Updated 17 April, 2022
This page brings together basic information about the Ethiopic script and its use for the Amharic language. It aims to provide a brief, descriptive summary of the modern, printed orthography and typographic features, and to advise how to write Amharic using Unicode.
አንቀጽ፡፪፤ እያንዳንዱ፡ሰው፡የዘር፡የቀለም፡የጾታ፡የቋንቋ፡የሃይማኖት፡የፖለቲካ፡ወይም፡የሌላ፡ዓይነት፡አስተሳሰብ፡የብሔራዊ፡ወይም፡የኀብረተሰብ፡ታሪክ፡የሀብት፡የትውልድ፡ወይም፡የሌላ፡ደረጃ፡ልዩነት፡ሳይኖሩ፡በዚሁ፡ውሳኔ፡የተዘረዘሩት፡መብቶችንና፡ነጻነቶች፡ሁሉ፡እንዲከበሩለት፡ይገባል። ከዚህም፡በተቀረ፡አንድ፡ሰው፡ከሚኖርበት፡አገር፡ወይም፡ግዛት፡የፖለቲካ፡የአገዛዝ፡ወይም፡የኢንተርናሽናል፡አቋም፡የተነሳ፡አገሩ፡ነጻም፡ሆነ፡በሞግዚትነት፡አስተዳደር፡ወይም፡እራሱን፡ችሎ፡የማይተዳደር፡አገር፡ተወላጅ፡ቢሆንም፡በማንኛውም፡ዓይነት፡ገደብ፡ያለው፡አገዛዝ፡ሥር፡ቢሆንም፡ልዩነት፡አይፈጸምበትም።
The Ethiopic, or Ge'ez, script is widely used for writing the Ethiopian and Eritrean Semitic languages such as Tigré, Amharic and Tigrinya. It is also used for Sebatbeit, Me'en, and most other languages of Ethiopia. In Eritrea it is used traditionally used for Blin, a Cushitic language. 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.
ግዕዝ gəʿəzə gəʿəz Ge'ez ፊደል fidälə (fidäl) alphabet
The Ethiopic (Ge'ez) script was developed as the writing system of the Ge'ez language, a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea until the 10th to the 12th centuries. The Ge'ez language is now only in liturgical use.
The basic consonant shapes come from the original Ge'ez script, which was an abjad. The script became an abugida when small changes were added to those shapes to indicate the following vowel sound. Each complete syllable is now represented by a single syllabic character in the Unicode repertoire. The original Ethiopic script contained 182 characters, although the basic (unmarked) consonants number only 26. Script extensions for other languages have added many more symbols, and often represent phonological processes such as palatalization, pharyngealization and labialization.
According to ScriptSource,
The script is believed by many to have derived from the epigraphic South Arabian script, of Proto-Sinaitic heritage, although there is some dispute surrounding this assertion; some also believe it to have descended from Egyptian hieroglyphics. According to the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the script was divinely revealed to Enos, grandson of the first man, Adam.
Sources: Scriptsource, Wikipedia.
The Ethiopic script is a featural syllabary, ie. each symbol typically represents both a consonant and a vowel, but vowel components are indicated by largely standardised adaptations to the base consonant shape. See the table to the right for a brief overview of features for the modern Amharic orthography.
The Ethiopic script runs left to right in horizontal lines.
Modern Amharic generally uses spaces to separate words, but sometimes still uses the Ethiopic wordspace character, instead.
The Ethiopic script blocks in Unicode list over 453 characters. Amharic uses 282 syllable characters.
Gemination and consonant clusters are not indicated by the script (although some diacritics have been proposed for that, which are encoded in Unicode). Silent vowels are typically indicated using the 6th order -ə syllable, which creates some ambiguity.
The script is unicameral, and has only three just mentioned combining characters, which are rarely used. Characters don't interact, and the baseline is standard.
Ethiopic does have a range of native punctuation. In particular, although words in modern text are increasingly separated by spaces they may be separated by a wordspace character instead.
Ethiopic also has its own numeric digits, which are used in an additive way, rather than in the way numbers are formed in Western text.
This section looks at the vowel and consonant sounds of Amharic.
Click on the sounds to reveal locations in this document where they are mentioned.
Source Comrie. Phones in a lighter colour are non-native or allophones.
Much writing on Amharic has ɑ̈ and ə respectively for ə and ɨ. The sound ɨ only rarely occurs at the end of a word, and ə rarely at the beginning of a word. These letters are also often elided by adjacent vowel sounds.c
ɛ appears as a variant of e after h.c
|stop||p b||t d||k ɡ||ʔ|
|fricative||f v||s z||ʃ ʒ||h|
The basic consonant shapes come from the original Ge'ez script, which was an abjad. The script became an abugida when small changes were added to those shapes to indicate the following vowel sound. Each complete syllable is now represented by a single character in the Unicode repertoire.
Each consonant can be followed by one of 8 vowel sounds (though not all combinations exist). The original consonant shape is known as the 'first order', and the other shapes constitute incremental orders. The illustration below is based on the m consonant.
The basic set of Ethiopic syllables comprises the following consonants. The pronunciation listed is for Amharic (which has lost the phonetic distinction between some characters).
The አ and ዐ series have lost their consonantal values and are vowel carriers in modern Amharic. Though sometimes the glottal stop ʔ is pronounced in word initial and medial positions, it is often dropped,wa eg. አየሩ
Three consonants also have a -yä ending:
Then there is a set of common labiovelar consonants, which are followed by only 5 of the vowel sounds.
Additional sets of consonants match the sounds in the various different languages that use the Ethiopic script. Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, and Blin each use a selection from the following set.
The remaining characters, largely including those in the extension blocks, are for writing the sounds of other languages, such as Me'en, Sebatbeit, Gamo-Gofa-Dawro, Basketo, Gumuz, etc. The set of extended characters also includes combinations of the previous characters with an oa vowel sound.
The following is a list of syllabic characters used for Amharic.
Many words end with a consonant followed by no vowel. These are written using the ə syllable, eg. ስም however the syllable is ambiguous – in some cases the vowel could be read.
The same syllable is also used for clusters of consonants with no intervening vowels, eg. ኢትዮጵያ
Doubled consonants do occur in Amharic and other languages that use the Ethiopic script, and they can be important to distinguish one word from another. However, they are not marked in the script (see the previous example for Ethiopia).
According to Wikipediawa, Ethiopian novelist Haddis Alemayehu, who was an advocate of Amharic orthography reform, indicated gemination in his novel Fǝqǝr Ǝskä Mäqabǝr by placing a dot above the characters whose consonants were geminated, but this practice is rare. Unicode provides ◌፟ [U+135F ETHIOPIC COMBINING GEMINATION MARK] for this, or sometimes ◌̎ [U+030E COMBINING DOUBLE VERTICAL LINE ABOVE] is used.
The Ethiopic blocks have only 3 combining characters.
The first is for vowel length, the second a gemination indicator (see silent), and the third a combination of both.
European digits are often used, but Ethiopic also has a native numbering system that is additive in nature.
You can generate Ethiopic numbers using the Counter styles converter app. Type in a number at the top and select ethiopic-numeric from the select box.
Note that there should be an unbroken line across the whole number at the top and bottom.
The Ethiopic script runs left to right in horizontal lines.
bidi_class properties for characters in the Amharic language.
This section brings together information about the following topics: writing styles; cursive text; context-based shaping; context-based positioning; baselines, line height, etc.; font styles; case & other character transforms.
You can experiment with examples using the Ethiopic character app.
Since there are no combining characters and no joining behaviour, the Ethiopic script has no contextual variation or placement of glyphs. Nor is printed text cursive.
The orthography has no case distinction, and no special transforms are needed to convert between characters.
Modern Amharic tends to use word boundaries for line wrapping and basic justification, but may also wrap at character boundaries (with some extra rules for handling punctuation and wordspace). Phrase, sentence, and section delimiters are described in phrase.
This section focuses on units at the sub-word level.
In Amharic, a typographic unit is normally equivalent to a single character, eg.
On the very rare occasions when a combining mark is used, the unit is a standard CCS.
Words are often separated by spaces in modern text, however they may be separated by ፡ [U+1361 ETHIOPIC WORDSPACE] instead (see the Amharic sample text above).
Observation: A sample page from Wikipedia mixes both approaches on the same page. Some paragraphs use the wordspace and others just separate words with spaces. Where the wordspace is used, it is surrounded by ordinary spaces.
, [U+002C COMMA]
? [U+003F QUESTION MARK]
! [U+0021 EXCLAMATION MARK]
|paragraph||፨ [U+1368 ETHIOPIC PARAGRAPH SEPARATOR]|
|section||፠ [U+1360 ETHIOPIC SECTION MARK]|
Some Western punctuation may be used, but Ethiopic has several native punctuation characters.
Phrases. ፣ [U+1363 ETHIOPIC COMMA] or ፥ [U+1365 ETHIOPIC COLON] are both roughly equivalent to a comma. They are considered glyph variants for the same punctuation symbol, although usually a document will consistently use only one or the other. The latter is more common in religious texts, and is used for biblical references where English would use a colon, eg. ማቴ4፥23
፤ [U+1364 ETHIOPIC SEMICOLON]
፦ [U+1366 ETHIOPIC PREFACE COLON] Follows clarification of a subject. It will preface validation statements and examples that support the clarification.
Sentences.። [U+1362 ETHIOPIC FULL STOP] may be used, immediately preceded by a wordspace character. It is also possible to find the ASCII full stop used.
Similarly, western question marks may be used, or ፧ [U+1367 ETHIOPIC QUESTION MARK].
¡ [U+00A1 INVERTED EXCLAMATION MARK], known as “Timirte Slaq” (ትእምርተ፡ሥላቅ) appears at the end of a sentence and denotes sarcasm.e,2.3.1
Paragraphs. ፨ [U+1368 ETHIOPIC PARAGRAPH SEPARATOR] may be used to conclude the final paragraph of a section in lieu of ።. Like ፠ below, three or more may also be used together on a line of their own.
Sections.፠ [U+1360 ETHIOPIC SECTION MARK] Used to divide sections or subsections; generally three or more used together on a line of their own.
( [U+0028 LEFT PARENTHESIS]
) [U+0029 RIGHT PARENTHESIS]
“ [U+201C LEFT DOUBLE QUOTATION MARK]
” [U+201D RIGHT DOUBLE QUOTATION MARK]
Modern Ethiopic text is generally wrapped word by word. If wordspace separators are used, they are wrapped with the word, and should not appear alone at the beginning of a line.g116
Older Ethiopic text is generally wrapped wherever it hits the right margin, whether wordspace or space are used to separate words, and no hyphenation occurs.g116
Observation: It's possible that a rule is sometimes applied to letter-based wrapping that requires a minimum of 2 letters at the end of a line for printed text (as opposed to handwritten manuscripts). This was observed by Daniel Yacob in the book, "ዜናዊ ፓርልማ" from 1953 (1946EC).g116,#issuecomment-582412224
Whatever style of wrapping is used, however, the following punctuation wrapping rules apply (which means that a wordspace separator should not appear at the start of a line, even when letter-by-letter wrapping occurs).
A new line should not start with a space, math operator or any of the following:e,#ethiopic_punctuation
Show (default) line-breaking properties for characters in the Amharic language.
Full justification is a common typesetting practice. Ethiopic is usually justified by adjusting inter-word spacing. Where words are separated with ፡ [U+1361 ETHIOPIC WORDSPACE] this is still the case, however no extra spaces should be added – the width of the wordspace character changes.
When the wordspace character width changes, the wordspace glyph may be centred, or may appear alongside the previous word, depending on preference.
You can experiment with counter styles using the Counter styles converter. Patterns for using these styles in CSS can be found in Ready-made Counter Styles, and we use the names of those patterns here to refer to the various styles.
The Amharic language uses numeric and alphabetic styles.
Ethiopic uses a decimal numeric style based on ASCII digits.
It also uses a much more complicated numeric system, described in the CSS Counter Styles specification as the
ethiopic-numeric style. The system uses the following 18 digits, and combines them in a somewhat complicated manner.
The amharic alphabetic style for the Amharic language uses these letters.
Another alphabetic style, which we will call amharic-abegede, uses the same letters, but in a different order.
The most common suffix for lists in Amharic is / [U+002F SOLIDUS + U+0020 SPACE] after the counter.
This section is for any features that are specific to Ethiopic and that relate to the following topics: general page layout & progression; grids & tables; notes, footnotes, etc; forms & user interaction; page numbering, running headers, etc.