With so many ethnic groups in one country, Ethiopia is rich in languages. People speak at least 70 distinct languages as mother tongues, and there are over 200 local dialects. The majority of these languages belong to three families of Afro-Asiatic languages: Semitic, Cushistic and Omotic. Language distribution is roughly geographical, with Semitic languages spoken in the central highlands, Cushistic languages in the north, and Omotic in the south. Languages in the Nilo-Saharan groups are spoken in the southwest and along the Sudan border, and Somali in the southeast.

Am, a Semitic language related to Arabic, is Ethiopia's national language and used for all media and government communications. Approximately one-fifth of the population speak Amhic as their first language, and many others speak it as a second or third. Since 1991, however, Tigrinya and Oromo, the second and third most spoken languages, have gained semi-official status. In written form, both Amhic and Tigrinya use a Geez script, which has over 200 letters. Oromo uses a Roman alphabet.

Ethiopians greatly value eloquence. Speakers are expected to talk clearly, slowly, and make skillful use of rhetorical devices such as metaphor, allusion and witty innuendoes. People enjoy riddles and teteyeq, a game of cross-examination.

Courtesy is considered important in Ethiopia. When young, children begin to learn the rules of courtesy: being polite and soft-spoken, and avoiding confrontation and boasting. Ethiopians are taught that their actions should speak for them and that they should not put themselves forward. In new social environments, they often appear formal and reserved.

When meeting, Ethiopians usually shake hands or kiss on the cheek several times. Friends of the same sex often hold hands or embrace each other in public as a sign of friendship. People commonly spend time exchanging inquiries about their families and farms before moving on to other topics, even if the meeting is for business purposes. These questions are a sign of respect and caring.

English Amhic
Hello/greetings/goodbye Teanastellen
OK Dehna
Please Ebakeh (m)/Ebakesh (f)/ Ebakon (formal)
Thank you Amesegenallo
Thank You Moteshakkeram
Yes Khahesh mikonam
Yes Owo
No Ie (it's untrue)/Yellam (it cannot be done)

  Did you know?
Traditionally, Ethiopians do not have last names. Ethiopians receive a personal name at birth. Their second name is always their father's personal name; if they use a third, it is the personal name of their paternal grandfather.