NOTE ON THE ENGLISH EDITION / Grammar / Ethiopic Grammar. Dillmann / § 1. GENERAL REMARKS ON THE ETHIOPIC LANGUAGE. § 2. Origin and Character

§ 1. The beginnings of the great Abyssinian kingdom stretch sketch back to pretty early times, which cannot now be more exactly determined. It emerged into the light of history immediately upon its conversion to Christianity in the third century, and with increasing clearness on to the seventh; and from that time forward, all through the Middle Ages and up to the commencement of the seventeenth century, it occupied an important position in the midst of the bordering populations of Africa and Arabia. In that kingdom once flourished the language commonly called Ethiopic, and it is to the description of that language that the present work is devoted. Originally one only of the manifold dialects into which the Arabic-African branch of the Semitic tongue split up, though one of the noblest among them, it gained, through the tribe by which it was spoken, the position of being the leading speech in the kingdom, starting as it did from their country of Tigrē and its chief town Axum, and keeping pace with the development of the kingdom, while the modes of speech native to other tribes in the land lived on alongside of it merely as vulgar dialects. Farther, by means of the numerous writings, chiefly of Christian contents, which were speedily composed in it, it became bound up in the most intimate manner with the life of the Church and the whole culture of the people. In this position it maintained itself, as long as the centre of gravity of the kingdom remained in Tigrē and Axum. It is true that when the South-Western provinces grew into importance, and the seat of government was transferred to the district south of Takazzē toward Lake Ṣānā, another dialect, the Amharic, came into fashion as the ordinary speech of the court and of the officials of the country; but Ethiopic even then continued to retain its full importance as the literary language, in which all books and even official documents were written; and the three centuries of this period may be regarded indeed as the age of the second bloom of the Ethiopic speech. It was only when the Galla tribes pressed into the country after the close of the sixteenth century, and thus shook and loosened the entire kingdom, that the language received its deathblow. The kingdom was broken up; the several parts were dissevered from the whole; civilisation yielded to a rapid recrudescence of barbarism; Christianity was pressed hard and partly supplanted by Islam, and in itself it degenerated into the merest caricature of a Christian faith. Along with the power, culture and literature of these lands the venerable speech died out also. To be sure it has remained the sacred language and the ecclesiastical language up to the present day; and, as late even as last century, books, especially the annals of the country, were still composed in it; but it was understood by the educated priests only and perhaps by a few of the nobles, and even such men preferred to write in Amharic. Now-a-days even among the priests, only a few probably are to be found who possess some scanty acquaintance with the Ethiopic tongue([1]).

The dialects of the several tribes and provinces, — most of them being no doubt of Semitic origin, but containing a strong admixture of elements from the adjoining African tongues — are now flourishing there in motley variety and rank luxuriance. The most widely extended among them is the Amharic ([2]), which in manifold forms is spoken, or at least understood, in Shoa and in all the district lying between Takazzē and Abāwī. On the other hand the language spoken in the Tigrē country has retained the nearest resemblance to Ethiopic ([3]).


Its Name.


The name, Ethiopic Language, which the old national speech its Name, of Abyssinia commonly bears among us now, is derived from the classical denomination given to the inhabitants of these regions, and has been taken over from the Greek by the Abyssinians themselves. Accordingly they called their kingdom ኢትይዮጵያ, and the national tongue ልሳነ ፡ ኢትይዮጵያ. The original native appellation for the people, however, and farther for their speech, is ግዕዝ, literally “roaming”, then as a national designation, in the sense of “the Roamers”, “the Free”; and thus comes ልሳነ ፡ ግዕዝ “the tongue of the Free” ([4]).


[1] For Ethiopic Bibliography cf.; G. FUMAGALLI, 'Bibliografia Etiopica. Catalogo descrittivo e ragionato degli scritti pubblicati dalla invenzione della tampa fino a tutto il 1891 intorno alia Etiopia e regioni limitrofe', Milano 1893; [and L. GOLDSCHMIDT, 'Biblioteca Aethiopica, vollstaendiges verzeichnis und ausfuehrliche beschreibung saemmtlicher Aethiopischer druckwerke', Leipzig 1893, as well as the "Litteratura Aethiopica" in PRAETORIUS’ 'Aethiopische Grammatik', Berlin 1886, p. 21 sqq.', and C. CONTI ROSSINI'S 'Note per la storia letteraria abissina': Rendiconti della R. Accademia dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche, Vol. VIII (Roma 1900), p. 197 sqq.].

[2] Europeans have been made better acquainted with this language through ISENBERG'S 'Dictionary of the Amharic Language', London 1841, and 'Grammar of the Amharic Language', London 1842. [V. now also PRAETORIUS, 'Die Amharische Sprache', Halle 1879; GUIDI, 'Grammatica elementare della lingua Amariña', Roma 1889; D'ABBADIE, 'Dictionnaire de la langue Amariñña', Paris 1881 and GUIDI, 'Vocabolario amarico-italiano', Roma 1901.]

[3] [Cf. E. LITTMANN, 'Die Pronomina im Tigre': Zeitschr. f. Assyriologie XII, pp. 188 sqq.; 291 sqq.; 'Das Verbum der Tigresprache', ibid. XIII, p. 133 sqq., XIV, p. l sqq.; and NÖLDEKE, 'Die semitischen Sprachen', 2nd ed. Leipzig 1899, p. 71 sq.]

[4] V . LUDOLFI 'Historia Aethiopica'', lib. I, cap. 1, 4, & cap. 15, 3.