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Ethiopic script is often described as a syllabary, an
alphasyllabary or as a syllabic alphabet. Written from left to
right, Ethiopic script consists primarily of around 30 consonants,
each of which is modified by combining with a set of seven vowels,
also known as 'orders'. Thus each symbol represents an open syllable
(i.e. a consonant followed by a vowel). Its left-to-right direction,
as well as its syllabic nature, mark it as unique among scripts of
Semitic origin. Although it developed originally for writing Ge'ez,
the ancient language of the Ethiopian region, Ethiopic script is
used today for languages of three distinct families: Semitic,
Cushitic and Nilo-Saharan. Among the main contemporary languages
written in Ethiopic script are Amharic, Tigré, Tigrinya and
By tracing its development, one can gain further insight into the
unique nature and features of Ethiopic writing. In the first
millennium BC, the Sabaean people (of the southwest corner of the
Arabian Peninsula) began immigrating across the Red Sea to Ethiopia,
bringing with them their language and its writing tradition. As a
typical Semitic script, the Sabaean alphabet was strictly
consonantal. Its letters followed the standard South Semitic order
which differs completely from the alpha-beta-gamma order
characteristic of scripts of North Semitic extraction. To this day,
Ethiopic script reflects this South Semitic ordering. As the Sabaean
language developed into Ge'ez, the ancient tongue of Ethiopia, its
writing system took on some unusual features. Whereas Sabaean, as
most other Semitic scripts, was written from right to left, by 400
AD Ge'ez was written from left to right. Some speculate that Greek
script was the dominant influence behind this change of direction.
In addition, the originally consonantal script had developed into a
fully syllabic script which indicates vowels as well as consonants.
Each syllabic symbol consists of a main consonantal base which is
modified by a vowel appendage. Due to the structural similarity of
Ethiopic script to Indic scripts, many scholars have speculated
about a possible Indian influence which could have helped turn the
originally consonantal alphabet into an 'alphasyllabary'.
Incidentally, one commonly cited defect of Ethiopic script is its
inability to represent a sole consonant without an adjunct vowel.
Over its long history, Ethiopic writing has evolved to keep pace
with the phonetic features of the languages descended from Ge'ez.
Among these descendants, Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia,
is considered the most important.