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Ethiopic (ēthēŏpˈĭk), extinct language of Ethiopia belonging to the North Ethiopic group of the South Semitic (or Ethiopic) languages, which, in turn, belong to the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). Ethiopic (also called Geez or classical Ethiopic) ceased to be a spoken tongue in Ethiopia some time before the 14th cent. A.D., but it long remained the medium for Ethiopian literature and is still in use in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Modern languages of some importance now spoken in Ethiopia that represent the extinct Ethiopic are Tigre and Tigrinya.

Because Ethiopic is close to Old South Arabian lexically and grammatically, it has been suggested that its speakers originally came from S Arabia, whence they apparently began to migrate to Ethiopia in the first millennium B.C. The native Cushitic tongues of Ethiopia (which are also Afroasiatic languages) exerted a degree of influence on the newly arrived Semitic language or languages with respect to grammar, vocabulary, and phonology. Although the script used for Ethiopic and other Semitic tongues of Ethiopia is syllabic rather than alphabetic, it seems to be derived from the alphabetic South Semitic writing of the Old South Arabian inscriptions, to which it shows many similarities. The reason for the syllabic development of the Ethiopic script is not known. Since the 4th cent. A.D., when Ethiopia was Christianized, the Ethiopic script has been written from left to right, though previously the direction of writing was from right to left.


See A. Dillmann, Ethiopic Grammar (tr. 1907); A. B. Mercer, Ethiopic Grammar with Chrestomathy and Glossary (rev. ed. 1961); T. O. Lambdin, Introduction to Classical Ethiopic (1978).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(also Geez), the liturgical language, no longer spoken, of the Monophysite Church. Ethiopic belongs to the Ethiopic subgroup of the southwestern group of Semitic languages; there is another classification of Ethiopic (see).

Ethiopic developed from one of the South Arabic dialects brought into Ethiopia in the fifth century B.C. by immigrants from southern Arabia. In the fourth century of the Common Era it acquired a syllabic alphabet based on the South Arabic consonantal writing system. It was the official language of the Aksum Kingdom (fourth to seventh centuries) and of subsequent Ethiopian states until supplanted by Amharic in the 13th century.

The only known Ethiopic texts of the Aksum period are inscriptions on steles. Religious books and certain secular books translated from Greek and Syriac in this period have survived only in later editions, the earliest dating from the 13th century. Ethiopic continued to be used as a literary language until the early 20th century.


Krachkovskii, I. Iu. Vvedenie v efiopskuiu filologiiu. Leningrad, 1955.
Starinin, V. P. Efiopskii iazyk. Moscow, 1967.
Ullendorff, E. The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia. London, 1955.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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