French words in the Amharic language

In linguistics, using a word or an expression from another language, without translating it, is called “borrowing”. The term “borrowing” supposes that the other party loans, making these languages lenders. All the languages that are in contact with one another borrow and loan, and sometimes impose terms and expressions. All languages frequently borrow and loan words and the extent to which they do so is determined by the relationship they share. For example, the French language has borrowed 2,515 English words, 1,198 Italian words, 546 German words, 476 Spanish words, 249 Dutch words, 117 Portuguese words and 2 Amharic words. But in any case, this loan, sometimes forgotten by speakers, indicates a strong relationship, joining languages and peoples in a shared history.

French has only directly borrowed two words from Amharic: abyssin and négus. They appeared for the first time in the 16th century in the French translation of the Historiale Description de l’Éthiopie by Francisco Alvarez (1558). In French, négus means an Ethiopian king, but it also is the name of a type of sweet. Négus and abyssin are specialities of the town of Nevers, created in 1902 when Ras Makonnen visited France. They are soft chocolate and coffee caramels, covered in a hard caramel shell. Abyssin was also borrowed from Ge’ez (in Amharic ሐበሻ). The name Abyssinie was introduced into European languages in the 17th century, replacing the mythological name of Royaume du Prêtre Jean to reflect the name Habesha through which the peoples of the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia recognize one common identity.

Amharic in turn has incorporated French words in order to enrich vocabulary at a given time. Linguists have identified some 50 French words in the Amharic language. Since no lexicological work using a scientific method has documented instances throughout history, it is sometimes difficult to know if the source of a loanword is English, Italian or French. According to the only study of its kind based on newspapers in Amharic dating from the 1970s 1, it seems that more than 50% of loanwords in newspaper articles are from English, 25% from French, just under 25% from Arabic and less than 10% from Italian. The Italian language is very present in Amharic in the lexical fields of contemporary food (names of dishes and pastries) and automobiles (what must be learned to get a driving licence).

Amharic has incorporated some 50 French words for expressing different realities such as pomme, dossier or timbre. Few Ethiopians know that a number of words that they use on a daily basis come from the French language. For example, ሳንቲም [santim] centime; ቴምብር [témbər], timbre; ፖም [pom], pomme; ፍራንክ [frank], argent 2; ኮረጀ [korädjä], copier, imiter, and which is thought to come from corriger; ቢሮ [biro], which has kept the meaning and its French etymon bureau, etc.

Certain French words have had an original trajectory in Ethiopia. Lagar, understood to be an original term, means the quartier de La Gare, but also was fully incorporated into the Ethiopian toponymy Laga Har, which corresponds to the toponymies in the Oromo language. Coincidentally, their Oromo homophones evoke a very poetic image. Laga Har means a river of silk.

Loanwords are indicative of the periods of special relations between France and Ethiopia, relations they have enjoyed since 1897, as can be seen in political terminology: parlement, république, président, ministre d’Etat. These terms were first borrowed from French, before their English pronunciation became more prevalent 3. The same can be said for defence-related vocabulary: police, bombe. French titles are also used: général, ambassadeur, directeur, lieutenant, colonel evoking the diplomatic and military nature of the relationship initially formalized between the two countries. All of these loanwords refer to the French administration relating to governance and modernization, in the context of modernization of the Ethiopian State. Several Ethiopian dignitaries were sent to France to complete their studies and consequently introduced reforms in several sovereign areas. In 1914, 28 young Ethiopians attended the Lycée Français d’Alexandrie (secondary school run by French Secular Mission) to receive a French education and completed their university studies in Paris. Menelik II thus wished to enhance the knowledge of officials working in his country’s administration. In 1948, three of his former French-speaking students where in charge of the important Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Public Education and the Interior. In 1955, a commission made up of French people among other people were consulted in the codification of criminal and civil law, ahead of the drafting of the Ethiopian Constitution of 1994.

Other loanwords are derived from interactions between the two countries in other areas: industrie, économie, banque, centime. The Société Nationale d’Ethiopie pour l’Agriculture et le Commerce (SNEDAC), which was renamed the Société Nationale d’Ethiopie in 1928, before becoming the Development Bank of Ethiopia, was created with 60% of the total funds from the Société Financière de France. The term ሳንቲም [santim], centime, evokes this episode of French-Ethiopian shared history during which the French Hôtel des Monnaies minted money on behalf of the Ethiopian State. In 1893, Menelik II decided to adopt the national currency, which would be manufactured in 1894 in Paris, in 1905 and between 1922 and 1935. The same can be said for timbre, another word in the Amharic language, including the prototype which would be created in France. Certain terms also reflect intellectual concepts, such as discipline and morale, terms borrowed from French.

Many French terms were introduced into the Amharic language as a result of technological developments. After Emperor Haile Selassie commissioned France to construct the train between Addis-Ababa and Djibouti from1897 to 1917, transport-related words were introduced, which are still used to day: la gare, chauffeur, bicyclette, ingénieur, électrique, technique, etc. The word ባቡር [babur] (train in Amharic) was borrowed from Arabic, which was derived from the French word vapeur. At this time, locomotives, which were fuelled by coal, produced a thick cloud of smoke, vapeur (steam in English). Mechanics, railway workers and administrative staff were trained in French. Today, although trains no longer produce steam, the term is still used. Also, the word አውሮፕላን [ayəroplan] used in Amharic for an airplane, comes from the French and evokes the year 1929 in which the first French two-engine airplane built by Potez, at the time called aéroplane in France, arrived in Addis-Ababa, following the decision by Haile Sélassié to purchase French airplanes for his Ethiopian army. France would also help train pilots and technicians. Trains and airplanes were then considered to be instruments that were indispensable to the economic development of Ethiopia which was landlocked, as well as its opening to the world outside.

Moreover, these loanwords are associated with the early 20th century, when the French language was more widely used in Ethiopia than today and was known as a language of power, openness and a symbol of modern education. This is the reason Ras Tefere Makonnen would study under the fathers of the Catholic Mission of Harar and had Mgr Jarosseau and Dr Joseph Vitalien as teachers. Haile Selassie I chose French for the introduction of his speech of 30 June 1936 before the League of Nations in Geneva. Used in administration and by certain newspapers (the first newspaper in Ethiopia was called the Semeur d’Ethiopie and published in 1901 in Harar), classes were taught in French in public Ethiopian schools from 1908 to 1935, the date on which the Italian occupation began, as well as in private schools run by congregations modelled after schools of the French Franciscan Sisters (1896−1937). At this time, French was the preferred language for education, before it was replaced by English in 1966. A compulsory course in 9th and 10th grades and the second most popular foreign language in secondary schools, French was spoken throughout Ethiopia at that time and taught in schools in approximately 20 provincial towns. Its teaching was reinforced by France’s creation of an Ecole Normale Supérieure to train French language teachers as stated in the Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement of 27 August 1966, which still governs education and language cooperation between Ethiopia and France. Although French is no longer taught in public schools (but a reform is being studied to re-introduce French to the group of other widely spoken foreign languages), French education continues in the Lycée Franco-Éthiopien Guebre Mariam founded in 1948, the Alliance Éthio-Française founded in 1907 and in more and more private schools and universities.

Loanwords generally spark interactions between speakers, helping to develop local relations, which have been restricted to a certain degree to brutal power struggles (wars, colonization) and trade relations but history of the French words in the Amharic language has managed to avert this restricted trajectory and forge an original path, as have relations between France and Ethiopia. This relationship is built on the notion of progress and modernization inspired and desired by the sovereigns Menelik II and Haile Selassie I, who called on French expertise to help them to achieve this progress.

To conclude, what do you think the next loanwords will be in French and Ethiopia? In what areas? After diplomacy, defence, transport, communications…in new technologies? Health? Humanities and social sciences? Heritage? It’s up to you to place your bet. But in the end it does not really matter so long as these loanwords live on, just as our confident relationship will, and that they are reinvented as time goes on.

1 Bender, M. L. “Loanwords in Amharic Daily Newspapers”. Anthropological Linguistics, vol. 14, no. 8, 1972, pp. 317–22.
2 Based on an article by François Morand, Un étonnant croisement entre le français et l’amharique : du « truchement » à la « traduction », published in L’Astemari, a review of the Association of French Language Teachers, in 2004.
3 Source: the study by Bender.

Article written with contributions from François Morand, Eloi Ficquet and Brook Beyene Tesfatsion.

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