Tigrinya, often written as Tigrigna (/tɪˈɡriːnjə/) (ትግርኛ, tigriñā) is an Afro-Asiatic language, belonging to the family’s Semitic branch. It is spoken by ethnic Tigray people in the Horn of Africa. Tigrigna speakers primarily inhabit the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia (96%), where its speakers are called Tigrawot (“Tigrāweyti”(female ) or “Tigraway”(male) -singular- and “Tegaru” -plural-), as well as the contiguous borders of southern and central Eritrea (57%), where speakers are known as the Tigrigna. Tigrigna is also spoken by groups of emigrants from these regions, including some Beta Israel.
Tigrigna should not be confused with the related Tigre language. The latter Afro-Asiatic language is spoken by the Tigre people, who inhabit the lowland regions of Eritrea to the north and west of the Tigrigna speech area.
History and literature
Although it differs markedly from the classical Ge’ez (Ethiopic) language – for instance, in having phrasal verbs, and in using a word-order that places the main verb last instead of first in the sentence, there is a strong influence of Ge’ez on Tigrigna literature, especially with terms that relate to Christian life, Biblical names, and so on. Ge’ez, because of its status within Ethiopian culture, and possibly also because of its inherently simple construction, acted as a literary medium until relatively recent times.
The earliest written example of Tigrigna is a text of local laws found in the district of Logosarda, Debub Region (southern Eritrea) and Northern Ethiopia, which dates from the 13th century, during the time BahreNeGash (Eritrea’s former known name) and Aksum were the same peoples’ and inhabitants of the Tigray ethnic group of Abyssinia during the reign of the Zagwe Dynasty c. 900 A.D. – 13th century, before the official annexation between the Tigray and Tigrigna over 20 years ago.
In Eritrea, during British administration, the Ministry of Information put out a weekly newspaper in Tigrinya that cost 5 cents and sold 5,000 copies weekly. At the time, it was reported to be the first of its kind.
Tigrigna (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 Ethiopic language Amharicprior to its annexation. Upon Eritrea’s independence in 1991, Tigrinya and Arabic retained their status of working languages in the country.
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.
Tigrigna is the fourth most spoken language in Ethiopia after Amharic, Somali and Oromo, and the most widely spoken language in Eritrea (see Demographics of Eritrea). 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, Tigrigna is one of the languages broadcast on public radio via the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service.
Tigrinya dialects differ phonetically, lexically, and grammatically. 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.
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 and which, along with [x’], a velar or uvular ejective fricative, make it easy to distinguish spoken Tigrinya from related languages such as Amharic, though not from Tigre, which has also maintained the pharyngeal consonants.