“Ishee” is a word in Amharic. When spoken, it is usually followed by a sharp, audible intake of breath for emphasis. Although sometimes it just sounds like “ish”. And sometimes it’s just the breath.
Ish or ishee means something like “OK” in English. If you think about it, Americans are always saying OK. We say it when we mean good, or acceptable, or I agree, or I will do that, or I understand what you’re saying. Ish is the pretty much the same. If you are talking to an Ethiopian, instead of nodding and saying OK, they will do the breath thing and say “ish” a lot.
The first extended conversation I had with an Amharic-speaking Ethiopian was with our housekeeper, Etsegenet. She came to our apartment on our second day in Addis to meet us and find out about her new schedule. We thanked her for the spaghetti sauce and salad she’d made and left in our refrigerator, and for the supplies she’d bought and stored in the cupboards.
As we talked, I became convinced she had some kind of unusual speech impediment, exacerbated by having to communicate with a pair of jet-lagged English-only faranji who held her employment future in their hands. I didn’t realize until several days later, after meeting Ethiopian staff at the school, that this is what everyone sounds like.
Now that I’ve been here for half a year, I don’t notice the “ish” thing at all. Instead it’s the the few words of Amharic I know that jump out at me. Funny what you notice, and how it changes.