Ethiopia has 85 languages. Fidal was first used for its classical language, which is Ge’ez. Ethiopians also use it for Amharic, the national language, as well as Guragigna, Tigrigna and Adarigna. It was made for Semitic languages. But I enjoy writing English names with Fidal.
This chart is Fidal hahu. Most of the letters are a consonant plus vowel sound; so, each is a syllable or word chunk. Fidal is therefore a syllabary.
A few letters are for vowels only: e (as in ‘men’), u, i, a, e (as in ‘hay’), schwa (like ‘uh’), and o. All of the syllables consist of a base consonant plus vowel, The first syllable in each row is a base consonant followed by ‘e’ as in ‘men’; for example, ‘le’ (meaning ‘at’). ‘Ha’ is the exception, pronounced ‘hah’.
The base consonant is then varied 6 times to show different vowel sounds. All rows have the same order from left to right. For example, the 2nd row in the lefthand column reads le, lu, lee, la, lay, luh and lo. Hear the characters’ pronunciation. An alternative arrangement is abugida.
Which characters appear in the Roman alphabet; that is, in the ‘abc’?
I drilled myself in hahu. In Addis Ababa, building signs with enormous letters suited my pre-beginner reading level. I would sound out half a name before the car moved on. At the next outing, I’d decode the 2nd part. My reading is still not automatic. But Ethiopians have a saying: ‘Little by little, the egg walks by herself.’
Which characters are your favourite? How about the righthand column, 7th row down? It reads as ‘ye‘ and looks like a person. In front of a word, it signals possession – of or ‘belonging to’. No confusing ownership apostrophes needed like < the dog’s breakfast >.
National Ethiopian clothes are yagerlibs. One type is worn here. ye + ager + libsof + country + clothes
Here is our Yerada Lij logo, inspired by Fidal’s ye syllable.
ye+ Arada (part of city) + lij
of + Arada + child
In the lefthand column, 11th row down is ‘t’. The last character is toh. You can see this on Egyptian edifices built by Ethiopians. The significance of toh is discussed in Amharic in this video. View depictions of the ancient letter within the first minute.
View goatskin books presented by a monastic Genius of Geniuses. They feature elegant Fidal handwriting after 6 minutes.
Fidal is incorporated into contemporary design. It can be printed or embroidered on garments.
Here, both texts say the same thing. Amharic Fidal text is followed by a transliteration in English-language script. Which takes up less room?
There is in an exquisite Fidal font, top left corner of the home page for this silk site.
Does this mean that an Amharic or Ge’ez book would have fewer pages than an English-language translation? Learn Fidal. Save paper; save trees!
Pronunciation of Ethiopian Fidal characters is consistent. Like the name Fidel, it means faithful or trustworthy. This supports learners. By contrast, the English-language alphabet is pronounced one way only when sung, to remember the sequence of letters. However, many letters can be sounded out in a variety of ways. This is confusing and could explain literacy problems in native speakers of English.
If you learn the sounds for some characters, try writing English words or your name using Fidal. Introduced words in Amharic—like park and bank—are easily catered for by Fidal. They are shorter too!
‘V’—found in words introduced to Amharic such as ‘view’—was created by placing a horizontal line above the character for ‘b’. For ‘b’, see the lefthand column in the hahu chart, 10th row down.
The writing system is adaptable. Could it also accommodate the 2 English ‘th’ sounds, French ‘r’ and German ‘—ch’? As for South Africa’s click language… Hear Miriam Makeba! Fidal has characters for plosive sounds (strong k, p, s, t & ts). One of those could be adapted.
Ge’ez numerals are used today in the Ethiopian calendar, for telling the time and mathematics. In the chart at the top, you can find shapes similar to some Arabic numerals used in the West. Another Ethiopian innovation shared with the world?
Ethiopian Words that Enriched European Languages
I dispute 2 claims made in the above article. First, it states at the start: “The world’s earliest illustrated Christian book has been saved by a British charity which located it at a remote Ethiopian monastery.”
‘Saved’? This is post-colonialist speak for ‘stolen’. In London, they still make money by exhibiting cultural heritage removed from around the world. Ethiopian museums conserve their texts expertly. Treasures belong to those that made them.
Second, the exquisite bible is old, but the one below is 1,700 years older. It was written and illustrated 1,200 years before Christ.
Ethiopians who read Ge’ez understand this text today. Most native speakers of English cannot understand Shakespeare, who wrote only 400 years ago.
Ethiopian languages stabilised eons before European languages, especially Modern English. And they were writing thousands of years ago. They had plenty of time in which to influence the development of European languages.
List of Ethiopian Words Found in European Languages
According to Dr Aklilu, former president of Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian scholars influenced other cultures. They ranged far: to Ancient Greece, and elsewhere during mediaeval times. Ideas, technology and the language that went with it were exchanged. Yet dictionaries never mention Amharic, when speculating on the possible origins of a word. Have you found words that come from your home language in English or other languages? Feel free to share them in Comments.
This list contains European words possibly influenced by Ethiopian terms (I have placed those inside round brackets). A few of my ideas are there too. Ethiopian words are on the left. They are Amharic except for ‘brumby’, which is Oromigna; some come from Ge’ez or Hebrew.
abat – spiritual father (abbott, abbess, abbey). Usually attributed to Aramaic, which is another Semitic language.
abukado – avocado, endemic to Ethiopia and Kenya
adam – humankind
Aden – Eden (heaven). Abyssinia was also known as Aden.
aljebra – algebra. Invented by Abyssinians and practised by stonemason builders of pyramid / vaska.
amen – so be it (Hebrew, devotional); expression of agreement (in everyday Amharic). Listen to Neway’s song.
ananas – pineapple (identical in French)
ato saks – [alto] saxophone. Invented by Ethiopian Ato (Mr) Saks.
ayen – eye
ayer – air
beg – sheep (berger is French for shepherd)
behyer – clean air plant (medicinal)
berbere – Ethiopian spice mix (copied abroad as peri peri)
Biete Lehem – Place / home that is heaven; one of the Lalibela rockhewn monasteries (Bethlehem; heim; —ham for English places)
brumby – Oromigna for a breed of Ethiopian mountain horse, now found internationally (per Mesfin)
dantel – lace (French dentelle)
bursa – purse (bursar, bursary)
debre – mount; can be a monastery site (Debra)
embassy / ambassador – The world’s first was established by Abyssinians in Medina. (Mesfin pointed this out.)
Fasika – Ethiopian Jewish Easter (Italian pasqua)
fidal or fidel – letter, Ethiopian syllabic script or alphabet (fidelity). View an excerpt of Fidelio by Beethoven. This is his only opera.
gisila – zebra-striped panther (gazelle, Giselle)
inat – mother (inate, natal, nativity)
irgo = yoghurt
Kaffa – coffee-producing province in western Ethiopian (caffe, cafe, coffee)
karot – carrot
kofiye – cap (coiffure)
krestiyan – Christian
kroshe – crochet
lij – child (My liege; allegiance)
lomi – lime or lemon
Maji – The Three Magi were astronomers from the Maji River in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia. They followed a certain star 1,500 kilometres to Bethlehem in Israel.
mango – endemic to Ethiopia and Kenya
matimatik – mathematics
meda – venue (meadow)
medhanit – medicine, healer
Medina – capital city
mekabir – crypt (macabre). View Teddy Afro’s music film about Haddis Alemayehu’s classic novel Fikir Eske Mekabir or Love Unto the Crypt.
uzi – single shot of areki (garlic) liqueur; handgun invented in Ethiopia
vaska – reservoir, pyramid (washer)
werke – gold. Its linguistic ‘false friend’ is work, as in craftwork.
weyen – grape, grapevine, wine
wiha – water
zenaib – rain (popular girl’s name in the Middle East)
zinjibel – ginger
Bilingual people will have come across many more exported Ethiopian words. Share some in Comments.
Here are some from the Old and New Testaments: Abel, Abraham, Daniel, David / Dawit, Elias, Emmanuel, Gabriel / Gebriel or Jibril, George / Giyorgis, John / Yohannis, Iyasus / Jesus, Josef, Luke / Luka, Mark / Markos, Michael / Mikael, Moses, Noah, Paul / Saul or Paulos, Samuel, Edward / Tewodros, Thomas / Tomas, Zacharias / Zekarius; Elizabeth / Elsabet, Ephraita, Hana / Hannah or Anna, Mary or Mariam or Miriam / Mariyam, Rachel / Ra’el, Sara, Susan / Shoshana
Ethiopian astronomy has also donated terms to European languages. That is a vast topic.
The next list has Ethiopian words like ‘bang, crash, pop’; and ‘miaow, woof, neigh’. They mimic sounds; that is, they are onomatopoeic. I include atmospheric or evocative words. What do you enjoy in your home language?
didib – stupid
eskista – shoulder dance (ecstasy)
fandisha – popcorn. It is an Ethiopian invention.
ihiya – donkey (hee-haw)
inkitikit – rapid shoulder isolations. View the dance move after 1:30 minutes.
irgib – pigeon (its throat call)
kukulu – rooster
kizkiza – cold
lifil lifil – mumbo jumbo
qwanqwa – language
shoshowe – graceful tree that swooshes in the wind
teka teko – polka dot
tiqilil – correct
waf – bird (wing beats)
wanz – river
zaf – tree (rustling leaves)
zait – oil
zmta – silence (not speaking)
A Linguistic Treasure Trove
If you speak a language other than English, you will have your own list of linguistic treasures. Let me share a few Amharic delights.
fikir be fikir – ‘love upon love’ for a tiered skirt
alem – world. Constantly in Ethiopian prayers, our planet is found in names: Alemayehu (you have seen the world), Andwalem (one world), Alemayen (world eye). Ethiopia may keep to herself and not invade other countries, but she cares about everything everywhere.
ras – chief, head, mountain. Does your language have the same word for landforms and body parts? Do you have a strong earthy connection?
There are 3 ways to say yes in Amharic, as well as a subtle breath intake by listeners that encourages the speaker to continue.
tibeb is embroidery in panels; it also means wisdom
single shot 37 millimetre minishe = make you cured
semi-automatic 33 millimetre alben = not lying. It never jammed.
Of 2 single shot 50 calibre rifles, the name for the 900 millimetre nasmasr meant ‘shoot and tie up’.
The 2nd type was Emperor Menelik II’s rifle, the 1.5 metre widjigera that meant leg cutter. Thanks to Mesfin & Mama Teliqwa for Adwa 1896 weapon details.
All language is to be preserved, and none repressed. Yet up to the 1970s in south-west Western Australia, Noongar (First Nations) were beaten until they bled if they spoke Noongar. The people developed subtle non-verbal language – an eye or finger movement as they silently passed in the street.
My source of information is a talk given by an elder at a Noongar Language and Culture Workshop in Albany, WA on 13 April 2013.
 Garret, Martin. “Occitan and the Troubadors”. In Provence: A Cultural History. Oxford, UK: Signal Books, 2006.