Yemsa is a minor language of Ethiopia, the language of the former kingdom of the people who call themselves Yamma and were absorbed into Ethiopia in 1894; people, kingdom, and language are traditionally called Janjero or Zenjaro, an insulting Amharic term meaning ‘baboon.’ A book by G.W.B. Huntingford, The Galla of Ethiopia: The Kingdoms of Kafa and Janjero, contains the following description (quoted in Andrew Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages, p. 475) of a remarkable feature of the language:

The royal language of Janjero consisted of a special vocabulary for parts of the body, weapons, and verbs of action referring to the king. Thus “eye” in common Janjero is afa, but kema in the royal language; “eat” is ma in common speech, bos in the royal language; and “spear”, ebo in common speech, is me’a in the royal language. The language of respect used special words to describe the ordinary actions of notables: “eat” is ma in common speech, but ta in the language of respect. Improper use of the royal language was punished by death.

A special court vocabulary is an element of a number of East Asian languages (Japanese and Javanese spring to mind); I imagine there are other African examples, but this is the first I’ve come across, and in quite a remote little kingdom. Surely someone must have done a general study of this phenomenon.


  1. I would be fascinated to know too. I was also interested in Bantu languages (or in fact any African language group) in the context of the Sapir-Whorf debate. I read Stavros’s post about Korean and was trying to think if there was anything similar in Africa, or those parts of it where society is extremely heirarchical.
    Sadly I’m absolutely rubbish at all languages. When I was in Cameroon I went to the Fon of Bafut’s palace and saw someone disciplined for directly addressing a high-ranking royal official whom he should have approached through an intercessor. The fine was hefty. In many African societies the divinity of the ruler precludes direct communication. Since the visual symbology and ritual defining the heirarchy is frequently so hugely rich and complex I would be quite surprised if the language was not so too.
    But I’m still left with the question, which came first – the cultural chicken or the language egg.

Speak Your Mind