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Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya – Ethnicities, Languages and Politics
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Registry of Peoples code
 Amhara:  100293
 Tigre:  110051
 Tigray-Tigrinya:  110050


Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)
 Amharic:  amh
 Tigre:  tig
 Tigrinya:  tir

Sources of information on the peoples of the horn of Africa are sometimes confusing because of conflicting terminology.  Names of peoples and languages differ due to different names used in the Amharic or Tigrinya languages and how these are transliterated into English.

Most troubling in this regard is te use of the name Tigre for a different speech form and group of peoples in Eritrea.  Related terms are used in different ways in three different languages to refer to several different ethnic groups.

There is an ambiguity in the use of the name "Tigre," especially as transliterated into English, due to two different words with this same phonetic form in two different related languages in the Ethiopic group of the Semitic family, Amharic and Tigre.  Various forms of the same root word are used in different ways in the three languages Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, to refer to the different groups of these related peoples and their speech.

One of the highland Semitic peoples of Eritrea and Tigray Province in Ethiopia are the Tigrinya.  The ending -inya in Ethiopic languages means "language."  Thus you would expect "Tigrinya" to mean "language of the Tigre people."  This presents a problem, because there is a different ethnic group in Eritrea called "Tigre."

Another reader wrote with comments agreeing to this analysis, giving this analysis of this ending in the language group.  Note that in Eritrea the Italian spelling -gna represents the same sound sequence as English -nya.

The suffix -nya as in Tigri-nya and Amhari-nya is an adjective-noun derivation morpheme. You find it in words such as 'serah'te-gna' which means "worker," 'te'bite-gna', "arrogant," which is derived from 'te'bit', "pride." Such derivations are numerous in both Amharic and Tigrinya. Thus, the suffix attached to Tigre-gna means the one who is Tigre or one who belongs to Tigre.

This explanation is consistent with my understanding of the meaning of the suffix when used to describe the speech of a people.  This reader's explanation strengthens the connotation of this usage.  The different ways the different peoples use similar forms of the same word root is what I find interesting.

Tigre Peoples and Language
A form of Ethiopic speech in Eritrea is called Tigre and my article also points out that  the same name is used for the various Tigre-speaking tribes in Eritrea and Sudan.  Tigre is a sister language to Amharic and Tigrinya.

As far as I have been able to determine, the speech of the "Tigre" people of Eritrea is never referred to as "Tigrinya," but always as "Tigre," so as to distinguish it from "Tigrinya," used for the other ethnic group (Tigray-Tigrinya), as well as their speech.  Besides the Tigre tribes themselves, many Beja, especially the Beni-Amer, also speak Tigre as a mother tongue or second tongue.

Although I mentioned this in the article on the Tigray-Tigrinya, this aspect of the topic is also covered in this article:

Tigre in Amharic
The term "Tigre" also appears as the Amharic version of the Tigrinya name "Tigray."  The latter is, of course, also the form generally used in Amharic as the name for the Ethiopian province where Tigrinya-speaking people live.  Their language is the same as that spoken across the border in Eritrea.

The problems seem to come when members of these various groups with different forms of related language attempt to refer to themselves in ways that distinguish them from others.  Similar forms of the same root word come to be used in slightly different ways to clarify distinctions among the various groups and their speech, depending on who is doing the designating.

In general usage I have found that the form "Tigrinya" (which should technically mean "language of the Tigre") is used to refer to the speakers of the Tigrinya language on the Eritrean side of the border.  In general, likewise, the term "Tigray" (or in transliterated Amharic "Tigre") is used to describe the people who speak Tigrinya on the Ethiopian side of the border.  The term "Tigrinya" is generally used to refer to the speech of both, since linguists consider it one language.

The two groups are often referred to together under the combined name of Tigray-Tigrinya.  They are often treated as two sub-groups of one ethnicity.  The growing animosity and war of recent years has lead to a greater contrast in the two groups and has led to a greater distinction between their distinct ethnicities.

From what I have observed and read in related material in the field setting, the name "Tigray" is the Tigrinya word for the people in Ethiopia, whereas the Amharic form of the same name is "Tigre."  This difference in the forms of the name are found in comparing the fidel spellings, as well as noting sources of the forms of the word when used in English, whether the English text is quoting Amharic or Tigrinya sources.

However, the Tigrinya-speaking people on the Eritrean side of the border ommonly refer to themselves as Tigrinya, to distinguish themselves from the "Tigray" (or Amharic form "Tigre") in Ethiopia.  This is the distinction found consistently in the literature.

The forms "Tigray" and "Tigre" are phonetic forms of the same root used in different ways among the three languages and cultures.  The term "Tigre" is the Amharic word for the people and province.  You would see the form "Tigre" for the people or province in some older English literature, but that is less common now, except where quoting from older material.

The use of the term "Tigre" in Amharic for the Tigrinya-speaking people in Ethiopia is simply because this is the phonetic form of the word in Amharic that shows up in the form Tigrai (Tigray) in Tigrinya.  It coincidentally has the same form as the name "Tigre" in the Tigre language, which is used to refer to both the Tigre people and their language.

All these various forms in  these related dialects of Ethiopic Semitic speech come from a common root.  Its usage in Amharic is not the same as its usage in the Tigre language as the name Tigre for the speech of the Tigre people in Eritrea.

Complex Heritage
The heritage of the Tigrinya (Tigray) is long and venerable, and closely related to the Amhara.  Some questions asked by one enquirer on my website bring some factors into view.

Why did the Tigrinya people fight for decades among themselves, those from Eritrea (called separatists or secessionists) against those from Ethiopia (called loyalists or unionists)? Why does it seem that the Tigrinya people from Eritrea are not very interested in the other part of their same nation, if they all feel they are members of one nation?

The ethnic lines of loyalty are more complex than most Western concepts of ethnicity allow for.  All heritages in the area are ancient, going back before the time of Christ.  Different factors that have occurred over the centuries affect the subtle differences in the sense of identity of small family and clan groupings.

After the deterioration of the ancient Axum Empire (centred in the mountains of what is now northern Ethiopia, local lines of ethnicity and nationhood developed around continual overlays of immigration, war, assimilation, infighting and various cultural processes.  These were complicated by the invasion of Muslim cultures, initially by peaceful settlement, but also at times with cultural-ethnic subjugation.

Having the same name or Sharing same language with another group of people is in many cases insufficient to form a broader unity.  You can see similarities in the situation with Europe from the time of the late Roman Empire through World War II. Hundreds of European languages are found in a few political nation-states.  Many languages cross borders of those nation-states.  The same is true in Africa.

Further specification may be needed to answer the addtional question following on the previous:
Why didn't Ethiopian Tigrinyas join their actual regional state with Eritrea when it was possible (in the beginning of the 1990s), if they felt that they have something in common with Eritrean Tigrinyas.

Tension over the border line goes back some centuries, and I do not understand all the dynamics.  The politics of the region are complex.  Political allegiances and boundaries do not always coincide with ethnic lines.  In fact, I wonder if it is so in even half the cases?

Ethnicities developed somewhat differently across the various highland ridges and lowland slopes among the various peoples that spoke related forms of language known as Tigrinya (meaning "speech of the Tigre people").  Varieties of the related languages are broadly categorized in three current groupings of dialects:  Tigre, Tigrinya and Amharic.

Political, social and land matters and local ethnicity all are factors affecting the shifting sense of loyalty and identity over the decades in modern times.  Numerous factors lead to a different sense of identity south of the border, including the preference for English as the international language, in contrast to the use of Italian in Eritrea.  Levels of education also come into play.

The specific border as we know it today is set largely by the period of separate development of what was called "Eritrea" (meaning Red) under Italian Colonialisation.  The main area of the highlands was never successfully colonized by any European or asian power since the ancient Sabeans (Cushites, perhaps already mixed by that time with Southern Arabians) established themselves about 200 years before Christ. After their kingdom, Axum, deteriorated, various powers held various parts of the broader "Cush" land area.

It is interesting how unable European observers are to see their own situation as they would situations like that of the Tigrinya, with a border running through their tribe, with a portion of the tribe choosing identity with unrelated ethnicities on their respective sides of the border, even to the point of bitter war.

One needs only to look at virtually any border in Europe for a similar situation.  For instance, one reader replied to this topic on my website:  I simply cannot believe that Eritrean Tigrinyas that constitute almost 50% of Eritrean population are happy being separated from the two thirds [sic] of their nation remained in Ethiopia - there should be much deeper reason and even more when we consider that Tigrinyas in Eritrea are somehow dominant?

I found this view interesting, since the writer was from a Scandinavian country.  The countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden are three neighbouring kingdoms of Vikings.  Why don't they just unite into one?  They are so similar they can understand each other's form of speech to a large extent; they all have the Lutheran Church as the state church.  They all share the same cultural heritage.  I just can't believe they are really happy being separated!  See the problem?  (We have seen that Europeans, as well as Americans, often exhibit this well-intentioned "fix-it" syndrome for other people's situations, but seem unable to identify or "fix" their own in the same way.)

The division between these very closely related peoples in Northwestern Europe goes way back for centuries, and involves primarily political power, but also other matters related to education, stages of accession to the Christian faith, etc.  This is analogous to the Tigray-Tigrinya situation and hundreds of other situations in the world!

My correspondent also asked further:
Aren't Tigrinya people from Eritrea predominantly Muslims?

Very few if any Tigrinya in Eritrea are Muslim, as far as I could determine.  The neighbouring Tigre, on the other hand, are Muslim.  Confusion of these peoples may occur in some sources due to word similarities, as discussed above.

Royal History
Is the Ethiopian royal family of Tigrinya or Amhara origin?

The current immediate line of the former royal family is Amharic.  They claim and apparently share, however, the common line (one of the lines) from the ancient Axum nobility or royalty.

Much myth as well as history and ethnic heritage affects the sense of identity of these cousin-peoples.  The Ethiopic group of languages are clearly Semitic.  The ethnic and genetic heritage is largely Cushitic, with strong strains of South Arabian genes.  Much of the Cushite (darker) physical heritage and cultural strata comes from the Cushite peoples originally present, akin to the current Beja and Afar.

Perhaps the South Arabian migrant Sabeans (Shabeans, Sheban, Sebans, etc., with various phonetic variations in the different languages) were actually already Semitic in language and culture.  The Sabeans are attested from ancient times in Old Testament and Quranic references as a separate culture and language group, and in the Quran as monotheists sharing the Abrahamic heritage.

Different sources associate the Sabeans with either Cushites or Semites.  We know there were Cushitic peoples living all the way to Iran even in ancient times.

The original Chaldean people, living around the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, were Cushites.  When they overthrew the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar, they became Semitic-speaking, taking up the Aramaic of the earlier Assyrian Empire.  

Much of all this is legendary or mythic, each part of it coming from one of the many strains that went into the current Ethiopic Orthodox peoples we know primarily as Tigrinya (Tigray) and Amharic.  So it is hard to sort out.  I am not an expert or specialist in Ethiopic studies.  It is a fascinating and ongoing field of study.

Registry of Peoples code
 Amhara:  100293
 Tigre:  110051
 Tigray-Tigrinya:  110050


Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)
 Amharic:  amh
 Tigre:  tig
 Tigrinya:  tir

Related topics on this website:
Amhara  – Cultural Profile
Amhara-Tigrinya Names
Beja  – Cultural Profile
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
Genetics Out of Africa
Origin of Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre Languages
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues:  Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
Tigray-Tigrinya  – Cultural Profile

Related topics on the Internet:
Awkir Eritrean Website on Tigre Culture
The great ethnic migrations (ca. 1520-1660)


First posted 1 June 2005
Last revised 10 March 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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