Amharic Immersion: Reading Signs in Fidel

When you travel, you can practice a language by reading street signs. Unfortunately, if you’re not travelling, it can be harder to get that “immersion” experience. So, for all you Amharic-learners at home, I’m bringing the street signs to you! Here are several street signs in Amharic, from across Ethiopia, to give you the chance to practice your fidel. Happy reading, and please comment if you have any questions about anything!

If you don’t yet know, here are some resources to learn fidel (the script used to write Amharic and several other Ethiopic languages)!

ADDIS ABABA: This Amharic-English sign advertising office services is great practice, because the first four words on the list are simply English words written in Amharic fidel, so you can understand it, even if you don’t know the vocabulary. Here are some notes on each:

  • ፎቶ ኮፒ: photocopy, nothing special here.
  • ፕሪንት: shortens “printing service” to simply “print”
  • ስካኒግ: reads “scannig” (hard g, like “good”), since there’s no “ng” sound in Amharic.
  • ላሚኔቲንግ: takes a different approach to representing “ing” than the line above… technically reads “laminating,” although the ንግ combo in Amharic would be pronounced with a hard “g,” like “good,” so it’s a little strange. But hey, they’re doing their best with sounds that don’t exist in fidel.

The last two (መጠረዝ and የዕህፈት ስራ) are actual translations into Amharic vocabulary.

Image Credit: “Firefox” by Fran Villena (villano), CC BY 2.0 (has been cropped and edited for brightness)

BAHIR DAR: These signs for cosmetic shops are great reading practice, too! If you can read fidel, you can read the main part of the sign (ቶፕ ሌዲ) without knowing any Amharic vocabulary (hint, it’s in English, too), and then the “subtitle” on the sign (የስጦጣ የውበት ዕቃዎች መሽጫ) is great reading practice, too. Here’s a breakdown of the vocabulary from the “subtitle” –

  • ስጦጣ: gift
  • ውበት: beauty
  • ዕቃዎች: things/items
  • መሽጫ: shop

Finally, notice the sign to the left — it’s spelled in fidel (ኮስሞቲክስ) according to their spelling in English, so even the Amharic version reads “cosmotics.” Perhaps it’s space themed?

Image Credit: “Scenes from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia” by A.Davey, CC BY 2.0 (has been cropped and edited for brightness)

ADDIS ABABA: This stationary shop has a lot of signage. It always amuses me when there’s extensive signage in Amharic, and then minimal translation into English. While the English simply says “Medhin Stationary,” here’s what the Amharic version actually reads:

  • መድሕን፡ Medhin
  • (የ)ፅህፈት: Writing
  • መሣሪያ(ና): Tools (and)
  • (የ)ኮምፒውተር: Computer
  • እቃዎች: Things/Items
  • መደብር: Store

You might have to zoom in to see some of the smaller signs to read them, although it’s a good approximation of how hard it is to read signs zooming past on a bus! Being able to read signs at a glance is a good sign you’re getting quite skillful with your fidel.

Image credit: “Streets of Addis” by Irene200CC BY 2.0 (has been cropped and edited for brightness)

So Many Ethiopian Languages… Why Amharic?

There are over eighty languages in Ethiopia, and yet Amharic (the language of Amhara) dominates. Of course, it is convenient to have a lingua franca, but only ~30% of Ethiopians speak Amharic as their native language (the most-spoken native language is Afaan Oromoo) — what gives?

Amharic (based on the ancient language, Ge’ez) has been considered the “official” language of the Ethiopian empire since the reign of Emperor Menelik II (1881-1913), when he starting using it as the functional language in administrative offices. Depending on who writes the history books, Menelik’s reign was defined by either brutal military conquest or the expansion of the great Ethiopian empire. Either way, he took over a lot of non-Amharic- speaking people, and Amharic began its role as the language of the conquerer.

Emperor Haile Selassie (r. 1930-1974) promoted Amharic as a tool of unification (or domination — again, perspective is a fickle beast), trying to develop (or force) a common language and culture for an incredibly diverse empire. When Italy occupied Ethiopia (1935-1941), the Italians promoted use of local languages, hoping undermine these unification efforts, in order to divide and conquer.

But, when Haile Selassie regained power, he re-solidified use of Amharic, including the media. All newspapers were in Amharic, except for one in Tigrinya. Two-thirds of radio time was reserved for Amharic programs, with Tigrinya, Somali, Tigre, and Afar (the only other languages even allowed on the radio) squeezing collectively into the other third of the time.

When the Derg Regime took control in 1974, they declared Amharic would no longer dominate and local languages would be respected. They decided primary school would be taught in one of fifteen languages: Amharic, Oromo, Tigrigna, Walaita, Somali, Hadiya, Gidole, Tigre, Kambata, Kunama, Sidama, Silti, Afar, Kefa-Mocha or Saho.

Ironically, because the literacy campaign insisted on writing all of these languages with the Amharic alphabet (fidel), and because many of the teachers they sent to the rural areas only spoke Amharic (and not the local languages they were meant to teach), their campaign actually wound up spreading Amharic, instead of promoting local language use.

The Derg was overthrown in 1991, and the 1994 Constitution defined three basic rules about language use (1994 Constitution, Article 5):

  1. All Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state of recognition.
  2. Amharic shall be the working language of the Federal Government.
  3. Members of the Federation may determine their respective languages.

Today, Amharic is the official, national language. It is also the official language for four regional states (Amhara, SNNPR, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Gambella) and two federal cities (Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa). Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, Afar, and Somali are official, regional languages in their respective regions. In some zones and districts, there are other locally-official languages. Primary school is still taught in local languages; there are currently 21 different languages used to teach primary school.


In 2020, Tigrinya, Somali, Afar, and Afaan Oromo were officially added as national languages, although in practice, Amharic is still the primary national language.

Afaan Oromoo (Oromo) Language-Learning Resources

Afaan Oromoo (also known as Oromiffa) is spoke by 50+ million people across several countries (mainly Ethiopia and Kenya). Despite being the most common first language in Ethiopia, it was actually banned in Ethiopia from 1941-1991 (starting when Haile Selassie declared the ban, ending with the fall of the Derg regime), for political reasons.

Beginner Resources

  • VOCABULARY: This page has lists of vocabulary in Afaan Oromoo and English, organised by topics such as “colors” and “weather.”
  • VOCABULARY GAMES: Digital Dialects has several vocabulary games to practice basic vocabulary (mostly numbers and some general nouns).
  • VOCABULARY GAMES: MAL has a variety of vocabulary games, and a few games with basic phrases. More extensive than the Digital Dialects page.
  • BASIC QUESTIONS: Beekan Erena’s page (Harvard) lists a variety of introductory questions, which can be good practice exercises for either speaking or writing.
  • VOCABULARY/GRAMMAR: OPride has a PDF version of a 52-page presentation, which includes a great amount of grammar, vocabulary, and practice exercises (as well as some background on Oromo people).
  • PRONUCIATION: Tesfaye Gudeta has made a great set of videos (assembled into a playlist), teaching basic Afaan Oromoo, which is very helpful if you’re looking for audio to go along with your lessons.
  • PRONUNCIATION: Kakuu has made another great set of videos going through introductory Afaan Oromoo lessons. The playlist is here.

Intermediate Resources

  • TEXTBOOK: The old (1975) Peace Corps textbook for Oromiffa includes 20 units, covering different topics. It starts from a beginner level, but because it’s such a substantial text, completing it would bring you to an intermediate level, I believe.
  • TEXTBOOK: A newer (2014) version of the Peace Corps textbook. Completing all the content in this book should bring you to intermediate, as well.
  • DICTIONARY: If you’re working to expand your vocabulary, this Oromo dictionary is a great tool.
  • WIKIBOOK: An extensive collection of Afaan Oromoo grammar lessons — great resource! I came across this on a Peace Corps blog, which credits the Wikibook to PC Ethiopia G4 volunteer John Stevens-Garmon.

Advanced Resources

  • READING: VOA Afaan Oromoo and BBC Afaan Oromoo publish news articles in Afaan Oromoo, which makes great reading practice for those at an advanced level.
  • VIDEOS/LISTENING: BBC Afaan Oromoo also has a video page, which is great as a listening exercise.
  • VIDEOS/READING/EXERCISES: The National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland has an extensive collection of Afaan Oromoo exercises, many with audio/video clips involved. Almost all are at the advanced level. Free registration is straightforward and required to view the content.