Tigrinya language

Last updated
Tigrinya text.svg
Pronunciation [tɨɡrɨɲːa]
Native to Eritrea, Ethiopia
Ethnicity Tigrayans
Native speakers
8.67 million (2022) [1]
Geʽez script (Tigrinya alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
Flag of Eritrea.svg  Eritrea
Flag of Ethiopia.svg  Ethiopia
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ti
ISO 639-2 tir
ISO 639-3 tir
Glottolog tigr1271
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Tigrinya notices at an Eritrean Orthodox Church, Schiebroek, Rotterdam Tigrinya notices at an Eritrean Orthodox Church, Schiebroek, Rotterdam (2021) 02.jpg
Tigrinya notices at an Eritrean Orthodox Church, Schiebroek, Rotterdam

Tigrinya (ትግርኛ; also spelled Tigrigna) is an Ethiopian Semitic language commonly spoken in Eritrea and in northern Ethiopia's Tigray Region by the Tigrinya and Tigrayan peoples. [2] It is also spoken by the global diaspora of these regions.


History and literature

Although it differs markedly from the Geʽez (Classical 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 Geʽez on Tigrinya literature, especially with terms relating to Christian life, Biblical names, and so on. [3] Ge'ez, because of its status in Ethiopian culture, and possibly also its simple structure, acted as a literary medium until relatively recent times. [4]

The earliest written example of Tigrinya is a text of local laws found in the district of Logosarda, Debub Region in Southern Eritrea, which dates from the 13th century.[ citation needed ]

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. [5]

Tigrinya (along with Arabic) was one of Eritrea's official languages during its short-lived federation with Ethiopia; in 1958 it was replaced by the Southern Ethiopic language Amharic prior to its annexation. Upon Eritrea's independence in 1991, Tigrinya retained the status of working language in the country, the only state in the world, until changes were made in Ethiopia in 2020, to recognize Tigrinya on a national level.


There is no general name for the people who speak Tigrinya. In Eritrea, Tigrinya speakers are officially known as the Bəher-Təgrəñña ("nation of Tigrinya speakers") or Tigrinya people. In Ethiopia, a Tigrayan, that is a native of Tigray, who also speaks the Tigrinya language, is referred to in Tigrinya as təgraway (male), təgrawäyti (female), tägaru (plural). Bəher roughly means "nation" in the ethnic sense of the word in Tigrinya, Tigre, Amharic and Ge'ez. The Jeberti in Eritrea also speak Tigrinya.

Tigrinya is the most widely spoken language in Eritrea (see Demographics of Eritrea), and the fourth most spoken language in Ethiopia after Amharic, Oromo, and Somali. It is also spoken by large immigrant communities around the world, in countries including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. In Australia, Tigrinya is one of the languages broadcast on public radio via the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service. [6]

Tigrinya dialects differ phonetically, lexically, and grammatically. [7] 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 differs somewhat from the conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Consonant phonemes

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 Geʽez language and which, along with [x'], voiceless velar ejective fricative or voiceless 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.

The charts below show the phonemes of Tigrinya. The sounds are shown using the same system for representing the sounds as in the rest of the article. When the IPA symbol is different, the orthography is indicated in brackets.

Labial Dental/
Velar Pharyngeal Glottal
Plain Lab.
Nasal m n ɲ ñ
Plosive voiceless p t č k ʔ
voiced b d ǧ ɡ ɡʷ
ejective tʃʼ č̣ qkʷʼ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ š x [lower-alpha 1] [lower-alpha 1] ḵʷ ħ h
voiced v [lower-alpha 2] z ʒ ž ʕ ʽ
ejective tsʼ [lower-alpha 1] xʷʼ [lower-alpha 1] q̱ʷ
Approximant l j y w
Rhotic r
  1. 1 2 3 4 The fricative sounds [x], [xʷ] , [xʼ] and [xʷʼ] occur as allophones.
  2. The consonant /v/ occurs only in recent borrowings from European languages.

Vowel phonemes

The sounds are shown using the same system for representing the sounds as in the rest of the article. When the IPA symbol is different, the orthography is indicated in brackets.

Vowels [8]
Front Central Back
Close i ɨ ə u
Mid e ɐ ä o
Open a


Gemination, the doubling of a consonantal sound, is meaningful in Tigrinya, i.e. it affects the meaning of words. While gemination plays an important role in the morphology of the Tigrinya verb, it is normally accompanied by other marks. But there is a small number of pairs of words which are only differentiable from each other by gemination, e.g. /kʼɐrrɐbɐ/, ('he brought forth'); /kʼɐrɐbɐ/, ('he came closer'). All the consonants, with the exception of the pharyngeal and glottal, can be geminated. [9]


The velar consonants /k/ and /kʼ/ are pronounced differently when they appear immediately after a vowel and are not geminated. In these circumstances, /k/ is pronounced as a velar fricative. /kʼ/ is pronounced as a fricative, or sometimes as an affricate. This fricative or affricate is more often pronounced further back, in the uvular place of articulation (although it is represented in this article as [xʼ]). All of these possible realizations – velar ejective fricative, uvular ejective fricative, velar ejective affricate and uvular ejective affricate – are cross-linguistically very rare sounds.

Since these two sounds are completely conditioned by their environments, they can be considered allophones of /k/ and /kʼ/. This is especially clear from verb roots in which one consonant is realized as one or the other allophone depending on what precedes it. For example, for the verb meaning cry, which has the triconsonantal root |bky|, there are forms such as ምብካይ/məbkaj/ ('to cry') and በኸየ/bɐxɐjɐ/ ('he cried'), and for the verb meaning 'steal', which has the triconsonantal root |srkʼ|, there are forms such as ይሰርቁ/jəsɐrkʼu/ ('they steal') and ይሰርቕ/jəsɐrrəxʼ/ ('he steals').

What is especially interesting about these pairs of phones is that they are distinguished in Tigrinya orthography. Because allophones are completely predictable, it is quite unusual for them to be represented with distinct symbols in the written form of a language.


A Tigrinya syllable may consist of a consonant-vowel or a consonant-vowel-consonant sequence. When three consonants (or one geminated consonant and one simple consonant) come together within a word, the cluster is broken up with the introduction of an epenthetic vowel ə, and when two consonants (or one geminated consonant) would otherwise end a word, the vowel i appears after them, or (when this happens because of the presence of a suffix) ə is introduced before the suffix. For example,

ከብዲkäbdi stomachልቢləbbi heart
-አይ-äy myከብደይkäbdäy my stomachልበይləbbäy my heart
-ካ-ka your (masc.)ከብድኻkäbdəxa your (masc.) stomachልብኻləbbəxa your (masc.) heart
-ን…-ን-n… -n andከብድን ልብንkäbdən ləbbən stomach and heart

Stress is neither contrastive nor particularly salient in Tigrinya. It seems to depend on gemination, but it has apparently not been systematically investigated.


Typical grammatical features

Grammatically, Tigrinya is a typical Ethiopian Semitic (ES) language in most ways:


Tigrinya grammar is unique within the Ethiopian Semitic language family in several ways:

Writing system

Tigrinya is written in the Geʽez script, originally developed for Geʽez. The Ethiopic script is an abugida: each symbol represents a consonant+vowel syllable, and the symbols are organized in groups of similar symbols on the basis of both the consonant and the vowel. [9] In the table below the columns are assigned to the seven vowels of Tigrinya; they appear in the traditional order. The rows are assigned to the consonants, again in the traditional order.

For each consonant in an abugida, there is an unmarked symbol representing that consonant followed by a canonical or inherent vowel. For the Ethiopic abugida, this canonical vowel is ä, the first column in the table. However, since the pharyngeal and glottal consonants of Tigrinya (and other Ethiopian Semitic languages) cannot be followed by this vowel, the symbols in the first column for those consonants are pronounced with the vowel a, exactly as in the fourth column. These redundant symbols are falling into disuse in Tigrinya and are shown with a dark gray background in the table. When it is necessary to represent a consonant with no following vowel, the consonant+ə form is used (the symbol in the sixth column). For example, the word ʼǝntay 'what?' is written እንታይ, literally ʼǝ-nǝ-ta-yǝ.

Since some of the distinctions that were apparently made in Ge'ez have been lost in Tigrinya, there are two rows of symbols each for the consonants ‹ḥ›, ‹s›, and ‹sʼ›. In Eritrea, for ‹s› and ‹sʼ›, at least, one of these has fallen into disuse in Tigrinya and is now considered old-fashioned. These less-used series are shown with a dark gray background in the chart.

The orthography does not mark gemination, so the pair of words qärräbä 'he approached', qäräbä 'he was near' are both written ቀረበ. Since such minimal pairs are very rare, this presents no problem to readers of the language.

Tigrinya writing system

See also

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  1. "Tigrigna". Ethnologue. Summer Institute of Linguistics. 2023. Retrieved 23 November 2023.
  2. "Tigrinya language". Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  3. The Bible in Tigrinya, United Bible society, 1997
  4. Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians, Oxford University Press, 1960
  5. Ministry of Information (1944) The First to be Freed—The record of British military administration in Eritrea and Somalia, 1941–1943. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office.
  6. "ቀንዲ ገጽ ትግርኛ". SBS Your Language.
  7. Leslau, Wolf (1941) Documents Tigrigna (Éthiopien Septentrional): Grammaire et Textes. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck.
  8. Buckley, E. (1994). Tigrinya vowel features and vowel coalescence. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 1(1), 2.
  9. 1 2 Rehman, Abdel. English Tigrigna Dictionary: A Dictionary of the Tigrinya Language: (Asmara) Simon Wallenberg Press. Introduction Pages to the Tigrinya Language