Ge'ez script

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Geʻez (ግዕዝ)
Languages Ethiopian Semitic languages (e.g. Geʻez, Amharic, Harari, etc.), Tigrinya, Tigre, Blin, Meʻen, in low degree Oromo & Anuak
Time period
5th–6th century BC to present (abjad until c. 330 AD) Geʻez script
Parent systems
Child systems
Amharic alphabet, various other alphabets of Ethiopia and Eritrea
Direction Left-to-right
ISO 15924 Ethi, 430
Unicode alias

Ge'ez (ግዕዝ Gəʿəz) (also known as Ethiopic) is a script used as an abugida (syllable alphabet) for several languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It originated as an abjad (consonant-only alphabet) and was first used to write Ge'ez, now the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. In Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is often called fidäl (ፊደል), meaning "script" or "alphabet".

The Ge'ez script has been adapted to write other, mostly Semitic, languages, particularly Amharic in Ethiopia, and Tigrinya in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is also used for Sebatbeit, Me'en, and most other languages of Ethiopia. In Eritrea it is used for Tigre, and it has traditionally been used for Blin, a Cushitic language. Tigre, spoken in western and northern Eritrea, is considered to resemble Ge'ez more than do the other derivative languages.[citation needed] Some other languages in the Horn of Africa, such as Oromo, used to be written using Ge'ez, but have migrated to Latin-based orthographies.

For the representation of sounds, this article uses a system that is common (though not universal) among linguists who work on Ethiopian Semitic languages. This differs somewhat from the conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet. See the articles on the individual languages for information on the pronunciation.

History and origins

The earliest inscriptions of Semitic languages in Eritrea and Ethiopia date to the 9th century BC in Epigraphic South Arabian (ESA), an Abjad shared with contemporary kingdoms in South Arabia. After the 7th and 6th centuries BC, however, variants of the script arose, evolving in the direction of the Geʻez abugida (a writing system that is also called an alphasyllabary). This evolution can be seen most clearly in evidence from inscriptions (mainly graffiti on rocks and caves) in Tigray region in northern Ethiopia and the former province of Akkele Guzay in Eritrea.[4] By the first centuries AD, what is called "Old Ethiopic" or the "Old Geʻez alphabet" arose, an abjad written left-to-right (as opposed to boustrophedon like ESA) with letters basically identical to the first-order forms of the modern vocalized alphabet (e.g. "k" in the form of "kä"). There were also minor differences such as the letter "g" facing to the right, instead of to the left as in vocalized Geʻez, and a shorter left leg of "l", as in ESA, instead of equally-long legs in vocalized Geʻez (resembling the Greek letter lambda, somewhat).[5] Vocalization of Geʻez occurred in the 4th century, and though the first completely vocalized texts known are inscriptions by Ezana, vocalized letters predate him by some years, as an individual vocalized letter exists in a coin of his predecessor Wazeba.[6][7] Linguist Roger Schneider has also pointed out (in an early 1990s unpublished paper) anomalies in the known inscriptions of Ezana that imply that he was consciously employing an archaic style during his reign, indicating that vocalization could have occurred much earlier.[8][better source needed] As a result, some[who?] believe that the vocalization may have been adopted to preserve the pronunciation of Geʻez texts due to the already moribund or extinct status of Geʻez, and that, by that time, the common language of the people were already later Ethio-Semitic languages. At least one of Wazeba's coins from the late 3rd or early 4th century contains a vocalized letter, some 30 or so years before Ezana.[9] Kobishchanov, Daniels, and others have suggested possible influence from the Brahmic family of alphabets in vocalization, as they are also abugidas, and Aksum was an important part of major trade routes involving India and the Greco-Roman world throughout the common era of antiquity.[10][11]

Geʻez script used to advertise injera (እንጀራ) to the Ethiopian diaspora in the USA.

According to the beliefs of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the original consonantal form of the Geʻez fidel was divinely revealed to Henos "as an instrument for codifying the laws", and the present system of vocalisation is attributed to a team of Aksumite scholars led by Frumentius (Abba Selama), the same missionary said to have converted the king Ezana to Christianity in the 4th century AD.[12] It has been argued that the vowel marking pattern of the script reflects a South Asian system, such as would have been known by Frumentius.[13] A separate tradition, recorded by Aleqa Taye, holds that the Geʻez consonantal alphabet was first adapted by Zegdur, a legendary king of the Ag'azyan Sabaean dynasty held to have ruled in Ethiopia c. 1300 BC.[14]

Geʻez has 26 consonantal letters. Compared to the inventory of 29 consonants in the South Arabian alphabet, continuants are missing of ġ, , and South Arabian s3 s (Geʻez Sawt ሠ being derived from South Arabian s2 Himjar shin.PNG), as well as z and , these last two absences reflecting the collapse of interdental with alveolar fricatives. On the other hand, emphatic P̣ait ጰ, a Geʻez innovation, is a modification of Ṣädai ጸ, while Pesa ፐ is based on Tawe ተ.

Sign in Amharic using the Geʻez script at the Ethiopian millennium celebration

Thus, there are 24 correspondences of Geʻez and the South Arabian alphabet:

Translit. h l m ś (SA s2) r s (SA s1) b t n
South Arabian h l ḥ m s2 r s1 ḳ b t ḫ n
Translit. ʾ k w ʿ z (SA ) y d g f
South Arabian ʾ k w ʿ z y d g ṭ ṣ ḍ f

Many of the letter names are cognate with those of Phoenician, and may thus be assumed for Proto-Sinaitic.

Geʻez alphabets

Two alphabets were used to write the Geʻez language, an abjad and later an abugida.

Geʻez abjad

The abjad, used until c. 330 AD, had 26 consonantal letters:

h, l, ḥ, m, ś, r, s, ḳ, b, t, ḫ, n, ʾ, k, w, ʿ, z, y, d, g, ṭ, p̣, ṣ, ṣ́, f, p
Translit. h l m ś r s b t n ʾ
Translit. k w ʿ z y d g ṣ́ f p

Vowels were not indicated.

Geʻez abugida

Genesis 29.11–16 in Ge’ez

Modern Geʻez is written from left to right.

The Geʻez abugida developed under the influence of Christian scripture by adding obligatory vocalic diacritics to the consonantal letters. Although there is a clear Greek influence, it has been suggested that the abugida system comes from missionaries from India. The diacritics for the vowels, u, i, a, e, ə, o, were fused with the consonants in a recognizable but slightly irregular way, so that the system is laid out as a syllabary. The original form of the consonant was used when the vowel was ä (/ə/), the so-called inherent vowel. The resulting forms are shown below in their traditional order. For some consonants, there is an eighth form for the diphthong -wa or -oa, and a ninth for -yä.

To represent a consonant with no following vowel, for example at the end of a syllable or in a consonant cluster, the ə (/ɨ/) form is used (the letter in the sixth column).

[ə] or [a]
u i a e ə
o wa
Hoy h  
Läwe l  
May m
Śäwt ś  
Rəʾs r
Sat s  
Bet b  
Täwe t  
Nähas n  
ʾÄlf ʾ  
[ə] or [a]
u i a e ə
o wa
Kaf k  
Wäwe w  
ʿÄyn ʿ  
Zäy z  
Yämän y  
Dänt d  
Gäml g  
Ṣ́äppä ṣ́  
Äf f
Psa p  

Labiovelar variants

The letters for the labialized velar consonants are variants of the non-labialized velar consonants:

Consonant k g
Labialized variant ḳʷ ḫʷ

Unlike the other consonants, these labiovelar ones can only be combined with 5 different vowels:

  ä i a e ə
  ä i a e ə

Adaptations to other languages

The Geʻez abugida has been adapted to several modern languages of Ethiopia. Frequently, they required additional letters.

Additional letters

Some letters were modified to create additional consonants for use in languages other than Geʻez. It is typically done by adding a horizontal line at the top of a similar-sounding consonant. The pattern is most commonly used to mark a palatalized version of the original consonant.

Consonant b t d
Affricated variant v [v] č [t͡ʃ] ǧ [d͡ʒ] č̣ [t͡ʃʼ]
Consonant k
Affricated variant ḳʰ [q] x [x]
Labialized variant hw [qʷ] [xʷ]
Consonant s n z
Palatalized variant š [ʃ] ñ [ɲ] ž [ʒ]
Consonant g ḫʷ
Nasal variant [ŋ] [ŋʷ]

The vocalized forms are shown below. Like the other labiovelars, these labiovelars can only be combined with 5 vowels.

  ä u i a e ə o wa
  ä u i a e ə o wa

Letters used in modern alphabets

The Amharic alphabet uses all the basic consonants plus the ones indicated below. Some of the Geʻez labiovelar variants are also used.

Tigrinya has all the basic consonants, the Geʻez labiovelar letter variants, except for ḫʷ (ኈ), plus the ones indicated below. A few of the basic consonants are falling into disuse in Eritrea. See Tigrinya language#Writing system for details.

Tigre uses the basic consonants except for ś (ሠ), (ኀ) and (ፀ). It also uses the ones indicated below. It does not use the Geʻez labiovelar letter variants.

Blin uses the basic consonants except for ś (ሠ), (ኀ) and (ፀ). It also uses the ones indicated below and the Geʻez labiovelar letter variants.

  š ḳʰ ḳʰʷ v č ŋʷ ñ x ž ǧ ŋ č̣
Amharic alphabet        
Tigrinya alphabet    
Tigre alphabet                  
Blin alphabet    

Note: "V" is used for words of foreign origin except for in some Gurage languages, e.g. cravat 'tie' from French. "X" is pronounced as "h" in Amharic.

List order

For Geʻez, Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, the usual sort order is called halehame (h–l–ħ–m). Where the labiovelar variants are used, these come immediately after the basic consonant, and are followed by other variants. In Tigrinya, for example, the letters based on ከ come in this order: ከ, ኰ, ኸ, ዀ. In Blin, the sorting order is slightly different.

The alphabetical order is similar to that found in other South Semitic scripts, as well as in the ancient Ugaritic alphabet, which attests both the southern Semitic h-l-ħ-m order and the northern Semitic '–b–g–d (abugida) order over three thousand years ago.

Other usage

Geʻez is a sacred script in the Rastafari movement of thought. Roots reggae musicians have used it in album art.

The films 500 Years Later (፭፻-ዓመታት በኋላ) and Motherland (እናት ሀገር) are two mainstream Western documentaries to use Geʻez characters in the titles. The script also appears in the trailer and promotional material of the films.


Geʻez uses a system of ones and tens comparable to the Hebrew, Arabic abjad and Greek numerals.

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
× 1
× 10
× 100  
× 10.000

It has been claimed by Georges Ifrah that Ethiopian numerals were borrowed from the Greek numerals in the 4th century AD,[15] but this has been disputed by Ayele Bekerie of Cornell University, who claims that the Ethiopian system was developed independently.[16]


Punctuation, much of it modern, includes

section mark
word separator
full stop (period)
preface colon. Uses:[17]
In transcribed interviews, after the name of the speaker whose transcribed speech immediately follows; compare the colon in western text
In ordered lists, after the ordinal symbol (such as a letter or number), separating it from the text of the item; compare the colon, period, or right parenthesis in western text
Many other functions of the colon in western text
question mark
paragraph separator


Ethiopic has been assigned Unicode 3.0 codepoints between U+1200 and U+137F (decimal 4608–4991), containing the consonantal letters for Geʻez, Amharic, and Tigrinya, punctuation and numerals. Additionally, in Unicode 4.1, there is the supplement range from U+1380 to U+139F (decimal 4992–5023) containing letters for Sebatbeit and tonal marks, and the extended range between U+2D80 and U+2DDF (decimal 11648–11743) containing letters needed for writing Sebatbeit, Meʻen and Blin. Finally in Unicode 6.0, there is the extended-A range from U+AB00 to U+AB2F (decimal 43776–43823) containing letters for Gamo-Gofa-Dawro, Basketo and Gumuz.

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 8.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
Ethiopic Supplement[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 8.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
Ethiopic Extended[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 8.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
Ethiopic Extended-A[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 8.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also



  1. Himelfarb, Elizabeth J. "First Alphabet Found in Egypt", Archaeology 53, Issue 1 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 21.
  2. Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William, eds. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press, Inc. pp. 89, 98, 569–570. ISBN 978-0195079937.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Gragg, Gene (2004). "Geʻez (Aksum)". In Woodard, Roger D. (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages. Cambridge University Press. p. 431. ISBN 0-521-56256-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Rodolfo Fattovich, "Akkälä Guzay" in Uhlig, Siegbert, ed. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C. Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz, 2003, p. 169.
  5. Etienne Bernand, A. J. Drewes, and Roger Schneider, "Recueil des inscriptions de l'Ethiopie des périodes pré-axoumite et axoumite, tome I". Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. Paris, Boccard, 1991.
  6. Grover Hudson, Aspects of the history of Ethiopic writing in "Bulletin of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies 25", pp. 1-12.
  7. Stuart Munro-Hay. Aksum: A Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh, University Press. 1991. ISBN 0-7486-0106-6.
  8. "Geʻez translations". Ethiopic Translation and Localization Services. Retrieved August 17, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity, p. 207.
  10. Yuri M. Kobishchanov. Axum (Joseph W. Michels, editor; Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, translator). University Park, Pennsylvania, Penn State University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-271-00531-9.
  11. Peter T. Daniels, William Bright, "The World's Writing Systems", Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1996.
  12. Official website of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church
  13. Peter Unseth. Missiology and Orthography: The Unique Contribution of Christian Missionaries in Devising New Scripts. Missiology 36.3: 357-371.
  14. Aleqa Taye, History of the Ethiopian People, 1914
  15. Ifrah, Georges (2000). The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer. Wiley. p. 246. ISBN 978-0-471-39340-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Teresi, Dick (2003). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science--from the Babylonians to the Maya. Simon & Schuster. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-7432-4379-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Notes on Ethiopic Localization". The Abyssinia Gateway. 2013-07-22. Archived from the original on 2014-09-10. Retrieved 22 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links