Ethiopic (ēthēŏpˈĭk) [key], extinct language of Ethiopia belonging to the North Ethiopic group of the South Semitic (or Ethiopic) languages, which, in turn, belong to the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). Ethiopic (also called Geez or classical Ethiopic) ceased to be a spoken tongue in Ethiopia some time before the 14th cent. A.D., but it long remained the medium for Ethiopian literature and is still in use in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Modern languages of some importance now spoken in Ethiopia that represent the extinct Ethiopic are Tigre and Tigrinya.
Because Ethiopic is close to Old South Arabian lexically and grammatically, it has been suggested that its speakers originally came from S Arabia, whence they apparently began to migrate to Ethiopia in the first millennium B.C. The native Cushitic tongues of Ethiopia (which are also Afroasiatic languages) exerted a degree of influence on the newly arrived Semitic language or languages with respect to grammar, vocabulary, and phonology. Although the script used for Ethiopic and other Semitic tongues of Ethiopia is syllabic rather than alphabetic, it seems to be derived from the alphabetic South Semitic writing of the Old South Arabian inscriptions, to which it shows many similarities. The reason for the syllabic development of the Ethiopic script is not known. Since the 4th cent. A.D., when Ethiopia was Christianized, the Ethiopic script has been written from left to right, though previously the direction of writing was from right to left.
See A. Dillmann, Ethiopic Grammar (tr. 1907); A. B. Mercer, Ethiopic Grammar with Chrestomathy and Glossary (rev. ed. 1961); T. O. Lambdin, Introduction to Classical Ethiopic (1978).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.