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Tigrai: the people and the language of Tigrai

By Abate Kassahun
Tigrai Online 2/21/2023

Tigrai vs Tigray

Attempts are often made to trace the history of the word Tigrai by relating it to “tiger” and “Tigris” (both etymologically linked to Greek and Persian) as well as related words of Ge'ez origin. With this understanding, I went through a couple of books, starting with the popular Tarix Itio'pia (meaning, AHistory of Ethiopia), handwritten by Fisseha Giorgis in 1899 in Italy.


Before moving on, let me make one thing clear. It is true that most people use the spelling form Tigray /tǝgreɪ/ and, except Tigraians, pronounce the final syllable just like ray /reɪ/. I browsed to check how it is written and found: Tigray, also spelled Tegray, Tigrai, or Tigre, historical region, northern Ethiopia. As the final sound is the diphthong /aɪ/, as in hi /haɪ/ or bye /baɪ/, the correct spelling is (and should be) Tigrai /tǝgraɪ/, as in tigraionline, Tigrai Media House, Bureau of Tigrai Culture and Tourism, Academy of Tigrai Languages, to name just a few.So are the names Mai Kadra, Adebai, Adi Hagerai, Marai, Feres Mai, Senai, Letai, Tesfai, etc. The same form (i.e., Tigrai) is found in Tigrai Mass Media Agency, Tigrai Development Association, and Tigrai University Scholars’ Association.That said, there appears to be lack of consistency and reluctance to accept the correct form.

According to Fisseha (1899), there was a time when the word “Tigrai” referred to the language, not just to the land and the people of Tigrai. Next, Rossini (1903) begins his first paragraph in Canti populari tigraias follows:

La lingua tigrai, tigrigna o tigrina è parlata dalle frontiere del Lasta sino ai confini dei Cunama, dei Beni Amer e dei Bogos, in tutta quella vasta regione (eccettuata la costa marittima) ove prinicipalmente fiorì vetusto idioma gèez e dove per lunghi secoli ebbe sede e forza l’ impero aksumita.

Rossini’s use of tigraiin the title and in the first line in the introduction, while indicating the two options – tigrignaand tigrina,indicates a preference as well as appropriateness. More importantly, the word tigraiis used to refer to the language not just the people from as far south as Lasta, north as the lowlands of Eritrea, and northeast as the Red Sea. The same form is used in an earlier work on the language, that is, Schreiber’s (1887; 1893) Manual de la Langue Tigrai, as cited by Hailu (2017) who uses Tigrinyato refer to the official language of Tigrai – the name of the Regional State – and highlights that it is also spoken in the highlands of Eritrea. It is important to note that tigraiis consistently used when referring to the region. Longrigg (1945) who observed confusion and misuse of the words Tigré, Tigrai, and Tigrinya, says:

“Tigrinya is the language of the Tigrai, spoken also by the Christian highlanders of Eritrea. It has alternatively been called Tigrái; but again this form, though claimed as more correct[emphasis added], must if used create confusion with the province-name.” (p. 17)

Kidane Wold (1948) defines “Tigrai” as ትግሪኛTigrigna (ending with the Cushitic suffix -gna), “belonging to Tigrai, and the language and people found between Tigre and Amhara.” Linguistically, the language is closerto Tigre than to Amharic, explains Kidane Wold. Speaking of affinity, Dillmann and Bezold (2005) assert that “the language spoken in the Tigrē country (i.e., Tigrai) has retained the nearest resemblance to Ethiopic.” (Locally, the latter is known as Ge'ez.)

Kidane Wold (1948) cites some historians who have associated Tigre and Tigrai with the character of the tiger. Accordingly, the names connote a certain quality, not action. In addition, MeregetaLisan Werq (2000), who provides an exhaustive explanation about the people in the region, says Tigre, from tigeror tegere (a Ge'ez word meaning, climb up), refers to ethnicity; on the other hand, Tigrai refers to “the kind, faithful, and brave people.”

The word Tegere is used by Fisseha in Tarix Itio'pia when narrating the incident that is believed to have enlightened St Yared of Axum in the 5th c. In addition, relating to an incident that happened during the reign of Libne Dingil, Fisseha (1899, p.45-46), laconically describes a Tigraian as “bold, unbending, and brave – a Tigraian is not wishy-washy.” On the other hand, Zeweld (1891), a pseudonym of Fisseha Giorgis, says that Tigrai is a name given in reference to the lifestyle of the people. (As the word Tigrai ends in a vowel, the suffix –an is added (hence, Tigraian, as in Chile, Chilean.)

For Tsige (1986), the language is ትግራይኛTigraigna — with a Cushitic ending. Zera Dawit (2009), on the other hand, prefers the word “Tigrai” just like Fisseha. In fact, the title of his book reads ልሳነተሴምግእዝ፣ትግራይ፣ኣማርኛ(Lisanate Sem: Ge’ez, Tigrai, Amarigna, i.e., The Semitic Languages: Ge’ez, Tigrai and Amharic); by so doing, he ascertains that Tigrai is a language as it is. By implication, Tigrigna (with the ending –gna) is the term used in Amharic when referring to the language. By analogy, Amhara is the word used by Tigraians when referring to the people who call themselves Amara (dropping the middle sound, as in similar other words).

In reference to –y or –iy (i.e., ይ) in Tigrai (ትግራይ), Zera Dawit (2009) describes it as suffix meaning “belonging to something or someone”. He further, says, Tigrai means Tigraian, in his words “that of Tigrai, the language of Tigrai, the culture of Tigrai, and the people of Tigrai or Tigrawi.” Tigrawi(m) and Tigrawit(f) mean Tigraian, as are Tigrawai[m], Tigraweyti[f], and the plural form Tegaru. In brief, he explains that Tigrairefers to the language that is spoken by the people of Tigrai and argues that the Cushitic suffix ending word (Tigrigna) only indicates being Tigraian, not the language nor the culture. He believes that if the appropriate Semitic affixes were to be added, it would either be Tigraina (ትግራይና) or Tigrina (ትግርና).

Citing Amanuel (1994), Zera Dawit (2009) reports that there are people who use “Tigrai” in reference to the language, not just to the geographically designated area (areas) of the people. As the state expanded to the south, a suffix was added; as a result, the word and, by implication the language in its entirety has been influenced. For example, there are many adjectives and words that refer to words (languages) which end with the final suffix in Tigrai.

In sum, since Tigrai was (and is, at present) used to refer to the language, the people and the land and the Cushitic suffix is not Ge’ez nor Tigraian, it is imperative to be consistent in this regard. There are countless example adjectives which do not (need to) end with the Cushitic suffix (e.g., daina, meaning judge; te’amrawi, miraculous; disut (higus), happy; ferensai, French, etc.). In most cases, it is as simple as removing the –gna suffix and checking the endings (to make sure that the right suffixes are added). As mentioned earlier, the fact that there are words (languages) with –gna endings is a concern. Even so, options are available.

By the way, do you speak Tigrai (or Tigraian)?


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