Culture and Language

People and Culture

Ethiopia is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country. The extended family remains the spotlight of the social system. It includes relatives on both sides of the family as well as close friends. When people marry, they unite their families, thus ensuring that there will always be a group to turn to in times of need and individuals achieve recognition or social standing through their extended family. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state with a variety of languages spoken in the country, of which there are 83 with 200 dialects. English is also widely spoken.

The other three main languages are Amharic, Tigrigna and Oromigna. Ge’ez is the ancient language, and was introduced as an official written language during the first Aksumite kingdom when the Sabeans sought refuge in Aksum. The Aksumites developed Ge’ez, a unique script derived from the Sabean alphabet, and it is still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church today. Tigrigna and Amharigna (Amharic) are the modern languages which are derived from Ge’ez. Amharic is the official national language of Ethiopia. English, Arabic, Italian and French are widely spoken by many Ethiopians. The Ethiopian languages are divided into four major language groups.

These are Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan. The Amhara are the politically and culturally dominant ethnic group of Ethiopia. They are located primarily in the central highland plateau of Ethiopia and comprise the major population element in the provinces of Begemder and Gojjam and in parts of Shoa and Wallo.
Out in the community, musical instruments play a social and entertaining role. The single-stringed Masenko is played by minstrels who sing of life around them and invent calypso-like, topical verses on the spot. The krar is a lyre-like plucked instrument with 5 or 6 strings while the begenna is the portable harp. A unique feature of Ethiopian culture is its naïve style of painting that is to be found in every church and in many other locations. This style seems to have remained almost unchanged for centuries.

Ethiopia’s staple grain is called teff, and from its flour the Ethiopians fashion large pancake-like bread called injera that they place directly on the dining table. Other dishes that make up the meal are portioned onto the injera and diners eat by scooping these portions into rolled-up pieces of the injera that they have torn off.

Common Languages

  • English
  • Amharic
  • Tigrigna
  • Oromigna


Religion is a key influence in Ethiopian life. Nearly half the population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church but there is also large Muslim population. Others adhere to an ancient form of Judaism. The Orthodox Church is proud of its origins and dominates the political, cultural, and social life of the population. It was the official religion of the imperial court and of the establishment until Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. The country embraced Christianity in the 4th century, long before Europe. Muslims are important in the business community and they tend to live in the eastern, southern, and western lowlands, although there are considerable numbers in Addis Ababa.

  • Christian 60.8% (Orthodox 50.6%, Protestant 10.2%)
  • Muslim 32.8%
  • Traditional 4.6%
  • Other 1.8%

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