The Saho (Soho) people an agro-pastoral and amalgamated ethnolinguistic and cultural group belonging to the larger Cushitic ethnic group inhabiting the Horn of Africa. They are principally concentrated in Eritrea, with some also living in adjacent parts of Ethiopia. Ancient Saho speaking people are descendants of ancient Kushites.
The term Kushite derives from the ancient peoples of North East Africa, which started to live in this part of Africa since more than 5000 B.C., with their own culture and language. The ancient Kushite peoples are those who spoke languages of the Kushite branch of the Afro-Asiatic (also known as Hamito-Semitic) family. They are the indigenous peoples of the present day Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
The word "Saho" means "nomad," ("saa" means animals and "hoo" means caretaker), which is also an expression of their previous pastoral way of life.
In Eritrea, Saho mainly dwell in the Eastern foothills of Akele-Saho (aka Akele-guzai) and Semhar occupying 60% or more of the landmass. Sahos’ are also found intermingled amongst Tigrinia speaking populace in parts of Eritrea’s highland regions (Akeleguzai, Seraye and Hamasein). They also intermingle with Tigre speaking tribes in Lowland regions such as Barka.
The Saho people speak the Saho language (saahot waani or saahot zirho), which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, as a mother tongue. Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become separate languages as known in modern times. According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
Saho language is mainly spoken in territories bounded by the bay of Idhafale in the east of Eritrea, the Laasi Ghedé valleys in the south, the Eritrea highlands to the west (Akele-Guzai, Shimezana) as well as in borders with Tigre on the west of Eritrea. It is also spoken in Ethiopia mainly in Tigray Region.
The Kushitic languages are divided into 3 major subgroups. These include: (a) East Kushitic languages (Saho, Afar, Somali and Sidama), (b) Central Kushitic or Agaw language (such as Bilen ), (c) South Kushitic languages in Kenya and Tanzanya. According to linguistics, the Kushites spoke historically closely related dialects of the same language and they all shared a common cultural heritage.
Saho language has four main dialects: Tarua, Assawurta, Minifre, and Irob. Irob is mainly spoken in Ethiopia
Although there is no reliable accurate statistics so far, it is believed that Saho is spoken by over 320,000 speakers.
Relationship between Saho & Afar language:
“The Afar & Saho have over 70% of linguistic relationships and they can communicate easily with each other without any difficulty”. (Abdulkader S. Mohammed, 1977 p8)
“The Afar & Saho share a large number of words with the same meaning, cognates are usually closely related. This is because once people speaking a common language have become socially or geographically separated (…). But some words are more resistant to borrowing than others, that means they hare less subject to change over time. In East-Cushitic languages, such words include those for universal concepts [eat, drink, rain, sky, Sun, moon, Star, Earth, cattle, etc..] and basic parts of human body”. M Nuuh Ali (1985: 21-22).
According to Leo Reinisch, (1886:795) that the Afar & Saho are not two languages but the same language. The structure & grammatical forms are the same one language. And this lies in their geographical location and isolation especially by the Saho in the highlands who kept the language.
Herbert S. Lewis (1966:42) assumes that Afar & Saho have evidently been in their area long enough to have diverged into two closely related but distinctly different languages.