Aramaic and Amharic: Language Similarities and Differences

Aramaic and Amharic are languages with strikingly similar names, being almost (but not quite) anagrams —that is words which are permutations of each other's letters.

The names of these languages have different origins. The term Aramaic comes from the Arameans, an ancient civilization that resided in the historical region of Aram, mentioned in the Bible and located in present-day Syria. In contrast, Amharic is named after the Amhara people, who reside in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

Given the resemblance of their names, it is natural to wonder whether Aramaic and Amharic are similar languages. Well, these languages do belong to the same linguistic family, the Semitic language family, which also includes Hebrew and Arabic. But Aramaic and Amharic are different enough that they are not mutually intelligible.

When two languages are mutually intelligible, speakers of one can understand the other with relative ease. This is, for instance, the case with Swedish and Norwegian, or Czech and Slovak. But in the case of Aramaic and Amharic, the differences are much more significant.

Aramaic is one of the languages used in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Aramaic, an ancient language of significant religious and historical importance, holds the distinction of being the language spoken by Jesus. There are passages in the Hebrew Bible that are written in Aramaic.

Aramaic is also one of the languages used in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a large collection of ancient religious manuscripts discovered in caves in the Judaean Desert during the middle of the 20th century.

Aramaic and Amharic use different alphabets and writing directions

Aramaic is written from right to left (like Hebrew and Arabic) whereas Amharic is written from left to right (like English).

Aramaic can be written using the Hebrew alphabet or the Syriac alphabet, both of which are right-to-left scripts.

Amharic is one of the official languages of Ethiopia. It is written using the Geʽez script which is a left-to-right script.

The connection between Amharic and the Rastafarian movement

Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement that emerged in Jamaica during the 1930s, has an important connection to the Amharic language. In fact, the word “Rastafarianism” comes from the Amharic word “ራስ” (ras) which means “head” or “chief” and the word “ተፈሪ” (täfäri) which means “feared” or “revered”.

This linguistic connection reflects the importance of Ethiopian culture and of its Emperor Haile Selassie I within the Rastafarian movement. Haile Selassie served as the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and is considered a central figure in Rastafarian beliefs.

Bob Marley, a world-famous Jamaican reggae musician and an iconic figure within the Rastafarian movement, emphasized this connection in his lyrics. A notable example is his song “War,” featured on the album “Rastaman Vibration.” The lyrics of the song are derived from a speech calling for peace and justice which Haile Selassie gave at the United Nations in 1963.

Vocabulary comparison

Aramaic and Amharic do share some similar vocabulary words, but not that many. Some examples are provided in the table below.

English Aramaic Amharic
father אַבָּא (ʾabbā) አባት (ʾabbat)
eye עֵינָא (ʿēnā) ዐይን (ʿäyn)
heart לבא (libbā) ልብ (ləbb)
husband בַּעֲלָא (baʿlā) ባል (bal)
sky שמיא (šmayā’) ሰማይ (sämay)
star כוכבא (kawkbā’) ኮከብ (kokäb)
night לֵילְיָא (lēləyā) ሌት (let)
language לשנא (leššānā) ልሳን (ləsan)
house בַּיְתָא (bayṯā) ቤት (bet)
dog כַּלְבָּא (kalbā) ከልብ (kälb)
name שְׁמָא (šəmā) ስም (səm)

In terms of vocabulary, the overlap between Aramaic and Hebrew is greater than that between Aramaic and Amharic.

Interestingly, Amharic vocabulary words also appear in the names of some of the cities in Ethiopia, because it is one of the country’s national languages.

Aramaic was an international language in ancient times

Initially, Aramaic was the language of the Arameans who lived in the historical region called Aram (the term means “highlands”). This region encompassed parts of modern-day Syria.

In the eighth century BC, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered Aram. Instead of causing a decline of the Aramaic language, this event had the opposite effect. In order to weaken local identities and prevent revolts, the Empire had a resettlement and displacement policy, which led to the dispersion of Aramaic speakers in different parts of the Empire.

Gradually the use of the Aramaic language increased until it became one of the official languages of the Neo-Assyrian Empire alongside Akkadian.

After the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Aramaic became one of the official languages of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian Empire is mentioned in both the Hebrew Bible and the ancient testament, particularly in relation to the destruction of Solomon's Temple by his army.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BCE, an event known as “the Fall of Babylon”. Aramaic was an official language of the Achaemenid Empire. This form of Aramaic is known as Imperial Aramaic.

At its height, the Aramaic language was widely used as a lingua franca in the Near East and Western Asia. A lingua franca is a language used for communication between people who do not share a native language.

Aramaic is still spoken today, but its usage has significantly diminished compared to its historical prominence. Modern Aramaic, often referred to as Neo-Aramaic, is spoken by small communities primarily in the Middle East, in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.