SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

Tigrinya at SOAS Language Centre

Tigrinya is the main language of Eritrea, a state that claimed its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after three decades of bitter fighting. Eritrea is a not a large country – it is slightly smaller than England, in fact – but it is ethnically, linguistically and culturally very diverse.  The main ethnolinguistic group within Eritrea is the Tigrinya, accounting for slightly over half of the entire population of around 6 million.

Tigrinya continues to be a major language of Ethiopia, along with Amharic and Oromo. It belongs to the same language family as Amharic (Semitic), a family that includes Arabic and Hebrew. As with Amharic, Tigrinya is written using the traditional writing system known as the fidel, which is syllabic rather than truly alphabetic in nature. Tigrinya is held to be closer in structure to Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, than is the case with Amharic.  

Within Eritrea, four languages are widespread across the various ethnolinguistic groups: Tigrinya, Arabic, Italian and English. The presence of Italian is a testament to Italian ambitions in ‘Abyssinia’ from the late 19th Century through to World War II, whilst the presence of Arabic dates from a much earlier period and reflects the extensive and complex pattern of trade around the Red Sea and the spread of Islam to the African mainland.

The word ‘Eritrea’ predates even Islam, however, and attests to the importance of this part of the world in antiquity: it comes from the ancient Greek Ἐρυθραία (‘the red one’). The study of Tigrinya is the first step to being able to appreciate a fascinating history and culture little known outside of the Horn of Africa. The SOAS Language is proud to make Tigrinya accessible for the first time as a scheduled course within its portfolio of languages.

SOAS Language Centre offers the following for Tigrinya: