The Tigrinya Writing System

The Tigrinya writing system is one variant of what is often referred to as the "Ethiopic" writing system or "Ethiopic syllabary". It is a slight variant of the writing system used for Amharic and for Ge'ez [gɨʔɨz], the classical language still in use as the liturgical language of Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians. The most salient graphical units in this writing system represent a consonant followed by a vowel. Characters representing the same consonant followed by different vowels are similar in shape. For example, here are the characters representing: /he/, /hu/, /hi/, /ha/, /hie/, /h/ and /ho/:

ሀ   ሁ  ሂ  ሃ  ሄ  ህ   ሆ

All of them have a sort of U-shape. Here are: /me/, /mu/, /mi/, /ma/, /mie/, /m/ and /mo/.

መ  ሙ  ሚ  ማ  ሜ  ም  ሞ

As a result, the writing system is usually displayed as a two-dimensional matrix in which the rows contain units beginning with the same consonant and the columns contain units ending in the same vowel. The columns are traditionally known as "orders". The first order, in Tigrinya, represents the vowel /e/, the second the vowel /u/, the third the vowel /i/, the fourth the vowel /a/, the fifth the vowel (really diphthong) /ie/, and the seventh the vowel /o/. The sixth order represents the consonant alone or followed by the vowel /ɨ/, which, however, is subject to considerable allophonic variation. The literature on Tigrinya suggests that this vowel is always epenthetic, so the sixth order simply represents the consonant by itself.

This writing system is sometimes called a "syllabary" because most characters represent a consonant plus a vowel. However, it isn't really a syllabary, since closed syllables must be written with at least two characters. For example, a CVC syllable such as /t'ut'/   ጡጥ "cotton" requires two characters, one (ጡ) for the initial CV, the second (ጥ) for the final C.

In the chart below, the column Unicode Name gives the Unicode name for the first order in the row. The names for the remaining orders can then be obtained by substituting for a the Unicode names for the vowels. These are: a, u, i, aa, ee, e, o. Similarly, the column Unicode Code gives the Unicode codepoint, in hexadecimal, for the first order in the row. The column labelled Sem gives the notation commonly found in works by specialists in Semitic languages. The column labelled Yudit gives the key sequence for the consonant in question when using the default Ethiopic keymap for the Yudit Unicode editor.

Click on a character to hear the sound.

 IPA Description e u i a ie 0 o Unicode
Sem Yudit
 p voiceless bilabial stop  pa 0x1350  p  pe
 b voiced bilabial stop  ba 0x1260  b  be
 p' glottalized bilabial stop  pha 0x1330  p'  Pe
 m bilabial nasal  ma 0x1218  m  me
 f voiceless labio-dental fricative  fa 0x1348  f  fe
 v voiced labio-dental fricative  va 0x1268  v  ve
 w voiced labiovelar approximant  wa 0x12C8  w  e
 t voiceless alveolar stop  ta 0x1270  t  te
 d voiced alveolar stop  da 0x12F0  d  de
 t' glottalized alveolar stop  tha 0x1320  t'  Te
 ts' glottalized alveolar affricate  tsa 0x1338  s'  Se
 n alveolar nasal  na 0x1290  n  ne
 s voiceless alveolar fricative  sa 0x1230  s  se
 z voiced alveolar fricative  za 0x12D8  z  ze
 r alveolar trill  ra 0x1228  r  re
 l lateral alveolar approximant  la 0x1208  l  le
 ʧ voiceless palatal affricate  ca 0x1278    ce
 ʤ voiced palatal affricate  ja 0x1300    je
 ʧ' glottalized palatal affricate  cha 0x1328    Ce
 ɲ palatal nasal  nya 0x1298  ň  Ne
 ʃ voiceless palatal fricative  sha 0x1238  š  xe
 ʒ voiced palatal fricative  zha 0x12E0  ž  Ze
 j voiced palatal approximant  ya 0x12E8  y  ye
 k voiceless velar stop  ka 0x12A8  k  ke
 kw voiceless labialized velar stop  kwa 0x12B0  kw  kWe
 g voiced velar stop  ga 0x1308  g  ge
 gw voiced labialized velar stop  gwa 0x1310  gw  gWe
 k' glottalized velar stop  qa 0x1240  k'  qe
 kw' glottalized labialized velar stop  qwa 0x1248  k'w  qWe
 x voiceless velar fricative  kxa 0x12B8    Ke
 xw voiceless labialized velar fricative  kxwa 0x12C0    KWe
 ʁ' voiced glottalized velar fricative  qha 0x1250    Qe
 ʁw voiced labialized uvular fricative  qhwa 0x1258    QWe
 ħ voiceless pharyngeal fricative  hha 0x1210  ḥ  He
 ʕ voiced pharyngeal fricative  pharyngeal a 0x12D0  `  `e
 ʔ glottal stop  glottal a 0x12A0  '  e
 h voiceless glottal fricative  ha 0x1200  h  he

Here is the order in which the letters were read aloud for the sound files. My understanding is that this is approximately the traditional order for recitation. Note, however, that a couple of old-fashioned letters have been included, along with compound forms for labio-velars. The order of vowels is not shown since it is the same as in the chart above.
PDF file
Unicode file

Tigrinya has its own set of punctuation symbols, listed below. They are similar to those used for Amharic, but the usage is not identical. The traditional punctuation is not used in writing numbers. Rather, numbers are written as they are in English, with a comma every three digits and a decimal point.

comma0x1361 [space]:[space]
full stop0x1362 ::
semi-colon0x1364 ;
colon0x1365 -:
preface colon0x1366 :-
question mark0x1367 `?
paragraph separator
[not in modern use]
0x1368 : | :


There is a set of numerals, shown below. These are no longer in common use in Eritrea, where they have been replaced by the ``Arabic'' numerals, that is, the same ones used in English.



Last modified 2003/11/16 20:52.