It is typical in multiethnic countries that a single tongue comes to dominate as the nation's written language. In Ethiopia, this language is Amharic, a Semitic tongue.
The Afro-Asiatic (Hamo Semitic) language group, which includes the Semitic and Cushitic languages of Ethiopia, developed during the eighth millennium BC (BCE). Amharic has long been the dominant language, but Ethiopia itself was always a conglomeration of peoples. Today, Ethiopia's principle ethnic groups are Oromo (about 40 percent), Amhara and Tigrea (32 percent), and Sidamo (9 percent). Tigrinya and Orominga are widely spoken.
Both Amharic and Tigrinya are closely related to Ge'ez, the ancient language of Axum (Aksum) still used in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's liturgy. Ethiopia's Semitic languages are written in a unique script of two hundred characters which represent syllables and compound sounds rather than individual letters. The first writing of the Semitic languages has roots in the early languages of Egypt and Sumeria represented by pictorial symbols. The alphabet of Phoenician, also a Semitic tongue, evolved, through Greek, into the Roman alphabet (the characters on this page).
The Cushitic languages of southern and eastern Ethiopia include Orominga and Somali, among others. These languages use the Roman alphabet. The Omotic languages of the Omo River Valley are Afro-Asiatic but closely related to the Cushitic languages.
The Sudanese languages spoken in some western border areas are primarily of the Nilotic group. More than seventy native languages and dialects are spoken in Ethiopia. English is the most widely spoken foreign language. Literacy rates are quite low but improving.
In multi-ethnic nations such as Ethiopia, the use of an "official" language is sometimes criticised on the basis of its representing only a certain part of the population, with the minority populations reacting against the dominance of a foreign tongue. Thus we see the resurgence, in recent times, of the Gaelic languages (Irish, Welsh, etc.) in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and various Italic languages (Sicilian, Piedmontese, etc.) in Italy. In Ethiopia, an effort has always been made to preserve the ethnic and linguistic heritage of every group, while acknowledging that a single tongue is necessary if Ethiopians are to speak to the world with a united voice.