The primary language spoken in Ethiopia is Amharic, a Semitic language with its own special alphabet. I find myself once again cheated out of language training because my job in Addis is language-designated for French, which I already speak, kind of. The idea is that I’ll be working mainly with diplomats from other African countries rather than Ethiopians so French will be more useful at the office. This is probably true, but it also means that I will have to learn the language actually spoken in the country I’ll be living in on my own time and my own dime. This will be difficult.
My efforts to locate a tutor in Dublin have been fruitless. There’s no Duolingo for Amharic, no Rosetta Stone. I did find a program called Instant Immersion that has an intro course, so we’ll see how that goes. However, I have already succeeded in learning my first word, a very important word, through the magic of the internet: the Amharic word for foreigner is ferengi. Yes, just like in Star Trek.*
The alphabet is interesting too. Like Arabic and Hebrew, vowels are given secondary status. Unlike those languages, the vowel is always written, but as a mutated form of the preceded consonant. In practice this means that there are at least 7 and up to 12 characters for each consonant to show the vowel sound. Not just B, but ba, be, bi, bo, and so forth. Some of these characters are differentiated only by slight changes of position in the same little extra twiddles, so good penmanship will be important. Unlike other Semitic languages, it reads left-to-right.
Wikipedia tells me that the language includes some features I have found frustrating in other languages, such as the ever-popular gendered nouns and formal pronoun sets. Verbs agree not only with the subject of the sentence but with the object as well, which will add additional difficulty to learning conjugations but also means that you can express simple sentences such as “I see her” in a single word.
I don’t know how much of this I’ll get through in the couple of years I’ll be in Addis, but I think it’s safe to say it’ll be an interesting challenge.
*EDIT: turns out it’s pronounced more like “ferenji”, but close enough.