Ethiopian Alphabets and Numerals

The foundation for any language is sounds. Sounds make phonemes. Phonemes in turn, make up words, the words make up sentences, and so on. Sentences fully describe a thought. As an expression of thoughts, a language is thus a collection of sentences. People express ideas in a given language through speaking. Let us not forget that it was only 5000 years ago that people started writing.

To express thoughts through writing, symbols that represent sounds, words, or phonemes, are needed. These symbols have to be of course, understood by the users of the language. Languages that have these symbols are called ‘written languages’ whereas those that do not have phonemes are known simply as spoken languages. The art of expressing thoughts through symbols is called writing, and the nature of writing, a writing system. Script is the term that is used to describe the symbols as a whole.

There are three types of writing systems in the world, namely, logographic, syllabic and alphabetic. The logographic system was used first around 5000 years ago. Its place of origin, in the regions of Palestine and Syria.

In the logographic system, one symbol represents one word. A language of 100,000 words for example, could have symbols of as many as 50,000 – 60,000. Note that synonyms will share the same symbol. The old Chinese writing system is one example.

In the syllabic system, a symbol represents not a sound, but a phoneme. What we call a phoneme is a combination of a vowel and a consonant. In this system, the numbers of symbols needed for a given language is determined by the number of basic sounds used. for example, if a language has 25 consonants and 5 vowels, the total number of phonemes will be 125 (25×5). And to represent these 125 phonemes, 125 symbols will be needed. A user will have to clearly and distinctively know each of these 125 symbols. That is when we say a user is ‘literate’.

In the syllabic system, it is possible only to point out the phonemes, but not the vowels and consonants that comprise them. This is possible only in what is called the alphabetic system. This writing system originated from the syllabic systems used in the Semitic languages of the Middle East. It is also called the Greek alphabet because its origin is strongly tied to the ancient Greeks. The Romans later adopted the alphabet from Greek, and helped widen its usage in their colonies. As a result, this system is now known as the Latin alphabet. The majority of the Western world uses this alphabet. African countries which were colonized by the West, also use this script.

The Ethiopians are the only people that differ. The difference lies in the fact that our writing system, unlike Greek and the Latin, which use the alphabetic system, is linked to the prior syllabic system (6). This system was introduced in the northen part of Ethiopia approximately 2,500 years ago by the Semitic Sabean people of Southern Arabia. As a result, this version of the Feedel (script) is also known as a Sabean script (7).

(The looks of the Sabean script are included in the original paper…but could not be reproduced here for e-mail ASCII format. 29 distinct characters comprise the sabean script..some look like the current Ethiopics, some resemble characters found in Hebrew, Arabic etc.)
Even though this writing system is basically a syllabic system, the vowels inside each phoneme are not represented by a number of vowels but by a single vowel. This vowel for example, is “AA” (ASCII cannot represent it but it is the Ethiopic equivalent as used in “AAre.. gud fela, Aare ykrta, etc…”). As a result, a sentence such as [KasameTa] (Kasa has come) would have been written as [Ks mT]. A user would read the last sentence as the desired [KasameTa] only from experience and from the context of the writing. In this particular example, a user would read [Ks] as Kasa or perhaps Kasu because it is the first word in a sentence and a sentence usually starts with a proper noun or a name.

In this system, a sentence is written from right to left and then back to right. The system was used for a long time in northen Ethiopia, particularly the region of Yoha, until the Axumite empire, when it gave way to Ge’ez.

The Ge’ez language became a written language only after it took 24 of the 29 Sabean characters and modified 16 of them into a different look. It also took two additional characters from the Greek script, namely, ‘P’ and ‘PP’ (the P as in Abune Petros).

In addition to the change in the form of the 16 characters, Ge’ez adopted a number of different vowels instead of the one form used by Sabean script. The style of writing was also restricted and modified, running left to right. Ge’ez used such a script and writing system between the 4th and 7th centuries of the current era.

In the same way that Ge’ez modified Sabean script to become a fully-fledged written language, Amharic also adopted the Ge’ez script, and became a written language. However, unlike Ge’ez, Amharic took all the 26 characters of its predecessor, among which we find the ‘extra’ characters that make similar sounds in the ‘ha’ , ‘se’, ‘Se’, etc, family. It is believed that it is because of pressure exerted by the church and the state, that all these characters were maintained.

Beyond the 26 characters, Amharic also needed addit- ion characters to represent sounds that it acquired from Cushitic languages. This was done by placing a small bar (or hat) on top of 7 characters that were inherited from Ge’ez. Examples are ‘she’, ‘che’, ‘Ce’, ‘je’, ‘Gne’ or ‘Ne’, ‘He’ and ‘zhe’. Amharic had now, by this time, 33 characters. The total number of syllables is accordingly 231 (33×7).

There have not been changes in the large number of shapes and variations in the script adopted by Amharic, mainly due to the influence of the church and the state. The Ge’ez numerals, which are actually used to write Amharic numbers (like Arabic or Hindu-Arabic numerals are used for English numerals), were formed either by borrowing the Coptic numerals, or by using Ge’ez letters and adding a top and a bottom, signs to indicate they were numerals, not letters, which is how Coptic and Greek numerals were formed. There is no symbol for zero, but specific symbols for the units (1-9), the tens (10-90), one for hundred, and another one for ten thousand, which is a combination of the symbol for hundred (as 10,000 is 100 multiplied by 100).

Today Ge’ez is no longer a spoken language outside the Ethiopian Orthodox church. However, Ge’ez scripts and numerals have been serving the languages of many nationalities. The scripts do not belong to only one nationality. It has become the feedel of Ethiopia. The birthplace of the language is Ethiopia and its nationality is Ethiopian. It does not exist anywhere else. Therefore, it is one of our cultural treasures that makes us distinct from other peoples in the world.

(Ethiopian) Writing System
Baye Yimam, Ph.D.
(Associate Professor & Head of Department of Linguistics, 1992)
Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
(Translated by Samuel Kinde and Mingan Negash)

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