Language Primer: Amharic

‘To understand Amharic is to understand Ethiopia,’ a whispering man once said before writhingly evaporating into the ether. Sadly, such musings were all we heard from this supernatural apparition; any more meditations – or even indications of its existence – have long been lost to the ages. 

Still, ostentatious exits aside, the bon mot bears a kernel of truth. As the second most widely spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic, Amharic a prominent vernacular; as Ethiopia’s primary lingua franca it is the main means of communication for many in the Horn of Africa. Both languages have their similarities, for sure, but at some point, Amharic went off on its trajectory and never came back. If you want to have even the vaguest idea of what’s going on in Ethiopia, knowing some Amharic is, officially, A Very Good Idea.

It’s the perfect language for its mother country. A tongue twister in design and practice, the language is hard to grasp and laborious to master. When you consider Ethiopia is the only African nation never to be fully colonised – save for a brief Italian incursion – the symbiosis between independence, pride and the native tongue becomes clear. 

(Language Editor: Be warned. The effort is worth it, but if anything symbolises the difficulty of travel in Ethiopia, it’s that.)

Still, see how far it’ll get you. Whether you can speak Amharic or not is academic. The guy at Lalibela will still yell at you, the kids will still throw stones at you in Harar, touts will still swamp you at Bahir Dar bus station. Linguistic knowledge does not automatically translate to ease of travel, and nowhere is that more perfectly illustrated than Ethiopia. Any country with a six-syllable word for ‘thank you’ is clearly not the simplest place to navigate. Travel in the country is difficult, and foreigners receive few concessions. 

Read more: Desperation grows as erosion plunges Malawian village into crisis.

Ethiopia is a magnificent country with stunning scenery, aeons of mysterious history, great music, and delicious food. Be prepared, have your wits about you, stand your ground and always carry a towel. You never know when you’ll need it.


Hello – Salam/Salamnachu/Salam’she

Goodbye – Dehna hun

Goodnight – Dehan ader

Good morning – Indemin aderk

Good evening – Idemin amesheh

Good afternoon – Indemin waik

Thank you – Abasaganala

Please – Ibakeh

How are you? – Danana/danan’she?

I’m fine – Dehna

I – Ene

You – Anta / anci

He / she – Essu / esswa

We – Enna

They – Annasu

You (pl) – Annaitu

What’s your name? – Semehena newoo / sirmirh manno

My name is… – Yenyay sirm…

Where do you come from? – Keyet new yemetyahu?

I come from (England) – (Kengkliz) new yemetyahu

I am – Enay

You are – Anter(m) / anchie(f)

I like your nose – Afencha (‘she) yamra

Nose – Afencha / afencha’she

Bald – Eras / girtaba

Man – Gudunt

Woman – Sēti

Boy – Wenidi

Girl – Sēti

I am a bald man – Enay girtaba sow nernyh

Beautiful – Konjo

This is beautiful – Yeeher konjo boatanew

Teacher – Mermhul

Student – Tamari

How much is…? – Min yahil…? / Wayaw sint new?

Cheap – Rikash

Expensive – Wid

Do you have…? Alehi weyi

Today – Zarie

Tomorrow – Nege

Day after tomorrow – Kenege wediya

Yesterday – Tinantina

Now – Ahun

Later – Behuwala

Swim – Mwanyet

Boat – Jerlba

Shop – Meshegya

Water – Wooha

Yes – Awe

No – Ay

Restaurant – Migibi bēti

Hotel – Hotēli

Bar – Bunabiet

Bank – Bank

Airport – Ayeri marefīya

Tram station – Babur tyabiew

Bus stop – Yawtobus magonoiniyaw

Ticket office – Ticket yemigoreetyew

Where is…? – …yet new?

Cigarettes – Cigara

Lighter / matches – Melakosha (kibirt) 

Food – Migilo

Milk – Wetet

Do you have…? – …aleh?

I would like – Ifellgalehu


One Comment Add yours

  1. eyeinthetom says:

    Ethiopia: difficult but worthwhile.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s