Ge'ez (/ˈɡiːɛz/; ግዕዝ, Gəʿəz
IPA: [ˈɡɨʕɨz] ( listen); also transliterated
Giʻiz) is an ancient
South Semitic language and a
member of the Ethiopian Semitic group. The language originated in
southern regions of
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.
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, the Eritrean Catholic Church,
Jewish community. However, in Ethiopia, Amharic
(the main lingua franca of modern Ethiopia) or other local languages,
Tigray Region in Ethiopia, Tigrinya may be used for
sermons. Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre are closely related to Ge'ez.
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 Amharic, 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
Amharic (and to a lesser degree, Tigrinya).
1.2.2 Phonemes of Ge'ez
Ge'ez consonants in relation to Proto-Semitic
2.1.1 Internal plural
2.2 Pronominal morphology
2.3 Verb conjugation
3.1 Noun phrases
3.2 Prepositional phrases
4 Writing system
5 History and literature
5.2 5th to 7th centuries
5.3 13th to 14th centuries
5.4 15th to 16th centuries
5.5 Current usage in Eritrea,
Ethiopia and Israel
7 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
a /æ/ <
Proto-Semitic *a; later e
u /u/ <
i /i/ <
ā /aː/ <
Proto-Semitic *ā; later a
e /e/ <
ə /ɨ/ <
Proto-Semitic *i, *u
o /o/ <
Also transliterated as ä, ū/û, ī/î, a, ē/ê, e/i, ō/ô.
Ge'ez is transliterated according to the following system:
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 ፀ) 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
(ፀ) respectively. It also lists /χ/ as a possible value for ḫ
(ኀ). These values are tentative, but based on the reconstructed
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).
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.
phonologized labiovelars, descending from
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
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
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 triconsonantal nouns.
Quadriconsonantal and some triconsonantal nouns follow the following
pattern. Triconsonantal nouns that take this pattern must have at
least one long vowel
Patterns of internal plural for quadriconsonantal nouns.
Isolated personal pronoun
wəʾətomu / əmuntu
wəʾəton / əmāntu
Noun phrases have the following overall order: (demonstratives) noun
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)'
2fsg 'your (fem)'
2mpl 'your (masc. plur)'
2fpl 'your (fem. plur)'
3mpl 'their (masc)'
3fpl 'their (fem)'
The following examples show a few nouns with pronominal possessors:
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):
la = neguś
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
to the city
There are three special prepositions, /ba=/ 'in, with', /la=/ 'to,
for', /'əm=/ 'from', which always appear as proclitics on the
following noun, as in the following examples:
'əm = hagar
from = city
from the city
in = city
in the city
These proclitic 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
we cannot go
Genesis 29.11–16 in Ge'ez
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
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
Ge'ez taken from a 15th-century Ethiopian Coptic prayer
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
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
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
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
City has at least two illuminated manuscripts in Ge'ez.
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 the Epigraphic South
Arabian script. 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)
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
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
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
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
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
Aksumite Collection --an extensive selection of
liturgical, theological, synodical and historical materials-- was
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
Amda Seyon I
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
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
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
The first sentence of the Book of Enoch:
ቃለ፡ በረከት፡ ዘሄኖክ፡ ዘከመ፡ ባረከ፡
ኅሩያነ፡ ወጻድቃነ፡ እለ፡ ሀለዉ፡ ይኩኑ፡
በዕለተ፡ ምንዳቤ፡ ለአሰስሎ፡ ኵሉ፡
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."
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• Zerezghi Haile, Learn Basic Geez Grammar (2015) for Tigrinya
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Adera, Taddesse, Ali Jimale Ahmed (eds.), Silence Is Not Golden: A
Critical Anthology of Ethiopian Literature, Red Sea Press (1995),
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Dillmann, August, Octateuchus Aethiopicus. Leipzig 1853. (The first
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BNF: cb11974951n (data)