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Eike Haberland’s Extent of Semitic languages in the Horn of Africa through time (with 3 maps)



By Jan Nyssen

Title: Untersuchungen zum äthiopischen Königtum / von Eike Haberland

Author: Haberland, Eike

Published: Wiesbaden : Steiner, 1965 (open access).

Internationally, the work of Eike Haberland has remained under the radar, as it was published in German. Here we translate some snippets of one of his books, as a teaser. With the availability and quality of automatic translations, such works become increasingly accessible. See his bio: 

In the introduction of this book, he summarises Ethiopia’s linguistic situation in three maps.

Map 1. Semitic language area in Ethiopia in the 14th C. 

Map 2. Semitic language area in Ethiopia in the 19th C. 

 Map 2. Semitic language area in Ethiopia in the 19th C. 

Map 3. Agaw language area, with 1. Agaw in 14th century, and 2. currently

Some Snippets in German and their Translations

The following texts are automatically translated from German, and then edited.

Page 12

Also the distribution of the Semitic languages in Ethiopia is not due to the continued impact of Aksumite colonization alone, but to the result of various South Arabian migrations of very different strengths that flowed in independently of each other (cf.  e.g.  Cerulli 1936, p.  441 f.,  Leslau 1956b, p.  26, Cerulli 1960, p.  9 f., Haberland 1960d, p.  8).  This also explains the different effects of South Arabian cultural influences on the various language groups.

While Tigre (inhabited by the Tigray), the  former center of Aksumite culture,  which was most easily accessible from South Arabia, has to this day most conspicuously preserved the Sabaean substance (although often only in the form of ruins), these influences are diminishing in the south and east.  Even the northern neighbors of the Tigray, the “Tigre” cattle breeding tribes of central and northern Eritrea, show hardly any cultural differences to the northern Kushitic-speaking Bega. Even the languages of the South are no longer purely Semitic idioms like Tigriña and Tigre, but are sometimes so strongly interspersed with Cushitic elements – both in phonetics and in morphology and vocabulary – that they can only be described as hybrid offspring of the Semitic stem. Even the Amhara, with their language, which is  so completely different from the Tigriña, have more cultural traits in common with the Agau than with the Tigray, although later Christianity and their position as state-supporting people gave them a certain cultural height (Conti Rossini 1909b, p.  140).

The members of the southwestern Semitic language group in Ethiopia (Aymallal-Gafat)  do not differ in their overall culture from the cultural image of the surrounding Ometo or Hadya-Sidamo (cf.  Leslau 1950,  Haberland 1960c, p.  14 f.), although Christianity once gained a firm foothold there. The same holds for the Central Gurage (Čaha, etc.), who are linguistically twinned with the Amhara. The cultural “primitiveness” [in the sense of “originality”] of  these groups is not of a secondary nature and is caused by their separation from High Ethiopia by the Galla migrations, as was already noticed by Ethiopian and Portuguese authors before and at the same time as the Galla migration (e.g.   Almeyda 1954, p.  50,  Basset 1897, p.  399, Conti Rossini,  1907,  p.  160). Thus, the cultural image of these tribes is explained in a more meaningful way,  while their interpretation as Amharic military colonies of the Middle Ages (Conti Rossini 1937, p.  132) does not do justice to its essence.  The small remnants of the south-eastern language group (Harari  and “Eastern Gurage”) were too strongly subject to Islamic-Arab influence to  be able to make binding statements about their former cultural image, but the remains of the ruined cities in Hoch-Arussi and in the Ittu area (Azais-Chambard 1931, vol.  I, S.  122, vol.  II, fig. XXVIII) do not point to the survival of the Sabaean-Aksumite culture in this region.

Pages 51-52

In view of the present residential area of the Amhara, who inhabit  almost all of today’s central and northern Ethiopia south of the Tigray, it  is easy to overlook the fact that not only at the time of  Yekuno Amläk,  when the Solomonic dynasty and with it the present Ethiopian Empire began, but also at the time of Lebna Dengel the core area of the empire -that is, the Amharic area- was very limited. The immigration and the spread of the various Semitic-speaking peoples of Ethiopia probably did not take place from Aksum to the south, but took place in various spurts across the Red Sea (cf.  Caquot-Leclant 1955, p.  120 f., who look at the problem from the linguistic side;  Haberland 1960c, p.  10). This is the only possible explanation for the fact that Tigray in the north and Amhara in the south were separated by a wide strip of Agau (from the Kwara in the west via the Avargalle to Wag-Lasta in the east). (Today, many Agau have been assimilated by the two Semitic-speaking peoples, cf.  Map 3-5).

[For sure this points to Maps 1-3.]

Page 231

It is unlikely that the Aksumites, the  ancestors of today’s Tigray, ever had contact with central Ethiopia, since south of them there was a wide strip of Agau inhabited lands and the Amhara people were located beyond them (cf.   Map 1).

This map will be included in the Dataset of historical and ethno-linguistic maps of Western Tigray.

Jan Nyssen is a Professor of Geography at Ghent University in Belgium. He has carried out research in Ethiopia since 1994.

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