|Native to||Eritrea , Ethiopia|
Estimates range from the 4th century AD to sometime before the 10th century.|
Remains in use as a liturgical language.
Official language in
|Liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Ethiopian Catholic Church, Eritrean Catholic Church and Beta Israel|
Ge'ez (//; ግዕዝ, Gəʿəz [ɡɨʕɨz]; also transliterated Giʻiz) is an ancient South Semitic language that originated in Eritrea and the northern region of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. It later became the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum and Ethiopian imperial court.
Today, Ge'ez remains only as the main language used in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church, and the Beta Israel Jewish community. However, in Ethiopia Amharic (the main lingua franca of modern Ethiopia) or other local languages, and in Eritrea and Tigray Region in Ethiopia, Tigrigna (Tigrinya) may be used for sermons. Tigrigna and Tigre are closely related to Ge'ez with at least four different configurations proposed. Some linguists do not believe that Ge'ez constitutes the common ancestor of modern Ethiopian languages, but that Ge'ez became a separate language early on from some hypothetical, completely unattested language, and can thus be seen as an extinct sister language of Tigre and Tigrinya. The foremost Ethiopian experts such as Amsalu Aklilu point to the vast proportion of inherited nouns that are unchanged, and even spelled identically in both Ge'ez and Amharic (and to a lesser degree, Tigrinya).
- a /æ/ < Proto-Semitic *a; later e
- u /u/ < Proto-Semitic *ū
- i /i/ < Proto-Semitic *ī
- ā /aː/ < Proto-Semitic *ā; later a
- e /e/ < Proto-Semitic *ay
- ə /ɨ/ < Proto-Semitic *i, *u
- o /o/ < Proto-Semitic *aw
Also transliterated as ä, ū/û, ī/î, a, ē/ê, e/i, ō/ô.
Ge'ez is transliterated according to the following system:
Because Ge'ez is no longer a spoken language, the pronunciation of some consonants is not completely certain. Gragg (1997:244) writes "The consonants corresponding to the graphemes ś (Ge'ez ሠ) and ḍ (Ge'ez ቀ) have merged with s and ṣ respectively in the phonological system represented by the traditional pronunciation—and indeed in all modern Ethiopian Semitic. ... There is, however, no evidence either in the tradition or in Ethiopian Semitic [for] what value these consonants may have had in Ge'ez."
A similar problem is found for the consonant transliterated ḫ. Gragg (1997:245) notes that it corresponds in etymology to velar or uvular fricatives in other Semitic languages, but it was pronounced exactly the same as ḥ in the traditional pronunciation. Though the use of a different letter shows that it must originally have had some other pronunciation, what that pronunciation was is not certain. The chart below lists /ɬ/ and /ɬʼ/ as possible values for ś (ሠ) and ḍ (ቀ) respectively. It also lists /χ/ as a possible value for ḫ (ኀ). These values are tentative, but based on the Proto-Semitic consonants that they are descended from.
Phonemes of Ge'ez
In the chart below, IPA values are shown. When transcription is different from the IPA, the character is shown in angular brackets. Question marks follow phonemes whose interpretation is controversial (as explained in the preceding section).
|Labial||Dental||Palatal||Velar, Uvular|| Pharyn-
|emphatic1||pʼ ⟨p̣⟩||tʼ ⟨ṭ⟩||kʼ ⟨ḳ⟩||kʷʼ ⟨ḳʷ⟩|
|Fricative||voiceless||f||s||ɬ? ⟨ś⟩||χ? ⟨ḫ⟩||ħ ⟨ḥ⟩||h|
- In Ge'ez, Emphatic consonants are phonetically ejectives. As is the case with Arabic, emphatic velars may actually be phonetically uvular ([q] and [qʷ]).
Ge'ez consonants in relation to Proto-Semitic
Ge'ez consonants have a triple opposition between voiceless, voiced, and ejective (or emphatic) obstruents. The Proto-Semitic "emphasis" in Ge'ez has been generalized to include emphatic p̣. Ge'ez has phonologized labiovelars, descending from Proto-Semitic biphonemes. Ge'ez ś ሠ Sawt (in Amharic, also called śe-nigūś, i.e. the se letter used for spelling the word nigūś "king") is reconstructed as descended from a Proto-Semitic voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ]. Like Arabic, Ge'ez merged Proto-Semitic š and s in ሰ (also called se-isat: the se letter used for spelling the word isāt "fire"). Apart from this, Ge'ez phonology is comparably conservative; the only other Proto-Semitic phonological contrasts lost may be the interdental fricatives and ghayin.
Ge'ez distinguishes two genders, masculine and feminine, which in certain words is marked with the suffix -t. These are less strongly distinguished than in other Semitic languages, in that many nouns not denoting persons can be used in either gender: in translated Christian texts there is a tendency for nouns to follow the gender of the noun with a corresponding meaning in Greek. There are two numbers, singular and plural. The plural can be constructed either by suffixing -āt to a word, or by internal plural.
- Plural using suffix: ʿāmat – ʿāmatāt 'year(s)', māy – māyāt 'water(s)' (Note: In contrast to adjectives and other Semitic languages, the -āt suffix can be used for constructing the plural of both genders).
- Internal plural: bet – ʾābyāt 'house, houses'; qərnəb – qarānəbt 'eyelid, eyelids'.
Nouns also have two cases, the nominative which is not marked and the accusative which is marked with final -a (e.g. bet, bet-a).
Internal plurals follow certain patterns. Triconsonantal nouns follow one of the following patterns.
|Patterns of internal plural for quadriconsonantal nouns. (C=Consonant, V=Vowel)|
|Number||Person||Isolated personal pronoun||Pronominal suffix|
|With noun||With verb|
|3. masculine||wəʾətomu / əmuntu||-(h)omu|
|3. feminine||wəʾəton / əmāntu||-(h)on|
Noun phrases have the following overall order: (demonstratives) noun (adjective)-(relative clause)
|in this city|
|the glorious king|
Adjectives and determiners agree with the noun in gender and number:
|this glorious queen|
|these glorious kings|
Relative clauses are introduced by a pronoun which agrees in gender and number with the preceding noun:
|the man whose son they killed|
As in many Semitic languages, possession by a noun phrase is shown through the construct state. In Ge'ez, this is formed by suffixing /-a/ to the possessed noun, which is followed by the possessor, as in the following examples (Lambdin 1978:23):
|the son of the king|
|the name of the angel|
Possession by a pronoun is indicated by a suffix on the possessed noun, as seen in the following table:
|2msg 'your (masc)'||-əka|
|2fsg 'your (fem)'||-əki|
|2mpl 'your (masc. plur)'||-əkəma|
|2fpl 'your (fem. plur)'||-əkən|
|3mpl 'their (masc)'||-omu|
|3fpl 'their (fem)'||-on|
The following examples show a few nouns with pronominal possessors:
|my name||his name|
Another common way of indicating possession by a noun phrase combines the pronominal suffix on a noun with the possessor preceded by the preposition /la=/ 'to, for' (Lambdin 1978:44):
|səm-u||la = neguś|
|name-3sg||to = king|
|'the king's name; the name of the king'|
Lambdin (1978:45) notes that in comparison to the construct state, this kind of possession is only possible when the possessor is definite and specific. Lambdin also notes that the construct state is the unmarked form of possession in Ge'ez.
Ge'ez is a prepositional language, as in the following example (Lambdin 1978:16):
|to the city|
There are three special prepositions, /ba=/ 'in, with', /la=/ 'to, for', /'əm=/ 'from', which always appear as enclitics on the following noun, as in the following examples:
|'əm = hagar|
|from = city|
|from the city|
|in = city|
|in the city|
These enclitic prepositions in Ge'ez are similar to the inseparable prepositions in Hebrew.
The normal word order for declarative sentences is VSO. Objects of verbs show accusative case marked with the suffix /-a/:
|The man planted a tree|
Questions with a wh-word ('who', 'what', etc.) show the question word at the beginning of the sentence:
|Which city did they flee?|
The common way of negation is the prefix ʾi- which descends from ʾey- (which is attested in Axum inscriptions) from ʾay from Proto-Semitic
- ʾal by palatalization. It is prefixed to verbs as follows:
|we cannot go|
Ge'ez is written with Ethiopic or the Ge'ez abugida, a script that was originally developed specifically for this language. In languages that use it, such as Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is called Fidäl, which means script or alphabet. Ge'ez is read from left to right. The Ge'ez script has been adapted to write other languages, usually ones that are also Semitic. The most widespread use is for Amharic in Ethiopia and Tigrinya in Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is also used for Sebatbeit, Meʻen, Agew and most other languages of Ethiopia. In Eritrea it is used for Tigre, and it is often used for Bilen, a Cushitic language. Some other languages in the Horn of Africa, such as Oromo, used to be written using Ge'ez but have switched to Latin-based alphabets. It also uses 4 symbols for labialized velar consonants, which are variants of the non-labialized velar consonants:
History and literature
Although it is often said that Ge'ez literature is dominated by the Bible including the Deuterocanon, in fact there are many medieval and early modern original texts in the language. Most of its important works are also the literature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which include Christian liturgy (service books, prayers, hymns), Lives of Saints, and Patristic literature. For instance, around 200 texts were written about indigenous Ethiopian saints from the fourteenth through the nineteenth century. This religious orientation of Ge'ez literature was a result of traditional education being the responsibility of priests and monks. "The Church thus constituted the custodian of the nation's culture", notes Richard Pankhurst, and describes the traditional education as follows:
- Traditional education was largely biblical. It began with the learning of the alphabet, or more properly, syllabary... The student's second grade comprised the memorization of the first chapter of the first Epistle General of St. John in Geez. The study of writing would probably also begin at this time, and particularly in more modern times some arithmetic might be added. In the third stage the Acts of the Apostles were studied, while certain prayers were also learnt, and writing and arithmetic continued. ... The fourth stage began with the study of the Psalms of David and was considered an important landmark in a child's education, being celebrated by the parents with a feast to which the teacher, father confessor, relatives and neighbours were invited. A boy who had reached this stage would moreover usually be able to write, and might act as a letter writer.
However works of history and chronography, ecclesiastical and civil law, philology, medicine, and letters were also written in Ge'ez. The Ethiopian collection in the British Library comprises some 800 manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, notably including magical and divinatory scrolls, and illuminated manuscripts of the 16th to 17th centuries. It was initiated by a donation of 74 codices by the Church of England Missionary Society in the 1830s and 1840s, and substantially expanded by 349 codices, looted by the British from the Emperor Tewodros II's capital at Magdala in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has at least two illuminated manuscripts in Ge'ez.
The Ge'ez language is classified as a South Semitic language. It evolved from an earlier proto-Ethio-Semitic ancestor used to write royal inscriptions of the kingdom of Dʿmt in Epigraphic South Arabian. The Ge'ez language is no longer universally thought of, as previously assumed, to be an offshoot of Sabaean or Old South Arabian, and there is some linguistic (though not written) evidence of Semitic languages being spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia since approximately 2000 BC. However, the Ge'ez script later replaced Epigraphic South Arabian in the Kingdom of Aksum. Epigraphic South Arabian letters were used for a few inscriptions into the 8th century, though not any South Arabian language since Dʿmt. Early inscriptions in Ge'ez and Ge'ez script have been dated to as early as the 5th century BC, and in a sort of proto-Ge'ez written in ESA since the 9th century BC. Ge'ez literature properly begins with the Christianization of Ethiopia (and the civilization of Axum) in the 4th century, during the reign of Ezana of Axum.
5th to 7th centuries
The oldest known example of the old Ge'ez script is found on the Hawulti obelisk in Matara, Eritrea. The oldest surviving Ge'ez manuscript is thought to be the 5th or 6th century Garima Gospels. Almost all texts from this early "Aksumite" period are religious (Christian) in nature, and translated from Greek. The Ethiopic Bible contains 81 Books; 46 of the Old Testament and 35 of the New. A number of these Books are called "deuterocanonical" (or "apocryphal" according to certain Western theologians), such as the Ascension of Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, the Paralipomena of Baruch, Noah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Maccabees, and Tobit. The Book of Enoch in particular is notable since its complete text has survived in no other language. Also to this early period dates Qerlos, a collection of Christological writings beginning with the treatise of Saint Cyril (known as Hamanot Rete’et or De Recta Fide). These works are the theological foundation of the Ethiopic Church. In the later 5th century the Aksumite Collection; an extensive selection of liturgical, theological, synodical and historical materials, was translated into Ge'ez from Greek, providing a fundamental set of instructions and laws for the developing Ethiopian Church. Another important religious document is Ser'ata Paknemis, a translation of the monastic Rules of Pachomius. Non-religious works translated in this period include Physiologus, a work of natural history also very popular in Europe.
13th to 14th centuries
After the decline of the Aksumites, a lengthy gap follows; no works have survived that can be dated to the years of the 8th through 12th centuries. Only with the rise of the Solomonic dynasty around 1270 can we find evidence of authors committing their works to writings. Some writers consider the period beginning from the 14th century an actual "Golden Age" of Ge'ez literature—although by this time Ge'ez was no longer a living language. While there is ample evidence that it had been replaced by the Amharic language in the south and by the Tigrigna and Tigre languages in the north, Ge'ez remained in use as the official written language until the 19th century, its status comparable to that of Medieval Latin in Europe. Important hagiographies from this period include:
- the Gadle Sama’etat "Acts of the Martyrs"
- the Gadle Hawaryat "Acts of the Apostles"
- the Senkessar or Synaxarium, translated as "The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church"
- Other Lives of Saint Anthony, Saint George, Saint Tekle Haymanot, Saint Gabra Manfas Qeddus
Also at this time the Apostolic Constitutions was retranslated into Ge'ez from Arabic. Another translation from this period is Zena 'Ayhud, a translation (probably from an Arabic translation) of Joseph ben Gurion's "History of the Jews" ("Sefer Josippon") written in Hebrew in the 10th century, which covers the period from the Captivity to the capture of Jerusalem by Titus. Apart from theological works, the earliest contemporary Royal Chronicles of Ethiopia are date to the reign of Amda Seyon I (1314–44). With the appearance of the "Victory Songs" of Amda Seyon, this period also marks the beginning of Amharic literature. The 14th century Kebra Nagast or "Glory of the Kings" by the Nebura’ed Yeshaq of Aksum is among the most significant works of Ethiopian literature, combining history, allegory and symbolism in a retelling of the story of the Queen of Sheba (i.e. Saba), King Solomon, and their son Menelik I of Ethiopia. Another work that began to take shape in this period is the Mashafa Aksum or "Book of Axum".
15th to 16th centuries
The early 15th century Fekkare Iyasus "The Explication of Jesus" contains a prophecy of a king called Tewodros, which rose to importance in 19th century Ethiopia as Tewodros II chose this throne name. Literature flourished especially during the reign of Emperor Zara Yaqob. Written by the Emperor himself were Mats'hafe Berhan ("The Book of Light") and Mats'hafe Milad ("The Book of Nativity"). Numerous homilies were written in this period, notably Retu’a Haimanot ("True Orthodoxy") ascribed to John Chrysostom. Also of monumental importance was the appearance of the Ge'ez translation of the Fetha Negest ("Laws of the Kings"), thought to have been around 1450, and ascribed to one Petros Abda Sayd — that was later to function as the supreme Law for Ethiopia, until it was replaced by a modern Constitution in 1931. By the beginning of the 16th century, the Islamic invasions put an end to the flourishing of Ethiopian literature. A letter of Abba 'Enbaqom (or "Habakkuk") to Imam Ahmad Ibn Ibrahim, entitled Anqasa Amin ("Gate of the Faith"), giving his reasons for abandoning Islam, although probably first written in Arabic and later rewritten in an expanded Ge'ez version around 1532, is considered one of the classics of later Ge'ez literature. During this period, Ethiopian writers begin to address differences between the Ethiopian and the Roman Catholic Church in such works as the Confession of Emperor Gelawdewos, Sawana Nafs ("Refuge of the Soul"), Fekkare Malakot ("Exposition of the Godhead") and Haymanote Abaw ("Faith of the Fathers"). Around the year 1600, a number of works were translated from Arabic into Ge'ez for the first time, including the Chronicle of John of Nikiu and the Universal History of Jirjis ibn al'Amid Abi'l-Wasir (also known as al-Makin).
Current usage in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Israel
Ge'ez is the liturgical language of Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Ethiopian Catholic and Eritrean Catholic Christians, and is used in prayer and in scheduled public celebrations. It is also used liturgically by the Beta Israel (Falasha Jews). The liturgical rite used by the Christian churches is referred to as the Ethiopic rite or the Ge'ez rite.
The first sentence of the Book of Enoch:
- ቃለ፡ በረከት፡ ዘሄኖክ፡ ዘከመ፡ ባረከ፡ ኅሩያነ፡ ወጻድቃነ፡ እለ፡ ሀለዉ፡ ይኩኑ፡
- በዕለተ፡ ምንዳቤ፡ ለአሰስሎ፡ ኵሉ፡ እኩያን፡ ወረሲዓን።
- Ḳāla barakat za-Henok zakama bāraka ḫəruyāna waṣādəḳāna ʾəlla hallawu yəkunu
- baʿəlata məndābe laʾasassəlo kʷəllu ʾəkuyān warasiʿān
- "Word of blessing of Henok, wherewith he blessed the chosen and righteous who would be alive in the day of tribulation for the removal of all wrongdoers and backsliders."
- Evans De Lacy O'Leary, 2000 Comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. Routledge. p. 23.
- Gene Gragg 1997. The Semitic Languages. Taylor & Francis. Robert Hetzron ed. ISBN 978-0-415-05767-7.
- "No longer in popular use, Ge'ez has always remained the language of the Church", [CHA]
- "They read the Bible in Geez" (Leaders and Religion of the Falashas); "after each passage, recited in Geez, the translation is read in Kailina" (Festivals). [PER]. Note the publication date of this source.
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Geez". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
- Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
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- Lambdin, Thomas O. (1978).
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- [PAN], pp. 666f.; cf. the EOTC's own account at its official website. Church Teachings. Retrieved from the Internet Archive on March 12, 2014.
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- A conservator at work on the Garima Gospels (2010-07-14). ""Discovery of earliest illustrated manuscript," Martin Bailey, June 2010". Theartnewspaper.com. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
- "The Arts Newspaper June 2010 – Abuna Garima Gospels". Ethiopianheritagefund.org. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
- [BUD], pp. 566f.
- [BUD], p. 574
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- Dillmann, August, Anthologia Aethiopica, Herausgegeben und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Ernst Hammerschmidt. Hildesheim: Olms Verlag 1988, ISBN 978-3-487-07943-1 .
- The Royal Chronicles of Zara Yaqob and Baeda Maryam – French translation and edition of the Ge'ez text Paris 1893 (electronic version in Gallica digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France)
- Ethiopic recension of the Chronicle of John of Nikiû – Paris 1883 (electronic version) in Gallica
- Dillmann, August, Lexicon linguæ Æthiopicæ cum indice Latino, Lipsiae 1865. (Online version at the Internet Archive)
- Leslau, Wolf, Comparative Dictionary of Geez (Classical Ethiopic): Geez-English, English-Geez, with an Index of the Semitic Roots, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1987. ISBN 978-3-447-02592-8.
- Leslau, Wolf, Concise Dictionary of Ge‘ez (Classical Ethiopic), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 1989. ISBN 978-3-447-02873-8.
- Ludolf, Hiob, Lexicon Aethiopico-Latinum, Ed. by J. M. Wansleben, London 1661.
- Wemmers, J., Lexicon Aethiopicum, Rome 1638.
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