Tigrinya language

Pronunciation /tɨɡrɨɲa/
Native to Eritrea, Ethiopia
Region Eritrea, Tigray Region
Native speakers
6.9 million (2006 – 2007 census)[1]
Tigrinya alphabet (Ge'ez script)
Official status
Official language in
Eritrea, Ethiopia
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ti
ISO 639-2 tir
ISO 639-3 tir
Glottolog tigr1271[2]

Tigrinya (properly Tigrigna; /tɪˈɡrnjə/[3] (ትግርኛ təgrəñña) is an Afroasiatic language of the Semitic branch. It is mainly spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, with around 6,915,000 total speakers. Tigrinya speakers in Ethiopia (known as Tigrayans; Tigrawot; feminine Tigrāweyti, male Tigraway, plural Tegaru) number around 4,320,000 individuals, and are centered in the northern Tigray Region. The Tigrinya speakers in Eritrea (Tigrinyas) total roughly 2,540,000, and are concentrated in the southern and central areas. Tigrinya is also spoken by emigrants from these regions, including some Beta Israel.[4]

Tigrinya should not be confused with the related Tigre language. The latter is spoken by the Tigre people, who inhabit the lowland regions of Eritrea to the north and west of the Tigrinya speech area.

History and literature

Tigrinya differs markedly from the classical Ge'ez language by having phrasal verbs, and in using a word-order that places the main verb last instead of first in the sentence. There also is a strong influence of Ge'ez on Tigrinya literature, especially with terms that relate to Christian life, Biblical names, and so on.[5] Ge'ez, because of its status within Ethiopian culture, acted as a literary medium until relatively recent times.[6] Aside from Ge’ez, Tigrinya itself has had development into the press as the language was incorporated in a ministry newspaper that was published by the British administration of Eritrea. It sold 5000 copies weekly and was at the affordable price of five cents and it was reported to be the first of its kind in the region.[7] However, The earliest written example of Tigrinya is a text of local laws found in Logosarda district, Southern Region, Eritrea and in northern Ethiopia, which dates from the 13th century during the reign of the Zagwe dynasty.[8] However, the phonology of the Tigrinya language along with the morphology still strongly shows the connection to the predecessor language of Ge'ez while the connection also displays Tigriniya's semitic character.[9]

Tigrinya along with Arabic was one of Eritrea's official languages during its short-lived federation with Ethiopia; in 1958 it was replaced with the Southern Ethiopian language Amharic prior to its annexation. During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) the institutionalization of Amharic began meanwhile the ban of the production, distribution, and selling of publications in was instated.[10] Upon the down fall of the 44 year empire in the seventies, the government shifted towards a Soviet influenced socialist form. With the new socialist government, the country was divided the into regions by the 15 largest languages and language justice was proposed for the languages forgotten during Selassie's reign, but in actuality, all languages other than Amharic only continued orally and were still secondary to the standardized Amharic.[10] By 1991, the country had divided into two major political groups, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which took over what is now modern day Ethiopia, and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which is now modern day Eritrea.Tigrinya retained the status of working language in the country of Eritrea after its independence came in 1991 the only state in the world to date to award Tigrinya recognition on a national level.


There is no generally agreed name for the people who speak Tigrinya. In Ethiopia, a native of Tigray is referred to in Tigrinya as tigrāwāy (male), tigrāweytī (female), tigrāwōt or tegaru (plural). In Eritrea, Tigrinya speakers are officially known as the Bihér-Tigrigna which means "nation of Tigrinya speakers". Bihér roughly means nation in the ethnic sense of the word in Tigrinya, Tigre and Amharic as well as in Ge'ez (from which all three languages originate). The Jeberti in Eritrea also speak Tigrinya in addition to Arabic.

According to Ethnologue, there are 6,915,000 total Tigrinya speakers. Of these, approximately 4,320,000 inhabit Ethiopia, with most concentrated in the Tigray region. Tigrinya speakers in Eritrea number around 2,540,000 individuals, and are centered in the southern and central areas. There are also over 10,000 Beta Israel speakers of Tigrinya.[4]

Tigrinya is the third most spoken language in Ethiopia after Amharic and Oromo, and the most widely spoken language in Eritrea (see languages). It is also spoken by large immigrant communities around the world, in countries including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. In Australia, Tigrinya is one of the languages broadcast on public radio via the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service.[11]

Tigrinya dialects differ phonetically, lexically, and grammatically.[12] No dialect appears to be accepted as a standard.


For the representation of Tigrinya sounds, this article uses a modification of a system that is common (though not universal) among linguists who work on Ethiopian Semitic languages, but it differs somewhat from the conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Consonant phonemes

Tigrinya has a fairly typical set of phonemes for an Ethiopian Semitic language. That is, there is a set of ejective consonants and the usual seven-vowel system. Unlike many of the modern Ethiopian Semitic languages, Tigrinya has preserved the two pharyngeal consonants, which were apparently part of the ancient Ge'ez language. Along with [x'], a velar or uvular ejective fricative, these phonological elements make it easy to distinguish spoken Tigrinya from related languages such as Amharic, though not from Tigre, which has also maintained the pharyngeal consonants.

The charts below show the phonemes of Tigrinya. The sounds are shown using the same system for representing the sounds as in the rest of the article. When the IPA symbol is different, it is indicated in square brackets. The consonant /v/ appears in parentheses because it occurs only in recent borrowings from European languages.

The fricative sounds [x], [xʷ], [xʼ] and [xʷʼ] occur as allophones.

Dental Palato-alveolar/
Velar Pharyngeal Glottal
Plain Lab.
Nasal m n ñ [ɲ]
Plosive voiceless p t č [tʃ] k kw [kʷ] [ʔ]
voiced b d ǧ [dʒ] g [ɡ] gw [ɡʷ]
ejective p' [pʼ] t' [tʼ] č' [tʃʼ] k' [kʼ] kw' [kʷʼ]
Fricative voiceless f s š [ʃ] (x) (xw) [xʷ] [ħ] h
voiced (v) z ž [ʒ] [ʕ]
ejective s' [sʼ] (x') [xʼ] (xw') [xʷʼ]
Approximant l y [j] w
Rhotic r

Vowel phonemes

The sounds are shown using the same system for representing the sounds as in the rest of the article. When the IPA symbol is different, it is indicated in square brackets.

Front Central Back
Close i ə [ɨ] u
Mid e ä [ɐ] o
Open a


Gemination, the doubling of a consonantal sound, is phonemic in Tigrinya, i.e. it affects the meaning of words. While gemination plays an important role in the morphology of the Tigrinya verb, it is normally accompanied by other marks. But there is a small number of pairs of words which are only differentiable from each other by gemination, e.g. /kʼɐrrɐbɐ/, ('he brought forth'); /kʼɐrɐbɐ/, ('he came closer'). All the consonants, with the exception of the pharyngeal and glottal, can be geminated.[13]


The velar consonants /k/ and /kʼ/ are pronounced differently when they appear immediately after a vowel and are not geminated. In these circumstances, /k/ is pronounced as a velar fricative. /kʼ/ is pronounced as a fricative, or sometimes as an affricate. This fricative or affricate is more often pronounced further back, in the uvular place of articulation (although it is represented in this article as [xʼ]). All of these possible realizations - velar ejective fricative, uvular ejective fricative, velar ejective affricate and uvular ejective affricate - are cross-linguistically very rare sounds. It is said to be that the differences between the various ejective fricatives are better comprehended when an individual fully understands and has fluency in the Tigrinya language.[14]

Many parts of the language is also believed to be borrowed as well. An example would be the /h/ sound having its origins from the Indo-European language, Italian. Another example of a loangated allophone would be the [p] sound in Tigrinya which is an allophone taken from Greek.[14]

Since these two sounds are completely conditioned by their environments, they can be considered allophones of /k/ and /kʼ/. This is especially clear from verb roots in which one consonant is realized as one or the other allophone depending on what precedes it. For example, for the verb meaning cry, which has the triconsonantal root |bky|, there are forms such as ምብካይ /məbkaj/ ('to cry') and በኸየ /bɐxɐjɐ/ ('he cried'), and for the verb meaning 'steal', which has the triconsonantal root |srkʼ|, there are forms such as ይሰርቁ /jəsɐrkʼu/ ('they steal') and ይሰርቕ /jəsɐrrəxʼ/ ('he steals').

What is especially interesting about these pairs of phones is that they are distinguished in Tigrinya orthography. Because allophones are completely predictable, it is quite unusual for them to be represented with distinct symbols in the written form of a language.Tigriniya's predecessor language of Ge’ez also follows this unique allophonic system as well as the modern lingua franca of Ethiopia, Amharic.[14]


A Tigrinya syllable may consist of a consonant-vowel or a consonant-vowel-consonant sequence. When three consonants (or one geminated consonant and one simple consonant) come together within a word, the cluster is broken up with the introduction of an epenthetic vowel ə, and when two consonants (or one geminated consonant) would otherwise end a word, the vowel i appears after them, or (when this happens because of the presence of a suffix) ə is introduced before the suffix. For example,

Stress is neither contrastive nor particularly salient in Tigrinya. It seems to depend on gemination, but it has apparently not been systematically investigated.


Main article: Tigrinya grammar

Typical grammatical features

Grammatically, Tigrinya is a typical Ethiopian Semitic language in most ways:


Tigrinya grammar is unique among the Ethiopian Semitic languages in several ways:

Writing system

Tigrinya is written in the Ge'ez script, originally developed for Ge'ez, also called Ethiopic. The Ge'ez script is an abugida: each symbol represents a consonant+vowel syllable, and the symbols are organized in groups of similar symbols on the basis of both the consonant and the vowel.[13] In the table below the columns are assigned to the seven vowels of Tigrinya (and Ge'ez); they appear in the traditional order. The rows are assigned to the consonants, again in the traditional order.

For each consonant in an abugida, there is an unmarked symbol representing that consonant followed by a canonical or inherent vowel. For the Ge'ez abugida, this canonical vowel is ä, the first column in the table. However, since the pharyngeal and glottal consonants of Tigrinya (and other Ethiopian Semitic languages) cannot be followed by this vowel, the symbols in the first column in the rows for those consonants are pronounced with the vowel a, exactly as in the fourth row. These redundant symbols are falling into disuse in Tigrinya and are shown with a dark gray background in the table. When it is necessary to represent a consonant with no following vowel, the consonant+ə form is used (the symbol in the sixth column). For example, the word ’ǝntay 'what?' is written እንታይ, literally ’ǝ-nǝ-ta-yǝ.

Since some of the distinctions that were apparently made in Ge'ez have been lost in Tigrinya, there are two rows of symbols each for the consonants /ħ/, /s/, and /sʼ/. In Eritrea, for /s/ and /sʼ/, at least, one of these has fallen into disuse in Tigrinya and is now considered old-fashioned. These less-used series are shown with a dark gray background in the chart. However, according to Dr. Aberra Molla, who computerized Ethiopic, every glyph has its unique purpose and no glyph should be marked with dark gray background because of misunderstanding as shown in the table.

The orthography does not mark gemination, so the pair of words k'ärräbä 'he approached', k'äräbä 'he was near' are both written ቀረበ. Since such minimal pairs are very rare, this presents no problem to readers of the language.

Tigrinya writing system

See also

Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Tigrinya_phrasebook.


  1. Tigrinya at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Tigrigna". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student's Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. 1 2 "Tigrigna". Ethnologue. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
  5. The Bible in Tigrigna, United Bible society, 1997
  6. Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians, Oxford University Press 1960
  7. Ministry of Information (1944) The First to be Freed—The record of British military administration in Eritrea and Somalia, 1941-1943. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office.
  8. "UCLA Language Materials Project Language Profiles Page: Tigrinya". UCLA. Retrieved 2006-11-10.
  9. Fellman, J. (2005). Lines on an African-Semitic language: The case of Tigrinya. Folia Linguistica, 26(1/2), 163-164. doi:10.1515/flin.26.1-2.163
  10. 1 2 Woldemariam, H., & Lanza, E. (2014). Language contact, agency and power in the linguistic landscape of two regional capitals of Ethiopia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 228, 79-103.
  11. http://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/tigrinya/
  12. Leslau, Wolf (1941) Documents Tigrigna (Éthiopien Septentrional): Grammaire et Textes. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck.
  13. 1 2 Rehman, Abdel. English Tigrigna Dictionary: A Dictionary of the Tigrinya Language: (Asmara) Simon Wallenberg Press. Introduction Pages to the Tigrinya Language
  14. 1 2 3 KIEVIT, D., & KIEVIT, S, (2009). Differential object marking in Tigrinya. Journal Of African Languages & Linguistics, 30(1), 45-71 . doi:10.1515/JALL. 2009.004


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