Scott Hanselman

Explaining the Ethiopic Numbering System and a tiny lesson on Amharic

February 02, 2005 Comment on this post [7] Posted in ASP.NET | Speaking | Nant | Africa
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Fantastic stuff from Michael Kaplan today, he did me a favor and dissected the Ethiopic numbering system. He points us to two good sites on Ethiopic Numerals. One at and one at the venerable AbyssiniaCyberGateway.

You can test your browser's support for the Fidel here. Personally, I use the GF Zemen Unicode font (TrueType) as it appears to be the most complete with 608 glyphs.

For example, the number 2345 is represented by

2,345 = (20 + 3)*100^1 + (40 + 5)*100^0
      = 20 3 100 40 5
1373 136b 137b 1375 136d 
      = ፳፫፻፵፭

There's a lot of rich Ethiopian culture in the states. There are more Ethiopians in Washington D.C. than anywhere else outside of Addis Ababa. The NW, where I live, experienced an influx of Ethiopians and Eritreans during the 80s. There are many thousands in both Portland and Seattle.

I'd posted previously touting Word's support for Amharic. I went to junior college with a number of Ethiopians and picked up a colloquial chunk of Ethiopian Amharic, the language of the Amhara people.  It's a fantasticly interesting language to learn. Here's a few interesting bits.

  • Ethiopians and call themselves "'Abesha" or "Habesha" with a soft h. One would ask a person if they are Ethiopian by saying "Habeshane?" (Male) or "Habeshanesh?" (Female) or "Hebeshanot?" (Elder).
  • The Fidel is the Ethiopian alphabet - however, not that Amharic isn't strictly an alphabet, it's a syllabary. I have a number of Amharic dictionaries, as well as a number of "Fidel" hanging in my house.
  • Very roughly, Ge'ez is to Amharic as Latin is to English. If you go to an Ethiopian Orthodox church or read an older bible, they will use Ge'ez.
  • The syllabary uses a consonant root then modifies it with a vowel addition. This might make more sense looking at the SERA Syllabary for the Fidel. The root is on the far left as a GIF and is modified as we move to the right.
  • English speakers learn our A,B,Cs, but Amharic/Fidel learners sing "Ha, Hu, Hi, He, HE, h, ho" and do each consonant with each vowel as if they were doing a traversal of a grid.
  • Amharic is an "afro-semetic" language, which feels slightly like Hebrew with some Arabic twists.
  • A graphic illustrating the history of the written language is found here. Note the slighly Coptic pictographic look of the Old-North Semitic that morphs into a more structured, but still pictographic Old Abyssinian. However, you can see elements of current Ethiopic (Ge'ez) in all of them. The letters each take up one row in this graphic.
  • There isn't an explicit word for "No" - instead there are "negations" that indicate what you just said "isn't so." If you ask an Amharic-speaking Ethiopian what the word for "No" is, they will likely say "Aye" which is short for "Ayedellum" which means "It isn't so." So, it wasn't good (t'iru) you might says "t'iru ayedellum" indicating "good it was not."
  • The negation isn't added until the very end of a sentence, where verbs are typically added as well. That means you may be a while into a sentence before the "no" comes along.
  • "Amharigna k'wank'wa ba'tam aschaGari' nowe" = "Amharic language very difficult [it] is" versus "Amharigna k'wank'wa ba'tam aschaGari' ayedellum" = "Amharic language very difficult [it] is NOT"
  • There are a number of 'official' and quasi-official transliteratons to English lettering, most use ' to indicate glottal or aspirated tones. Meaning T and T' are different, with the latter being more explosive.
  • Some details on the UNICODE representation of Ge'ez are here in PDF.
  • COOL: You can GOOGLE in Amharic or Tigrigna (the language of the Tigre [teg-gray], or Eritrea)
  • You can learn lots about Amharic or Tigrinya with software this company or use the Lonely Planet phrasebook. Don't even try to pronounce it without a native (or a pompous white guy). They also have a rocking sweet Fidel-"Matrix" Screen Saver.
  • Supposedly the news of Christ's birth didn't reach Ethiopia for seven years, so their calendar is different. Today is the 24th of T'er 1997. They have 12 months of 30 days and 1 small 13th month that everyone takes as vacation of 5 days.

Wow, that was a lot of info that just came pouring out. Well, I've got more in my head so if you ever want to hear about it, come find me.

- ሰካት (s'ka't ~ Scott)

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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February 02, 2005 4:01
Dude, you live in DC? ... geez !!
February 02, 2005 4:03
No, I live in PDX. But I like hanging out on 17th in DC where there are 4 habesha megubbeyt (Ethiopian Restaurants) within 50 yards of each other. ;)
February 02, 2005 5:25
So that's how you unleashed your brain power :) Understanding so much from a culture so much different than yours can only keep your neurons fit, wow.
February 02, 2005 20:50
A[n African] friend of mine in Nigeria is working on software supporting Amharic for an airline over there. He reports many difficulties. Cool post
February 02, 2005 22:21
Your link to the font is hosed Scott - correct it with the following URL

There was an extra "http://" at the beginning
February 05, 2005 3:58
Allright I'll check that restaurant out !! :)
February 05, 2005 4:06
Sahil. I made a mistake, it's 18th street, not 17th.

My favorite is "Meskerem"

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.