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Amharic’s Beauty

I’d like to believe that the Ethiopian Amharic language አማርኛ (“Amarigna”) is one of great depths to its deciphering.  With 33 main characters—each of which has 7 of its own sub forms of vowel pronunciations—the Amharic language boasts more than 200 letters, actually, symbols I mean.  Its genius lies in its extensive constructing.  Just one sentence or phrase alone can have more than one meaning, and not even be of the same scenario as the obvious, literal and face-front direct translation.  Instead it can be used on a whole other concept that can be considered, too, if read between the lines.  I call it the beauty of Amharic – so many wonderful “between-the-lines” hidden meanings.

The correct term is called ሰም ፡ እና ፡ ወርቅ – ቅኔ “sem ina work – qnie” which translates in English to “wax and gold.”  This formula of writing is used in Amharic that symbolizes a word or a sentence that can be understood as two different meanings.  The first meaning being the ሰም “sem” or “wax” and the underlying meaning being the ወርቅ “work” or “gold” in what (in Amharic) is called ቅኔ “qnie,” pronounced as “kee-nay” type of writing.  The term is derived from how a goldsmith works, constructing a clay mold from wax, then drains the wax to pour molten gold into the form.  This technique of language use is primarily used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for religious symbolism using the Ethiopian ግእዝ Ge’ez script and for more elegantly written kinds of Amharic poetry.1  The beauty of Amharic goes beyond basic understanding for the layman’s comprehension; the language has so many complexities.

Many of you might not think this to be the best example to share, but it’s my absolute favorite oldie Ethiopian song by an artist named Bezawork Asfaw singing about a lover of hers that is sort of hard to hold down to settle with.

One of her ቅኔ “Qnie” phrases goes:

አንድ ሲኒ ቡና ለአመሌ በቂ ነው                andi sini buna lamelay beki new

ሱሰኛ ፡ ነኝ ፡ ካልከኝ                                            susegna negn kalkegn

መደጋገሜ ፡ ነው                                                medegagemay newa

This directly translates to:

one cup of coffee is enough for me

but if you say you are addicted

then I guess I’ll have more

The ሰም “sem” or “wax” here is that although she is speaking of drinking coffee, she really means to say to her lover that, “I am fulfilled with one lover, but if you still have needs other than what I can offer you, then I will have to take on other lovers as well.”  It’s brilliant, and the song is amazing.  Come on, laugh, it’s funny and I know most of you, my Ethiopian readers, will know exactly which song I am talking about.

It’s obvious, of course, that without the actual blood and ancestral roots and beginnings, the language will not resonate as it would in the local man’s heart.  As Christine Kenneally says in her book, “The mystery lies in the nature of the spoken word.  For all its power to wound and seduce, speech is our most ephemeral creation; it is a little more than air.”

As far as how long Amharic has existed, the current research states that it has been spoken in Ethiopia since the late 12th century most specifically in different industries such as the military, the legal system, commerce, communications and religion.  Using a system taken from the ግእዝ Ge’ez script, which is commonly referred to as the father of all languages by many dating back 5000 years.Did you know that we have around 77 spoken tongues in Ethiopia?  I only speak Amharic.

When pondering when Amharic touched my heart, I go back to when I fell in love with my husband.  It was one of those, love-at-first-sights cliché occurrences that actually happened.  Instant immediateness.  The freezing of a moment in time that had within it hours, and almost years, in its divine human connection.  And then he spoke; in just one sentence, and the simplest at that, too, he paid me a compliment.  If he had said it all in English, the words would have just brushed over my shoulder.  Instead he said in his native tongue, Amharic; my second native tongue.  And it was beautiful.  It absolutely grounded me.  It was the feeling of the Amharic words spoken to me in flirtatious greeting that stopped my heart.  And long story short it was what made me pursue that feeling and end up with him, now the father of my two boys.

I am reflecting on my struggle with getting my son to learn French, as he is now going to a French school, and him refusing to want to communicate.  I was internally proud of the fact that my son is such a fluent Amharic speaker.  Would you believe that even I forgot to speak to him in English?  It’s a beautiful thing to me that my son expresses himself in his native language and not English as many would have expected him to do, being my son.  It allows him to thrive in Ethiopia’s rich culture.  It’s wonderful!

Just as with any other language, there are so many expressions that only the Amharic language can describe.  There are so many sayings and proverbs that have powerful meanings; most, if not all, are only understood if the culture and traditions of Ethiopia is primarily understood.  But it seems to me that of all languages, English doesn’t seem to have as many phrases or words that express feelings, emotions, or actions; this form of Amharic’s expressions are to me, our greatest secret—a beautiful secret that has the ability to force an outsider to want to understand our ways, our culture, our traditions in order to understand how to speak our language.  In many ways a secret that, if upheld with utmost respect, has the ability to not only preserve itself for generations to come but also to become a linguistic learning module of language, just as we see our Ethiopian ግእዝ Ge’ez being dissected and studied abroad.

Language is powerful for its ability to divide us but it is also implausible in its way of uniting us.  In light of our current, sad situation with our tribal divisions, with us fighting one another, lives lost daily now, I just thought of the only language I know and love. The beauty of Amharic.


 I would like to formally express here that in no way am I promoting a specific tribe’s language as far as Amharic being of the Amhara region’s beginnings.  This is purely a post about the love I have for the language I was raised to speak in Ethiopia.

*1 https://dictionary.abyssinica.com/qnies.aspx

*2 https://www.ethiopiaonlinevisa.com/amharic-the-ethiopian-language/