There are about 90 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. All of them have their own distinct language, tradition, philosophy, social life and culture. One of the Ethnic groups is the Amhara people. Mainly Amharic is the mother tongue of the Amhara people. However, Amharic is the most popular and widely used language in the country. As the official language of the Ethiopian government, this has allowed it maintain this status in the country. Now in every corner of the country, Amharic is known and spoken.
“The history of the Amharic language traces back to the 1st millennium B.C., to the days of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Historians explain that immigrants from southwestern Arabia crossed the Red Sea into present-day Eritrea and mixed with the Cushitic population. This union resulted in the birth of Ge’ez, which is the language of the Axum Empire of Northern Ethiopia. It existed between the 1st Century A.D. and the 6th Century A.D. As the political landscape changed, the center of Ethiopian government moved from Axum to Amhara during the period of the 10th Century A.D. and 12th Century A.D. During this period, “The use of the Amharic language spread its influence, hence becoming the national language.”1
There are also a number of written documents in Amharic. Written Amharic can be found in history, religion, philosophy, and literature. As the result, the language is rather advanced with its own alphabet. In respect to its written alphabet, there are 33 basic characters in Amharic. Its writing system is somehow unique in comparison to other semantic languages. “The writing system, which uses a semi-syllabic system, is called Feedel. It has 33 basic characters with each having 7 forms for each consonant-vowel combination. Unlike Arabic, Hebrew or Syrian, Amharic is written from left to right.”2
To summarize, Amharic is the mother tongue of the Amhara people. However, it is not only important in the Amhara region; it also became the mother tongue of many people who are born in urban areas. This is because Amharic is the dominant language in every town and city. As a result, everybody is comfortable communicating with each other through the Amharic language. Even the ethnic groups can avoid their communication barriers by using Amharic. As a result, Amharic became a common property of every ethnic group in the country.
The Confusion of the Name Order between Western and Ethiopian Societies
Name is very important in every domain of human life. Naming is very common in every society to identify the person, not only among the Amhara people. However, how a name is summoned in Ethiopian society is different from western society. In western society it is often the case that the last name is used to summon a person. For instance, if the full name of the person is Mulu Shewangizaw Ditta, the western world would summon this person as “Mr. Ditta.” However, in Ethiopia this person would be referred to as “Mulu”. Officially, in Ethiopia you can only summon this person as “Mulu” not as “Ditta”.
This is highly related to the culture of the society. In Ethiopian society, when you call a person’s last name, for instance “Ditta”, instead of “Mulu”, it is offensive. Furthermore, you can’t call the name of older people by their very name. This is taboo. You have to call them with respectful status terms such as “gashe”, (sir) “baba”, (Dad) “aba”, (father) etc. If you don’t understand this order and taboo, you will be lost in your translation.
Usually, a person’s last name is mentioned only when it is needed to write on official documents. The last name is not mentioned often in day-to-day activity. But when you need registration documents for a certain purpose, the last name is included. This is likely to be the result stemming from western customs.To this point, the formal writing that has been integrated has also adopted the western education system. As a result, the last name is important when written.
Translating the Ethiopian Calendar in a Western World
The Ethiopian calendar is truly unique. There are thirteen months in a year. Each month contains 30 days. Only the thirteenth month contains 5 or 6 days. The thirteenth month would be 6 days every four years. The thirteen months are called “Pagume”. The four months of a year (June, July, August, and “Pagumen”) are the rainy season.The rest of the months are considered dry season.
The Ethiopian calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar in many ways. Some people attempt to associate it with the “Julian calendar”. Professor Ephraim Issac, a scholar of Semitic Languages and professor of Ethiopian languages at Harvard, strongly disagrees with this idea. His view is that “the literature further said, the Ethiopian year has something in common with the western year, having been derived from the same source.” Prof. Ephraim also said that many people mistakenly assume that Ethiopian calendar is Julian. “The Gregorian calendar is actually the revision of Julian calendar, which Pope Gregory edited or decided according to certain calculations,” he states. “But, months in the Ethiopian calendar which is based on Metsehafe-Hissab (Book of Calculation), the derivative of the Alexandrian Jewish calendar, have equal 30 days, and then Pagumen, which is the 13th month of five days and six in each leap year,” he said.3
The Ethiopian calendar is also 7 or 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar. Each month is also 7 or 11 days behind the Gregorian month. For instance, September 11 in the Gregorian calendar is September 1 in the Ethiopian calendar. If one comes to Ethiopia, he/she will be younger by 7 or 8 years. Imagine that! This distinction must be considered when converting Ethiopian literature into other languages or vice versa. As a translator, this can be tricky and takes time. In other words, when translation is done from Amharic to another language, 7 to 11 days should be added based on the month. In reverse, if the translation is done from English to Amharic, 7 to 11 days should be deducted from the source file’s date. If one doesn’t have such awareness, he/she would be lost in the translation.In producing high quality translation that is not only accurate but consistent, this is highly dependent on a very specific aspect that is inherently Ethiopian.4
The Challenges of Translating Idioms: “Gradually an Egg Can Walk on its Feet”
Idioms are used both in speech and written documents, especially in Amharic literature. Mainly it is used in the beginning of the paragraph or speech. It summarizes what is going to be said. If an idiom is introduced in the beginning, the reader would need to follow this line of thought that has been introduced in the form of an idiom. Furthermore, idioms shape the content of speech or writing.Even the key concepts would be described with the words that can catch the emotion of the listener or reader.
It is common in Amharic, both in literature and in the spoken language, that to capture the attention of the audience to convey your message, idioms serve a pivotal role in this process. This confounds the work of a professional translator or interpreter when communicating across different cultural customs or legal systems. Often there is no equivalent since the entry level reference point is intricately tied to the cultural milieu of the people that speak the language.
Idioms are one of the genres that are used both in speech and written documents, especially in Amharic literature. There are many idioms that are used in formal and non-formal speeches. One of them is “gradually an egg can walk on its feet.” It is often used when the parents give advice to their children. It emphasizes perseverance. The saying shows that if you are patient, good result will follow your patience. It is often used verbally, but it appears in written documents too.
Appreciating language requires a sensibility to the people’s culture and literature. Amharic is rich with idioms and a translator’s job (and that of an interpreter) is to capture the deep embedded meanings that arise in both written and spoken Amharic.5
- About Amharic Language, 12/6/2017, from Solomon Gebre-Medhin, 9/15/2014, Ethiopian Calendar, neither Gregorian nor Julian: Prof. Ephraim Issac, 12/11/2017 from
- Amharic.com, 2015,