People & Culture

A wealth of languages

Ethiopia has the second highest population in Africa (after Nigeria), with 83 million people. This population comprises many different ethnic groups, including the Oromo, Amhara, Tigrai, Sidamo and Somali people.

All languages valued

Under the country’s constitution, all local languages in Ethiopia have official state recognition.

Over 70 different languages are spoken across the country. Amharic/Amharigna is used as the language of communication in many parts of the country and also by the government. Oromifa/Oromigna is the second most widely-spoken language. From secondary-school level upwards, English is used as the language of education.

Because of the country’s complex history, its languages fall across four classification types – Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilotic.

  • Boys holding 'I love Ethiopia' banner
  • Children in traditional Ethiopian clothes

The Semitic languages, such as Amharic/Amharigna, are descended from Ge’ez, the ancient language of Axum. They have their own unique script, with over 200 characters which represent a syllable rather than a letter.

Local Christian festivals

As well as Easter and Christmas, Orthodox Christians observe their own special festival days such as Meskel/Finding-of-the-True-Cross. This celebrates a time in the fourth century when Queen Helena (mother of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity) is believed to have found the cross of Christ, having been directed in a dream to where it was buried. During Meskel, the festivities include cross-topped bonfires and parades through the streets. See the video feature Meskel.

Very old Christian and Islamic religions

Christianity came to Ethiopia in the fourth century and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church plays an important part in the country’s culture, festivals and visual arts.

Islam was introduced in the seventh century and is now practised by about one-third of Ethiopians, mostly in eastern regions. To reflect the importance of Islam in some areas of the country, major Islamic festivals (such as Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha) are also observed as holidays.

Ethiopian music

Traditional sounds

Traditional instruments include a flute made of wood/bamboo (washint), a small drum (atomo) and the krar, a five- or six-stringed lyre.

Ethiopia’s traditional religious music is thought to date back to the seventh century, when St Yared is said to have invented the country’s form of notation. This is based on a pentatonic scale; so instead of seven notes in an octave, there are five.

Modern-day music is frequently a blend of different popular styles. However, Ethiopia’s musicians and bands have a very unique sound, influenced by the rhythms and music of whichever part of the country they come from.

Internationally, two female singers are among Ethiopia’s best-known music stars. Aster Aweke has been making albums for over 30 years and her acknowledged disciple is Gigi.