ethiopian language

Ethiopian Language Area

Charles Ferguson first proposed the Ethiopian Language Area (1970, 1976). (Various scholars may also use the terms Sprachbund or "Linguistic Area".) He posited a number of phonological and morpho-syntactic features that were found widely across Ethiopia (which included Eritrea at that time), including the Ethio-Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic languages, (though it did not include the Nilo-Saharan languages). Since then, others have pointed out smaller areas of shared features within this larger area, (Appleyard 1989, Breeze 1988, Sasse 1986, Tosco 1994, Wedekind 1989). One of the strongest features of the Ethiopian Language Area seems to be the use of the verb "say" as an inflected dummy element for an uninflected lexical base (Appleyard 2001, Cohen et al 2002).

Tosco has challenged Ferguson’s work, pointing out flaws (2000). He concludes that the Ethiopian Language Area is not valid, and suggests that Ferguson’s work reflects the politics of his time, when there was a strong emphasis on Ethiopian unity.

This topic is still not settled among Ethiopian linguists.


  • Appleyard, David. 1989. The relative verb in focus constructions: an Ethiopian areal feature. Journal of Semitic Studies 34(2): 291-305.
  • Appleyard, David. 2001. The verb 'to say' as a verb "recycling device" in Ethiopian languages. New Data and New Methods in Afroasiatic Linguistics: Robert Hetzron, in Memoriam, Andrzej Zaborski, ed., 1-11. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Breeze, Mary. 1988. Phonological features of Gimira and Dizi.‭ In Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst and Fritz Serzisko (eds.), Cushitic - Omotic: papers from the International Symposium on Cushitic and Omotic languages, Cologne, January 6-9, 1986, 473-487. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.
  • Cohen, D., M.-C. Simeone-Senelle and M. Vanhove. 2002. The grammaticalization of 'say' and 'do': An areal phenomenon in East Africa. In T. Güldemann and M. V. Rocador, eds., Reported discourse: a Meeting ground for different linguistic domains, 227-251. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Ferguson, Charles. 1970. The Ethiopian Language Area. The Journal of Ethiopian Studies 8.2: 67-80.
  • Ferguson, Charles. 1976. The Ethiopian Language Area. Language in Ethiopia, ed. by Bender, Bowen, Cooper, Ferguson, pp. 63-76. Oxford University Press.
  • Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. 1986. A Southwest Ethiopian Language area and its cultural background. In The Fergusonian Impact, vol. 1: From Phonology to Society, ed. by Joshua A. Fishman et al., pp. 327-342. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Tosco, Mauro. 1994. On Case Marking in the Ethiopian Language Area (with special reference to subject marking in East Cushitic), Sem Cam Iafet. Atti della 7ª Giornata di Studi Camito-Semitici e Indeuropei (Milano, 1° giugno 1993). In Vermondo Brugnatelli (a cura di), 225-244. Milano: Centro Studi Camito-Semitici.
  • Tosco, Mauro. 2000. Is there an Ethiopian Language Area? Anthropological Linguistics 42:329-365.
  • Wedekind, Klaus. 1989. Status and dynamics of Ethiopian vowel systems. Journal of Ethiopian Studies 22: 105-136.

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