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Ge'ez script

Ge'ez script

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

The Geʽez 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, Meʼen, 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 Geʽez more than do the other derivative languages. other Cushitic people in the Horn of Africa, such as Oromo, Somali and Afar used 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.

LanguagesEthiopian Semitic languages (e.g. Geʽez, Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Harari, etc.), Blin, Meʼen, as one of two scripts in Anuak, and unofficially in some contexts of other languages.
Time period
  • 9th–8th century BC to present
  • (abjad until c. 330 AD)
Parent systems
Egyptian hieroglyphs[1]
  • Proto-Sinaitic script
    • Ancient South Arabian script[2][3]
      • Geʽez
Child systems
Amharic alphabet, Tigrinya various other alphabets of Ethiopia and Eritrea
ISO 15924Ethi, 430
Unicode alias
Unicode range
  • U+1200–U+137F [31]Ethiopic
  • U+1380–U+139F [32]Ethiopic Supplement
  • U+2D80–U+2DDF [33]Ethiopic Extended
  • U+AB00–U+AB2F [34]Ethiopic Extended-A

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 Geʽez 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 Geʽez 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 Geʽez, and a shorter left leg of "l", as in ESA, instead of equally-long legs in vocalized Geʽez (somewhat resembling the Greek letter lambda).[5] Vocalization of Geʽez 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] As a result, some believe that the vocalization may have been adopted to preserve the pronunciation of Geʽez texts due to the already moribund or extinct status of Geʽez, 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]

According to the beliefs of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the original consonantal form of the Geʽez 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 Geʽez 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]

Geʽez 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 [[INLINE_IMAGE|//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Himjar_za.PNG/14px-Himjar_za.PNG|//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Himjar_za.PNG/21px-Himjar_za.PNG 1.5x, //upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Himjar_za.PNG/28px-Himjar_za.PNG 2x|s|h20|w14]] (Geʽez Sawt ሠ being derived from South Arabian s2 [[INLINE_IMAGE|//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/dd/Himjar_shin.PNG/14px-Himjar_shin.PNG|//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/dd/Himjar_shin.PNG/21px-Himjar_shin.PNG 1.5x, //upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/dd/Himjar_shin.PNG/28px-Himjar_shin.PNG 2x|Himjar shin.PNG|h20|w14]]), 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 Geʽez innovation, is a modification of Ṣädai ጸ, while Pesa ፐ is based on Tawe ተ.

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

Translit.hlmś (SA s2)r*s (SA s1)*btn
South Arabian𐩠𐩡𐩢𐩣𐩦𐩧𐩪𐩤𐩨𐩩𐩭𐩬
Translit.ʾkwʿz (SA )ydgf
South Arabian𐩱𐩫𐩥𐩲𐩹𐩺𐩵𐩴𐩷𐩮𐩳𐩰

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

Geʽez alphabets

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

Geʽez 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

Vowels were not indicated.

Geʽez abugida

Modern Geʽez is written from left to right.

The Geʽez abugida developed under the influence of Christian scripture by adding obligatory vocalic diacritics to the consonantal letters. 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 vowels, there is an eighth form for the diphthong -wa or -oa; and for some of those, 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).


Labiovelar variants

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

Labialized variantḳʷḫʷ

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


Adaptations to other languages

The Geʽez abugida has been adapted to several modern languages of Eritrea and Ethiopia, frequently requiring additional letters.

Additional letters

Some letters were modified to create additional consonants for use in languages other than Geʽez. This 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.

Affricated variantv[v]č[t͡ʃ]ǧ[d͡ʒ]č̣[t͡ʃʼ]
Affricated variantḳʰ[q]x[x]
Labialized variant*ḳhw
Palatalized variantš[ʃ]ñ[ɲ]ž[ʒ]
Nasal variant[ŋ][ŋʷ]

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


Letters used in modern alphabets

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

Tigrinya has all the basic consonants, the Geʽez 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 Geʽez labiovelar letter variants.

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

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 Geʽez, Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, the usual sort order is called halähamä (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 ʼ–b–g–d (abugida) order over three thousand years ago.

Other usage

Geʽez is a sacred script in the Rastafari movement. 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 Geʽez characters in the titles. The script also appears in the trailer and promotional material of the films.


Geʽez uses an additional alphabetic numeral system comparable to the Hebrew, Arabic abjad and Greek numerals. It differs from these systems, however, in that it lacks individual characters for the multiples of 100. For example, 475 is written ፬፻፸፭, that is "4-100-75", and 83,692 is ፰፼፴፮፻፺፪ "8-10,000-36-100-92". Numbers are over- and underlined with a vinculum; in proper typesetting these combine to make a single bar, but some less sophisticated fonts cannot render this and show separate bars above and below each character.

× 1
× 10
× 100
× 10,000

Ethiopian numerals were borrowed from the Greek numerals, possibly via Coptic uncial letters.[15]



Punctuation, much of it modern, includes

section markword separatorfull stop (period)commacolonsemicolonpreface colon. Uses:[16]
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 markparagraph separator


Ethiopic has been assigned Unicode 3.0 codepoints between U+1200 and U+137F (decimal 4608–4991), containing the consonantal letters for Geʽez, 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, Meʼen 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 [35] (PDF)
^As of Unicode version 12.0
^Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
Ethiopic Supplement[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart [36] (PDF)
^As of Unicode version 12.0
^Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
Ethiopic Extended[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart [37] (PDF)
^As of Unicode version 12.0
^Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
Ethiopic Extended-A[1][2]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart [38] (PDF)
^As of Unicode version 12.0
^Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

See also

  • South Arabian alphabet

  • History of the alphabet


  • Azeb Amha. 2010. On loans and additions to the fidäl (Ethiopic) writing system. in The Idea of Writing: Play and Complexity [39] , Alexander J. de Voogt, Irving L. Finkel (editors), 179-196. Brill.

  • Marcel Cohen, "La prononciation traditionnelle du Guèze (éthiopien classique)" [40] , in: Journal asiatique (1921) Sér. 11 / T. 18.

  • Gabe F. Scelta, The Comparative Origin and Usage of the Ge'ez writing system of Ethiopia [41] (2001)


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Sep 24, 2019, 7:09 PM
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Citation Linkwww.ethiotrans.com"Geʽez translations". Ethiopic Translation and Localization Services. Retrieved August 17, 2013.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgStuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity, p. 207.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgYuri M. Kobishchanov. Axum (Joseph W. Michels, editor; Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, translator). University Park, Pennsylvania, Penn State University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-271-00531-7.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgPeter Unseth. Missiology and Orthography: The Unique Contribution of Christian Missionaries in Devising New Scripts. Missiology 36.3: 357-371.
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Citation Linkwww.unicode.orgU+1200–U+137F
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Citation Linkwww.unicode.orgU+2D80–U+2DDF
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Citation Linkwww.unicode.orgU+AB00–U+AB2F
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