2. The Meaning of T’ej

By Harry Kloman, University of Pittsburgh

THE HISTORY AND ORIGIN of the word “t’ej” – as with so many words in so many languages – is probably as clear as it will ever get.

It’s the word, in Amharic, that Ethiopians have long called wine made from honey. Amharic, a Semitic language, has been the state language of Ethiopia for centuries, although it’s not the country’s most widely spoken first language. That honor goes to Afaan Oromo, a Cushitic language. The Amhara culture dominated the country long ago and imposed its language as official.

In fact, the word t’ej is essentially the Amharic word for wine. If you want grape wine in Ethiopia, you ask for wayn t’ej, where wayn is the word for grape. But if you just want a glass of “wine,” you ask for t’ej.

As this comprehensive chart shows, several other Ethiopian languages – some Semitic, some not – use the word t’ej or something like it to mean honey wine, and Amharic itself seems to have borrowed the word from a root word in an Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue.

From Leslau's Harari (top) and Gurage etymological dictionaries
From Leslau’s Harari (top)
and Gurage etymological dictionaries

Wolf Leslau’s three-volume Etymological Dictionary of Gurage, a southern Semitic language related to Amharic, has an entry for t’egay, t’ege, t’äge, däg’ä, which are variations of Semitic-language words for honey, honey water or honey wine. Leslau’s Harari dictionary also has an entry that shows the word for mead in Harari (another Semitic language) along with related words in other languages, including the Cushitic Sidama and Qabena.

In the notation of linguistics, these words for honey wine – which clearly have a kinship to t’ej – can best be represented as *d’agay, a theoretical root word, where the asterisk indicates that a root word has been reconstructed by scholars from the best available evidence. The word *d’agay probably goes back a few thousand years, before the time when a single ancient South Ethiopian Semitic language split off into Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigré, Harari, Gurage (with its numerous dialects) and several others.

Complicating the picture slightly: Whereas ancient South Ethiopian Semitic languages used *d’agay to mean honey and its derivatives, ancient North Ethiopian Semitic languages called honey mar, which is the modern Amharic word for honey. But in South Ethiopian Semitic, mar tended to mean beeswax. Linguists hypothesize that the northern branch adopted mar, the southern word for beeswax, to mean honey, just as the northern branch morphed the word *d’agay into t’ej and took it as the word for honey wine.

About two millennia ago, then, when Northeast Africa may well have been more culturally advanced than much of Europe, the South Ethiopian Semitic mother tongue used *d’agay and its evolutionary forms to mean honey, honey water or honey wine. In Amharic, the “d” sound has since evolved into a “t,” and “gay” has evolved into “ge” and then into “j.” So this is how linguists theorize that *d’agay became t’ej:


The variant spellings of the final form represent two things: the difficulty of transliterating Amharic into English; and the pronunciation differences, noted in the chart with the words for honey wine, between Ethiopian cultures with related languages, as well as non-related languages that have borrowed the word.

Note, too, the apostrophes in some of the names. Together with consonants called plosives (p, t, k), the apostrophe represents an ejective, a distinct sound in Ethiopian language that’s transcribed in this way in linguistics. Listen closely to an Ethiopian saying “t’ej” and you’ll hear the consonant with the apostrophe spit or snap just a bit inside the mouth.

Because most people won’t know this sound, the spelling of “t’ej” is commonly simplified to “tej” when transliterating from Amharic to English, eliminating the apostrophe, which means nothing to everyday readers. Some linguists prefer that it be written t’ejj, with a double “j” used to represent the hard “g” sound of the Amharic letter that ends the word. Still others will transliterate it as t’äjj, with a diacritic, in an attempt to better represent the vowel, which probably sounds more like the “u” in “but” than the “e” in “edge.”

Although the Amharic t’ej almost certainly came from *d’agay, how this particular root word came to represent honey or honey wine – or how any word in any language comes to represent anything – is anyone’s guess. The late Professor Leslau, a groundbreaking authority on Ethiopian Semitic languages, doesn’t cite any extra-Ethiopian roots in his writings on these words, although some of his work has now been surpassed by more recent studies and groupings of Ethiopian languages.

Among the world’s myriad languages, wine made from honey goes by many names. But two of them, with variations that adapt them to the features of each language, tend to dominate. (Here’s a chart of the words for honey wine in other African and non-African languages.)

Ethiopian hip-hop artist Fantu Mandoye created a video, “Min Tej Alena,” which means, roughly translated, “there is no good tej any more.” His video, posted on You Tube, is in Amharic and English

One common name is mead or its linguistic kin. The etymology of this word – through Greek, Latin and other ancient avenues – does nothing to suggest extra-Ethiopian influences on the word t’ej. The second common name, somewhat more generic, is hydromel, which comes from two Greek words: u’dro, meaning water, and méli, meaning honey. Simple enough. In fact, the modern French word for honey is miel, and the modern Italian word is miele. And then there’s metheglin, a spiced mead. The word comes from Welsh and means medicinal liquor. Not surprisingly, Ethiopians (and other cultures) have often used mead to soothes what ails them.

Variations of “mead” and “hydromel” are common among Indo-European languages (see the chart with African and non-African languages). In the west, the Spanish call it aguamiel (agua is the Spanish “hydro”). In the east, the Russians call it medovukha (clearly a variation of mead), and even the Indian language Sanskrit calls it medhu. In between, there’s the Italian idromele, the Greek ydromeli, the Lithuanian and Latvian medus, the Danish and Norwegian mjød. The similarities to either mead or hydromel are apparent.

None of this helps to explain the origins of the Ethiopian word t’ej, nor of the other Ethiopian or African words for honey wine. This is certainly no surprise. It also reaffirms the theory that Africans began to cultivate honey and ferment it into wine without European influences.


Just as interesting is mes, the most widely known alternative name for t’ej because it’s used in Tigrinya, spoken in northern Ethiopia, and also the dominant language of Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia. The two countries share a lot of history, including the evolution of their Semitic languages, and both Amharic and Tigrinya are written with the same unique Ethiopian alphabet developed to write Ge’ez millennia ago.

The ancient language Ge’ez – the “Latin of Ethiopia,” now extinct, except as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Christian church – also called the beverage mes, and both modern Tigrinya and modern Tigré retain the word, derived from the Ge’ez root word *mys. This is no surprise, especially in Tigré, the extant language closest to Ge’ez. Leslau, in his Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez, relates mes to the Arabic mata, which means “mix well,” and with the Old South Arabian myt, which means “wine.” It seems quite likely that Ge’ez borrowed myt and transformed it into mes, thus making the history of mes easier to trace than the history of t’ej.

And notice the crossover of this Semitic word: Bilin, a Cushitic language of Eritrea, has borrowed mes, but older people also call it mid; and both Xamtanga (miz) and Awngi (mishi), Cushitic languages of Ethiopia, use forms of it as well. Notice, too, that these words are not so far from the English mead – perhaps a linguistic coincidence, as sometimes happens. Or perhaps not.

In fact, the many different names for honey wine across Ethiopia, where the country’s myriad cultural and ethnic groups speak more than 90 languages, suggest that even separate Ethiopian cultures developed honey wine as their own traditions.

“Letenachin,” the Amharic toast,
means “to our health”

Most of Ethiopia’s languages are classified in one of four language families: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan (especially its Nilotic and Surmic sub-groups). Although Amharic is the official and most widely spoken language, it’s the second language (by necessity) for many Ethiopians.

But there’s another twist. In Afaan Oromo, the most widely spoken first language in the country, honey wine is called daad’ii, which isn’t as divergent from t’ej as it may seem. In fact, the kinship between the two words may reflect a strain of Ethiopian history.

Some Cushitic linguists suggest that Amharic – the Semitic language that dominates the country, even though the Cushitic Oromo people and their language are more numerous – may have borrowed t’ej as an altered form of daad’ii. As noted earlier with the root word *d’agay, the “d” has changed into a “t” and the “g” into a “j” in modern Semitic languages. But the Amharic “j” or “jj” (a long sound) can reflect, in some borrowed words, the evolution of a former Cushitic “dy” or “di” sound.

More evidence for this hypothesis: Why do the other major Semitic languages – Tigrinya and Tigré – retain the old Ethiosemitic mes for honey wine, but Amharic uses t’ej? Tigrinya and Tigré are spoken in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, farther away from the central part of the country, where the Amharas and the Oromo met, mixed and, long ago, fought to control the country’s cultural and linguistic destiny. Using the Cushitic daad’ii as the root word for t’ej, this could be another possible evolutionary path:


Of course, this begs the question: Where did daad’ii come from? Could it, too, have come from the Semitic root word *d’agay? In what direction did the borrowing go? We’ll certainly never know. Still, if t’ej is an evolved form of daad’ii, or even if daad’ii was an intermediate form, it could further show how the Amhara people have dominated the majority Oromo people in Ethiopian history, taking their name for honey wine and transforming it into the word known ’round the world. And if, as the linguist Max Weinreich wrote (quoting others), “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” then the Amhara may have used language as another weapon to conquer their more numerous rivals.

Incidentally, the Oromo use the word booka for the yeast used to ferment their honey wine, and their best-quality daad’ii is daad’ii booka, with the yeast still in it. This is the type of daad’ii used at ceremonies. A few other Ethiopian Cushitic languages have borrowed booka or something similar for honey wine.

Daad’ii is so revered in Oromo culture that the Macca Oromo of Wallagga, Ethiopia, have even written a song that sings its praises and alerts people to its dangers. In their 1996 essay “On Some Masqala and Daboo Songs of the Macca Oromo,” Alessandro Triulzi and Tamene Bitima translate this paean to honey wine.


In the 1930s, the German researcher Carl Seyffert published a book on honey in Africa in which he identifies three qualities of Oromo honey wine: hamtuu, the weakest (literally “bad, feminine”); boru, medium strength (literally “hard, heavy, thick”); and bekumu, the strongest (possibly from beekuma, meaning “intelligence, ingenuity,” or possibly a root word for booka, badly transliterated by a non-linguist). In Amharic, beteha refers to a mild t’ej that’s not fully fermented or that might not have used enough gesho, the woody species of buckthorn used to flavor the wine and provoke fermentation (more on that later).

Other cultures have found other fermenting agents. The Majang people of Ethiopia use the bark of the mange tree to make ogool. The Anuak, a Nilotic people of Ethiopia, pound and dry the bark of three trees – the aromo, the buodho and the jaa – to make their strong ogool. The jaa, Kigelia aethiopica, is colloquially called the sausage tree because of the shape of its seed pods. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Nandi people make a honey wine called kipketinik, a mixture of fermented honey and water flavored with the flower of the sausage tree.

To ferment their honey wine, called d’aadi, the Arbore people of Ethiopia use aar, which is made of sorghum sprouts. The word means “bull,” a testament to its fortitude. When a household has d’aadi fermenting, the residents may not shout or fight in the house, and when the wine is ready to drink, the first taste always goes to the spirits of the family’s ancestors.

Note, in the chart, how numerous Ethiopian languages have shared and borrowed their various words for honey wine. The Amharic t’ej becomes tajji in Silt’e, another Semitic language, and c’ajj in the Omotic language Zargulla. The Semitic language Inor retains the older dag’a, where the “d” sound doesn’t morph into a “t.” Sidama, Afar and Somali – Cushitic languages of Ethiopia’s Moslem cultures – use forms of malb, their word for honey, to mean honey wine. This and other alcoholic beverages are rare in Moslem communities. And whereas it’s impossible to say how far a borrowed word can travel, the Chadian Nilo-Saharan language Kenga calls honey tèèjè.

No doubt t’ej goes by numerous other names in small communities whose languages have yet to be fully documented, although many Ethiopian languages – Chaha, a dialect of the Semitic Gurage language, as well as about 15 other Gurage dialects, and even Cushitic and Omotic languages – borrow the Amharic word t’ej. In fact, the word t’ej has taken additional forms in Amharic: In Addis Ababa, tejjam and tejjo refer to a drunkard, and tejete means to brew t’ej.


The information for the chart was gleaned from scholars of Ethiopian and African languages from around the world. Because Ethiopia wasn’t the only culture to ferment honey, a fuller version of the chart includes the words for honey wine in many more non-Ethiopian languages, just to show how widespread the tradition of fermenting honey is. Those pan-African honey wines aren’t always exactly like t’ej, but they’re certainly fermented in the same spirit.

Finally, a word about spelling. The orthography of transliteration is always a challenge with Ethiopian languages: Unique among millennia-old African tongues, Amharic has its own alphabet. But there’s no standardized way to convert Amharic fidels (letters) into English (or any language), and many of the less widely spoken languages of the country only developed a written tradition, if they have one at all, when they came in contact with outside cultures. The Latin alphabet tends to dominate, although some African languages use Arabic script.

The orthography of the language chart is based upon the advice of linguists and their etymological dictionaries, and these many names for honey wine represent the best possible scholarly attempts to recreate their pronunciations in English. Sometimes the orthographic variations – especially in the word t’ej itself – seem insignificant, and linguists do disagree on some of them. But most of these words are so difficult to represent in our alphabet that only native speakers can truly hear – and correctly pronounce – the differences.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

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