By Stuart Munro-Hay
The language of the Aksumite kingdom was Ge`ez (Ethiopic), a Semitic tongue assumed (but not proven) to have an ancestry in old South Arabian. Ge`ez, possibly deriving its name from the Agwezat or Agazi tribal group, is now a dead language except for its use in traditional Ethiopian Orthodox church rituals and in some specialized circumstances, such as poetry. It was written in characters descending from the same parentage as the script now called Epigraphic South Arabian, but more cursive in form; the modern Ethiopian alphabet is the only survivor of this script today. Its development required that certain letters employed in dialects of South Arabian were omitted and others added as necessary. A number of early texts and graffiti from Ethiopia are themselves in a cursive form of the old South Arabian script (Drewes 1962). Time and the influence of the Cushitic languages of Ethiopia (Agaw or Central Cushitic being the most important) both helped in the transference from the original language to Ge`ez.
The arguments advanced for the origins of the Ge`ez script would fill a small book (Ullendorff 1955; 1960: 112ff; Drewes 1962: Ch. V; Drewes and Schneider 1976). Some have seen it as a development from the monumental South Arabian script, others as related to the contemporary cursive scripts found in both Arabia and Ethiopia; the mechanics of the change, the experts have suggested, could have been through either intentional or accidental alteration. The script could have been inspired by an early importation, or even by a more recent inspiration subsequent to the period of the earlier inscriptions. A fair number of inscriptions have been found dating from pre-Aksumite times and written in the epigraphic South Arabian script, at such places as Yeha, Kaskase, and Hawelti-Melazo. Some of these employ a form of the language which is apparently more or less pure Sabaic, while others, though contemporary, show linguistic features perhaps indicating that they were carved by Ethiopians (Drewes 1962; Schneider 1976i).
The use of the South Arabian script continued on into Aksumite times (or was revived then?) and as late as the reigns of Kaleb and W`ZB monumental inscriptions were still written in a version of this script, but using the Ge`ez language. In the early fourth century, the purely consonantal script was found inadequate, and a system of vowels was adopted, which greatly facilitated the reading of Ge`ez. The origins and history of the vowels system are uncertain; it might have been influenced by some Indian scripts (Pankhurst 1974: 220-2; Chatterji 1967: 53), and it might, in turn, have influenced Armenian (Olderogge 1974: 195-203). This innovation was employed on the inscriptions, and doubtless, on whatever (not so far discovered) papyrus, parchment or another impermanent medium, the Aksumites kept their records. It was not generally adopted on the coins, whose legends remained unvowelled, except for very rare and partial vowels on the coins of one or two later kings, until the end of the series. However, even without the vowels, the coins provide a very interesting sequence from which the changes in the styles of the letter-forms can be ascertained from the third to the seventh century (Munro-Hay 1984iii).
This information, combined with inscriptional material, is one way of tentatively dating newly-discovered Ge`ez documents. However, such palaeographical work is still in its infancy and lacks sufficient numbers of documents which can be reliably dated to make it an efficient tool at present. Early inscriptions closely resembling South Arabian ones have been dated according to the palaeographical studies of Pirenne (1956), but again there might be a case for readjustment (Schneider 1976i). In a recent (unpublished) paper, Roger Schneider has commented on some fascinating anomalies in Ge`ez writing on Aksumite inscriptions and coins (see also Drewes 1955; Hahn 1987). The existence of one vocalized letter on certain silver coins of Wazeba, a predecessor of Ezana, may well indicate that the process of vocalization was under way before Ezana, though the unvocalized Ge`ez inscription of Ezana (DAE 7) has made it commonly accepted that the development of vocalization occurred during his reign. Littmann (1913, IV: 78), Drewes and Schneider all suggest deliberate archaizing; some of the letters, apart from lacking vowels, are of forms very much more ancient than those current for Ezana’s time.
This is not just over-elaborate academic discussion. For whatever reasons Ezana had this done (and Drewes suggests perhaps a desire to emphasize the links with South Arabia, or perhaps to point to the ancient origins of Aksumite royal power), it is of interest that almost no kings of Aksum in the subsequent centuries introduced vowelling on their coins, or when they did, it was only on a letter or two; and this long after vocalization must have been current on other media. Preceding the common use of Ge`ez, Greek was the chosen official language of the inscriptions and coins. This was evidently largely orientated towards foreign residents and visitors, and can hardly have been understood by more than the smallest section of the ruling class and merchant community. There must also have been a body of more or less learned men who acted as scribes in preparing the drafts of the inscriptions, perhaps priests or a special corps of clerks. Greek remained the language of the coins, particularly the gold, until the end of the coinage, but its quality degenerated quickly.
Coins datable to the fourth and fifth centuries already show errors in their Greek legends. A few inscriptions were drafted in several versions; Greek, and in Ge`ez in two redactions, the first in the Ge`ez script, the second in the South Arabian script. Use of this `pseudo-Sabaean’ seems to have been mere vanity, perhaps trying to equal the tri-lingual inscriptions set up by the Sassanian kings of Persia, since there can hardly have been any real reason for rendering a Ge`ez inscription into the South Arabian monumental script. Presumably, a native speaker of Ge`ez would be able to recognize the gist of the text, the letters, though differently oriented and more rectilinear, being still recognizable; but a Ge`ez version was also supplied. A visiting South Arabian would have understood the script but not the language. The South Arabian script might perhaps have retained something of a sacrosanct aura, as the ancient vehicle for dedicatory inscriptions, so that it was felt that a version in that script fulfilled the requirements of tradition; but that seems a little far-fetched as an explanation by the time of Kaleb and W`ZB. When king Kaleb of Aksum received Greek-speaking ambassadors, he employed an interpreter to translate the letters from the emperor; but this may have been due to the formalities of court protocol rather than of necessity (Malalas, ed. Migne 1860: 670).
It can hardly be doubted, from the evidence of survivors such as the `proto-Ge`ez’ inscriptions of Matara, Safra, and Anza, and the series of royal inscriptions, that there was a fair body of written material in Ge`ez extant in Aksumite times, though examples found to date cannot in any way compare numerically with the sort of material surviving from most other ancient civilizations. Small inscriptions have been found on vessels of stone and pottery (Littmann 1913: IV; Drewes and Schneider 1967: 96ff; Schneider 1965: 91-2; Anfray 1972: pl. III). One, on a rock on Beta Giyorgis hill overlooking Aksum, seems to be a boundary-marker reading `Boundary between (the land of) SMSMY and SBT’ — either the names of the owners or of the parcels of land. Future archaeological missions will almost undoubtedly reveal more of these minor inscriptions. Abroad, Ge`ez inscriptions are known from Meroë, Socotra (Bent 1898), and South Arabia. A later manifestation in the development of letters in Ethiopia was the translation of various literary works from other languages such as Greek, Arabic, and Syriac into Ge`ez, with concomitant effects on the language itself.