Ethiopia: Ethnic Groups, Ethnicity, and Language

Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1991.

Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, editors.

One way of segmenting Ethiopia’s population is on the basis of language. However, the numbers in each category are uncertain, and estimates are often in conflict. At present, at least seventy languages are spoken as mother tongues, a few by many millions, others by only a few hundred persons. The number of distinct social units exceeds the number of languages because separate communities sometimes speak the same language. More than fifty of these languages–and certainly those spoken by the vast majority of Ethiopia’s people–are grouped within three families of the Afro-Asiatic super-language family: Semitic (represented by the branch called Ethio-Semitic and by Arabic), Cushitic, and Omotic. In addition, about 2 percent of the population speaks the languages of four families–East Sudanic, Koman, Berta, and Kunema–of the Nilo-Saharan super-language family.

Most speakers of Ethio-Semitic languages live in the highlands of the center and north. Speakers of East Cushitic languages are found in the highlands and lowlands of the center and south, and other Cushitic speakers in the center and north; Omotic speakers live in the south; and Nilo-Saharan speakers in the southwest and west along the border with Sudan. Of the four main ethno-linguistic groups of Ethiopia, three–the Amhara, Tigray, and Oromo–generally live in the highlands; the fourth–the Somali–live in the lowlands to the southeast.

Ethio-Semitic Language Groups

The most important Ethio-Semitic language is Amharic. It was the empire’s official language and is still widely used in government and in the capital despite the Mengistu regime’s changes in language policy. Those speaking Amharic as a mother tongue numbered about 8 million in 1970, a little more than 30 percent of the population. A more accurate count might show them to constitute a lesser proportion. The total number of Amharic speakers, including those using Amharic as a second language, may constitute as much as 50 percent of the population.

The Amhara are not a cohesive group, politically or otherwise. From the perspective of many Amhara in the core area of Gonder, Gojam, and western Welo, the Amhara of Shewa (who constituted the basic ruling group under Menelik II and Haile Selassie) are not true descendants of the northern Amhara and the Tigray and heirs to the ancient kingdom of Aksum. Regional variations notwithstanding, the Amhara do not exhibit the differences of religion and mode of livelihood characteristic of the Oromo, for example, who constitute Ethiopia’s largest linguistic category. With a few exceptions, the Amhara are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and are highland plow agriculturists.

The Tigray (whose language is Tigrinya) constitute the second largest category of Ethio-Semitic speakers. They made up about 14 percent of the population in 1970. Like the Amhara, the Tigray are chiefly Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and most are plow agriculturists. Despite some differences in dialect, Tigray believe, as anthropologist Dan Franz Bauer has noted, “that they have a common tenuous kinship with other Tigray regardless of their place of residence.”

The number of persons speaking other Ethio-Semitic languages is significantly smaller than the number who speak Amharic and Tigrinya. Moreover, unlike the Amhara and Tigray, members of other Ethio-Semitic groups do not share the Aksumite heritage and Orthodox Christianity, and their traditional economic base is different.

Of the seven Ethio-Semitic languages found among the Gurage of southern Shewa, four are single tongues and three are dialect clusters, each encompassing four or five dialects. All correspond to what anthropologist William A. Shack calls tribes, which, in turn, consist of independent clan chiefdoms. Although most people accept the name Gurage, they are likely to specify a tribal name in addition.

The traditional social organization and religion of the Gurage resemble those of the neighboring East Cushitic-speaking Sidama and related peoples. In some cases, Orthodox Christianity or Islam has displaced the traditional religious system, in whole or in part. The Gurage traditionally depended on the ensete plant (known locally as false banana) rather than grain for their staple food and used the hoe rather than the plow.

In 1970 there were more than 500,000 speakers of Gurage tongues, but no single group numbered more than 100,000. Substantial numbers, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of all Gurage, live in urban centers, particularly Addis Ababa, where they work at a range of manual tasks typically avoided by the Amhara and the Tigray.

In 1970 a total of 117,000 persons were estimated to speak Tigre, which is related to Tigrinya; but that figure was likely an underestimate. The ten or so Eritrean groups or clusters of groups speaking the language do not constitute an ethnic entity, although they share an adherence to Islam. Locally, people traditionally used the term Tigre to refer to what has been called the serf class, as opposed to the noble class, in most Tigre-speaking groups.

Perhaps the most numerous of the Tigre-speaking peoples are the Beni Amir, a largely pastoral people living in the semiarid region of the north and west along the Sudanese border. A large number of the Beni Amir also speak Beja, a North Cushitic language. Other groups are, in part at least, cultivators, and some, who live along the Red Sea coast and on nearby islands, gain some of their livelihood from fishing.

Except for the fact that the distinction between nobles and serfs seems at one time to have been pervasive, little is known of early social and political organization among these groups except for the Beni Amir, who were organized in a tribal federation with a paramount chief. The other groups seem to have been autonomous units.

The Hareri are of major historical importance, and their home was in that part of Ethiopia once claimed by Somali irredentists. The Hareri (“people of the city”) established the walled city of Harer as early as the thirteenth century A.D. Harer was a major point from which Islam spread to Somalia and then to Ethiopia.

The Argobba consist of two groups. Living on the hilly slopes of the Great Rift Valley escarpment are small groups of Northern Argobba. The Southern Argobba live southwest of Harer. Northern Argobba villages, interspersed among Amharic- or Oromo-speaking communities, stretch from an area at roughly the latitude of Addis Ababa to southeastern most Welo. Most Argobba speak either Amharic or Oromo in addition to their native tongue.

Cushitic Language Groups

The Oromo, called Galla by the Amhara, constitute the largest and most ubiquitous of the East Cushitic-speaking peoples. Oromo live in many regions as a result of expansion from their homeland in the central southern highlands beginning in the sixteenth century. Although they share a common origin and a dialectically varied language, Oromo groups changed in a variety of ways with respect to economic base, social and political organization, and religion as they adapted to different physical and sociopolitical environments and economic opportunities.

Even more uncertain than estimates of the Amhara population are estimates for the Oromo. The problem stems largely from the imperial government’s attempts to downplay the country’s ethnic diversity. Government estimates put the number of Oromo speakers at about 7 million in 1970–about 28 percent of the total population of Ethiopia. By contrast, the OLF claimed there were 18 million Oromo in 1978, well over half of a total population roughly estimated that year at 31 million. Anthropologist P.T.W. Baxter, taking into account the lack of a census (until 1984) and the political biases affecting estimates, asserted that the Oromo were almost certainly the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, making up somewhere between a third and just over half its population. A widely accepted estimate in the late 1980s was 40 percent.

The Oromo provide an example of the difficulties of specifying the boundaries and nature of an ethnic group. Some Oromo groups, such as the Borana, remain pastoralists. But others, the great majority of the people, have become plow cultivators or are engaged in mixed farming. A few groups, particularly the pastoralists, retain significant features of the traditional mode of social and political organization marked by generation and age-set systems and the absence of a centralized political structure; others, such as those who established kingdoms along the Gibé River, developed hierarchial systems. Cutting across the range of economic and political patterns are variations in religious belief and practice. Again, the pastoralists usually adhere to the indigenous system. Other groups, particularly those in Shewa and Welega, have been influenced by Orthodox Christianity, and still others have been converted to Islam. Here and there, missionary Protestantism has had minor successes. Moreover, the Oromo sections and subsections have a long history of conflict. Sometimes this conflict has been the outcome of competition for land; sometimes it has resulted from strife between those allied with Amhara and those resisting the expansion of the empire. Some Oromo adapted to Amhara dominance, the growth of towns, and other changes by learning Amharic and achieving a place in the empire’s political and economic order. But they had not thereby become Amhara or lost their sense of being Oromo.

In the far south live several groups speaking languages of the Oromic branch of Lowland East Cushitic and in many cases sharing features of Oromo culture. Most have been cultivators or mixed farmers, and some have developed peculiar features, such as the highlands-dwelling Konso, who live in walled communities of roughly 1,500 persons. All these groups are small and are often subdivided. With an estimated population of 60,000 in 1970, the Konso are the largest of these groups.

Three other Lowland East Cushitic groups–the Somali, Afar, and Saho–share a pastoral tradition (although some sections of each group have been cultivators for some time), commitments of varying intensity to Islam, and social structures composed of autonomous units defined as descent groups. In addition, all have a history of adverse relations with the empire’s dominant Orthodox Christian groups and with Ethiopian governments in general.

The largest of the three groups are the Somali, estimated to number nearly 900,000 in 1970. Many Somali clans and lineages living predominantly in Ethiopia have close links with or are members of such groups in Somalia. The number of Somali in Ethiopia in the late 1980s–given the Ogaden War and the movement of refugees–was uncertain.

Somali society is divided into groups of varying genealogical depth based on putative or traceable common patrilineal descent. The largest of these groups is the clan-family, which is in turn divided into clans, which are further divided into lineages and sublineages. The clan-family has no concrete political, economic, or social functions. The other groups do, however, and these functions often entail political and economic competition and sometimes conflict between parallel social units.

The government estimated that the Afar (called Denakil or Adal by their neighbors) numbered no more than 363,000 in 1970. Despite their relatively small numbers, they were of some importance because of their location between the highlands and the Red Sea, their antipathy to Ethiopian rule, and the quasi-autonomy of a part of the Afar under the sultan of Aussa before the 1974 revolution.

Except for several petty centralized states under sultans or shaykhs, the Afar are fragmented among tribes, sub-tribes, and still smaller divisions and are characterized by a distinction between noble and commoner groups, about which little is known. Most Afar are pastoralists but are restricted in their nomadism by the need to stay close to permanent wells in extremely arid country. A number of them in the former sultan of Aussa’s territory have long been settled cultivators in the lower Awash River valley, although the imperial government initiated a program to settle others along the middle Awash.

Saho is a linguistic rather than an ethnic category. The groups speaking the language include elements from the Afar, the Tigray, Tigre speakers, and others, including some Arabs. Almost all are pastoralists. Most are Muslims, but several groups–those heavily influenced by the Tigray–are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

Little is known about the political and social systems of the ten or so groups making up the total estimated Saho- speaking population of 120,000, but each group seems to be divided into segments. None was ever marked by the noble- serf distinction characteristic of Tigre speakers to their north, and all were said to elect their chiefs.

The speakers of the Highland East Cushitic languages (sometimes called the Sidamo languages after a version of the name of their largest component) numbered more than 2 million in 1970. The two largest groups were the Sidama (857,000) and the Hadya-Libido speakers (700,000). Kembata- Timbaro-Alaba speakers and the Deresa made up the rest. Each of these two groups numbered about 250,000 in 1970. As the hyphenated names suggest, two or more autonomous groups speaking dialects of the same language have been grouped together. In fact, most Sidama, although calling themselves by a single name in some contexts, traditionally are divided into a number of localized and formerly politically autonomous patrilineal clans, each under a chief.

The Sidama and other Highland East Cushitic speakers are cultivators of ensete and of coffee as a cash crop. In areas below 1,500 meters in elevation, however, the Sidama keep cattle.

The Sidama and other groups have retained their traditional religious systems, although some have been responsive to Protestant missionaries. Others, such as the Alaba, the Hadya, and the Timbaro, have accepted Islam. Only the Kembata are converts to Orthodox Christianity.

There are six groups of Central Cushitic (Agew) speakers, five of which live in the central highlands surrounded by Amhara. The Bilen in the extreme northern highlands form an enclave between the Tigray and the Tigre speakers. Agew- speaking groups total between 100,000 and 125,000 persons. They are the remnants of a population thought to have been the inhabitants of much of the central and northern highlands when Semitic-speaking migrants arrived millennia ago to begin the process that led to the formation of such groups as the Tigray and the Amhara. It is likely that Agew speakers provided much of the basic stock from which the Amhara and Tigray were drawn.

The largest of the Agew-speaking groups are the Awi (whose language is Awngi), estimated to number 50,000 in 1970. The linguistically related but geographically separate Kunfel numbered no more than 2,000. The Awi and the Qimant, numbering about 17,000, retain their traditional religious system; but the Kunfel and the Xamtanga, totaling about 5,000, are apparently Orthodox Christians. The Bilen have been much influenced by Islam, and many have begun to speak the Tigre of their Islamic neighbors as a second tongue.

A special case is the Beta Israel (their own name; others call them Falasha or Kayla), who numbered about 20,000 in 1989, most of whom emigrated to Israel in late 1984 and in May 1991. Perhaps preceding the arrival of Christianity in the fourth century A.D., a group of Agew speakers adopted a form of Judaism, although their organization and many of their religious practices resemble those of their Orthodox Christian neighbors. The precise origins and nature of the Judaic influence are matters of dispute. Most Beta Israel speak Amharic as a first language. Agew occurs in their liturgy, but the words are not understood.

Except for the Beta Israel, all Agew-speaking groups are plow agriculturists (the Kunfel augment their livelihood by hunting). The Beta Israel had been cultivators until deprived of their right to hold land after a major conflict with the Amhara and their refusal to convert to Christianity in the fifteenth century. They then became craftsmen, although many later returned to the land as tenants.

The sole group speaking a Northern Cushitic tongue is the Beja, a Muslim pastoral group that numbered about 20,000 in 1970. (Many more live in neighboring Sudan.) Their language is influenced by Arabic, and the Beja have come to claim Arab descent since their conversion to Islam. Like many of the other nomadic pastoralists in the area, they traditionally were segmented into tribes and smaller units, based on actual or putative descent from a common male ancestor and characterized by considerable autonomy, although federated under a paramount chief.

Omotic Language Groups

Between the lakes of southern Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley and the Omo River (in a few cases west of the Omo) live many groups that speak languages of the Omotic family. As many as eighty groups have been distinguished, but various sets of them speak dialects of the same language. Together they were estimated to number 1,278,100 in 1970. Of these, the Welamo (often called Wolayta) are the most numerous, estimated to number more than 500,000 in 1970. Gemu-Gofa is a language spoken by perhaps forty autonomous groups, estimated at 295,000 in 1970 in the Gemu highlands. Kefa-Mocha, spoken by an estimated 170,000, is the language of two separate groups (one, commonly called Mocha, calls itself Shekatcho). Of the two, Kefa is the larger.

The relatively limited area in which they live, the diversity of their languages, and other linguistic considerations suggest that the ancestors of the speakers of Omotic languages have been in place for many millennia. Omotic speakers have been influenced linguistically and otherwise by Nilo-Saharan groups to the west and by East Cushitic groups surrounding them. As a result of the early formation of ancestral Omotic-speaking groups, external influences, and the demands of varied physical and social environments, the Omotic speakers have developed not only linguistic diversity but also substantial differences in other respects. Most Omotic-speaking peoples, for example, are hoe cultivators, relying on the cultivation of ensete at higher altitudes and of grains below approximately 1,500 meters. They also practice animal husbandry. Many in the Gemu highlands are artisans, principally weavers. Their craftwork has become attractive as the demand for their work in Addis Ababa and other urban centers has increased. In the capital these people are commonly called Dorze, although that is the name of just one of their groups.

Except for the Kefa–long influenced by Orthodox Christianity–and a small number of Muslims, Omotic speakers have retained their indigenous religious systems, although a few have been influenced by European missionaries. Most of these groups originally had chiefs or kings. Among the exceptions are larger entities such as the Welamo and the Kefa, both characterized by centralized political systems that exacted tribute from neighboring peoples.

Nilo-Saharan Language Groups

In the far southwest and along the country’s western border live several peoples speaking Nilo-Saharan languages. The most numerous of these are the Nuer and Anuak, both members of the East Sudanic family. Most Nuer are found in Sudan, whereas the Anuak live almost entirely in Ethiopia. Most of these people are hoe cultivators of grains, but many have cattle. A few, such as the Nuer, are seminomadic.

The Kunema are found in western Tigray. Perhaps because of the long Italian influence in Eritrea, they have been most affected by foreign religious influences. Although Orthodox Christianity had little or no impact on them, the Kunema often accepted the teachings of Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries. Two other groups, the Berta and the Nara, have been influenced by Islam. Otherwise, these peoples have retained their traditional religious systems. Koman speakers consist of several groups who live along the Ethio-Sudan border in western Welega. Among these little known peoples are the Gumuz, who, along with the Berta, are also called Bani Shangul. In the past, these peoples were often the object of slave raids by their neighbors in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Source: Country Study



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