There are 90 individual languages of Ethiopia according to Ethnologue, with the 1994 Ethiopian census indicating that some 77 tongues were spoken locally. Most of these languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic family (Semitic and Cushitic; Omotic languages are also spoken, though their classification is uncertain). Additionally, Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken by the nation's Nilotic ethnic minorities.
Charles A. Ferguson proposed the Ethiopian Language Area, characterized by shared grammatical and phonological features in 1976. This language area (sprachbund) includes the Afro-Asiatic languages of Ethiopia, not the Nilo-Saharan languages. In 2000, Mauro Tosco questioned the validity of Ferguson's original proposal. There is still no agreement among scholars on this point, but Tosco has at least weakened Ferguson's original claim.
English is the most widely spoken foreign language and is the medium of instruction in secondary schools and universities. Amharic was the language of primary school instruction, but has been replaced in many areas by local languages such as Oromo and Tigrinya.
In terms of writing systems, Ethiopia's principal orthography is Ge'ez or Ethiopic. Employed as an abugida for several of the country's languages, it first came into usage in the 6th and 5th centuries BC as an abjad to transcribe the Semitic Ge'ez language. Ge'ez now serves as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. Other writing systems have also been used over the years by different Ethiopian communities. The latter include Sheikh Bakri Sapalo's script for Oromo.
In Ethiopia, the term "Nilotic" is often used to refer to Nilo-Saharan languages and their communities. However, in academic linguistics, "Nilotic" is only part of "Nilo-Saharan", a segment of the larger Nilo-Saharan family.
A number of Ethiopian languages are endangered: they may not be spoken in one or two generations and may become extinct, victims of language death, as Weyto, Gafat, and Mesmes have and Ongota very soon will. The factors that contribute to language death are complex, so it is not easy to estimate which or how many languages are most vulnerable. Hudson wrote, "Assuming that a language with fewer than 10,000 speakers is endangered, or likely to become extinct within a generation", there are 22 endangered languages in Ethiopia (1999:96). However, a number of Ethiopian languages never have had populations even that high, so it is not clear that this is an appropriate way to calculate the number of endangered languages in Ethiopia. The real number may be lower or higher. The new language policies after the 1991 revolution have strengthened the use of a number of languages. Publications specifically about endangered languages in Ethiopia include: Appleyard (1998), Hayward (1988), Zelealem (1998a,b, 2004)
Appleyard, David. 1998. Language Death: The Case of Qwarenya (Ethiopia). In Endangered Languages in Africa, edited by Matthias Brenzinger. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
Ferguson, Charles. 1976. The Ethiopian Language Area. Language In Ethiopia, ed. by M. Lionel Bender, J. Donald Bowen, R.L. Cooper, Charles A. Ferguson, pp. 63–76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hayward, Richard J. 1998. The Endangered Languages of Ethiopia: What’s at Stake for the Linguist? In Endangered Languages in Africa, edited by Matthias Brenzinger, 17–38. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
Hudson, Grover. 1999. Linguistic Analysis of the 1994 Ethiopian Census. Northeast African Studies Vol. 6, No. 3 (New Series), pp. 89–108.
Hudson, Grover. 2004. Languages of Ethiopia and Languages of the 1994 Ethiopian Census. Aethiopica: International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies 7: 160–172.
Leslau, Wolf. 1965. An annotated bibliography of the Semitic languages of Ethiopia. The Hague: Mouton.
Tosco, Mauro. 2000. Is There an ‘Ethiopian Language Area’? Anthropological Linguistics 42,3: 329–365.
Unseth, Peter. 1990. Linguistic bibliography of the Non-Semitic languages of Ethiopia. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University. (Classification charts, pp. 21 ff.)
Zelealem Leyew. 1998a. An Ethiopian Language on the Verge of Extinction. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 134: 69–84.
Zelealem Leyew. 1998b. Some Structural Signs of Obsolescence in K’emant. In Endangered Languages in Africa. Edited by Matthias Brenzinger. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
Zelealem Leyew. 2004. The fate of endangered languages in Ethiopia. On the margins of nations : endangered languages and linguistic rights. proceedings of the eighth FEL Conference, Eds. Joan A. Argenter & Robert McKenna Brown, 35–45. Bath: Foundation for Endangered Languages.