopic literature. Perhaps the Psalms and the Gospels were translated first, being most needed in the service of the Christian church. The different books of the Scriptures were translated by different men, some of whom rendered literally, some more according to the sense, some having a good, some only a poor, knowledge of the language from which, and the language into which, they translated. Both Testaments were translated from the Greek by men whose mother-tongue was probably Aramaic. This is proved by the presence of Greek and Aramaic words and by the forms in which the Hebrew names appear in Ethiopic transliteration. The oldest influences which the Ethiopic language experienced were therefore:
(1) Sabean; a number of technical terms may have been adopted by the ancient Aksumites from the Sabean at the time when this was their literary language;
(2) African, i.e. Kushite and native African; the Semitic conquerors found a great many new animals and trees or plants, which they did not know, in their new country, and in many cases they adopted their African names;
(3) Aramaic, i.e. Jewish and Christian; these are mostly words referring to religious or theological matters;
(4) Greek; some of the Greek words found in Ethiopic refer to religious matters in the same way as the Aramaic, others denote objects or ideas which the ancient Abyssinians received from the civilized world, others again are mere transliterations of Greek words in the Bible and other religious books, which the translators did not understand.
The time of the Aksumitic empire was the time when the Ethiopic language flourished. This empire was overthrown probably in the 7th or 8th century AD; and we know very little indeed of the history of Abyssinia from about 700 until about 1300 AD. In 1270 the so-called Solomonic Dynasty came to the throne again; the seat of the empire, however, was no longer Aksum but Gondar, North of Lake Tsana. Meanwhile the literary language had become a dead language; new dialects had sprung up and taken its place in everyday conversation. But Ge`ez continued to be the sacred language; it was the language of the Bible and of the church, and when in the 14th and 15th centuries a revival of Abyssinian literature came about, the literary language was Ge`ez. But it was influenced by the new dialects, especially by the Amharic, the language of Amhara, where Gondar was situated and where most of the books were written or translated. This influence affected in particular the spelling of Ge`ez in those books which dealt with religious matters and which therefore had to be written in pure Ge`ez. In historical books a great many words were taken from the Amharic; and this language, called lesana tarik, "the tongue of the chronicles," has often the appearance of mixed language.
In the 16th and 17th centuries European missionaries came to Abyssinia and tried to convert the monophysite Abyssinian Christians to Romanism. In order to come into close contact with the common people they used Amharic as a literary language, so that everybody, not only the learned, might understand their books. Their example was followed by the defenders of the native church; and since that time Amharic has become a recognized literary language in Abyssinia, although Ge`ez is still considered the real language of the church.
Amharic was derived from a sister language of the Ethiopic; the direct descendant of the Ethiopic language is modern Tigrina; a language derived from a dialect very closely related to Ge`ez is modern Tigre.
Ludolf, Historia Aethiopica, 1681; id, Commentarius ad suam historiam Aethiopicam, 1691; Dillmann, Grammatik der athiopischen Sprache (translated into English by Crichton) 1907, Intro; Littmann, Geschichte der athiopischen Litteratur, 1907.
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