Language differences have served as a partial basis for ethnic classification and as symbols of ethnic identity. Such differences have been obstacles to the flow of communication in a state as linguistically fragmented as Sudan. These barriers have been overcome in part by the emergence of some languages as lingua francas and by a considerable degree of multilingualism in some areas.
Most languages spoken in Africa fall into four language superstocks. Three of them--Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Kurdufanian, and Nilo-Saharan--are represented in Sudan. Each is divided into groups that are in turn subdivided into sets of closely related languages. Two or more major groups of each superstock are represented in Sudan, which has been historically both a northsouth and an east-west migration crossroad.
The most widely spoken language in the Sudan is Arabic, a member of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Cushitic, another major division of the Afro-Asiatic language, is represented by Bedawiye (with several dialects), spoken by the largely nomadic Beja. Chadic, a third division, is represented by its most important single language, Hausa, a West African tongue used by the Hausa themselves and employed by many other West Africans in Sudan as a lingua franca.
Niger-Kurdufanian is first divided into Niger-Congo and Kurdufanian. The widespread Niger-Congo language group includes many divisions and subdivisions of languages. Represented in Sudan are Azande and several other tongues of the Adamawa-Eastern language division, and Fulani of the West Atlantic division. The Kurdufanian stock comprises only thirty to forty languages spoken in a limited area of Sudan, the Nuba Mountains and their environs.
The designation of a Nilo-Saharan superstock has not been fully accepted by linguists, and its constituent groups and subgroups are not firmly fixed, in part because many of the languages have not been well studied. Assuming the validity of the category and its internal divisions, however, eight of its nine major divisions and many of their subdivisions are well represented in Sudan, where roughly seventy-five languages, well over half of those named in the 1955-56 census, could be identified as Nilo-Saharan. Many of these languages are used only by small groups of people. Only six or seven of them were spoken by 1 percent or more of Sudan's 1956 population. Perhaps another dozen were the home languages of 0.5 to 1 percent. Many other languages were used by a few thousand or even a few hundred people.
The number of languages and dialects in Sudan is assumed to be about 400, including languages spoken by an insignificant number of people. Moreover, languages of smaller ethnic groups tended to disappear when the groups assimilated with more dominant ethnic units.
Several lingua francas have emerged and many peoples have become genuinely multilingual, fluent in a native language spoken at home, a lingua franca, and perhaps other languages. Arabic is the primary lingua franca in Sudan, given its status as the country's official language and as the language of Islam. Arabic, however, has several different forms, and not all who master one are able to use another. Among the varieties noted by scholars are classical Arabic, the language of the Quran (although generally not a spoken language and only used for printed work and by the educated in conversation); Modern Standard Arabic, derived from classical Arabic; and at least two kinds of colloquial Arabic in the Sudan--that spoken in roughly the eastern half of the country and called Sudanese colloquial Arabic and that spoken in western Sudan, closely akin to the colloquial Arabic spoken in Chad. There are other colloquial forms. A pidgin called Juba Arabic is peculiar to southern Sudan. Although some Muslims might become acquainted with classical Arabic in the course of rudimentary religious schooling, very few except the most educated know it except by rote.
Modern Standard Arabic is in principle the same everywhere in the Arab world and presumably permits communication among educated persons whose mother tongue is one or another form of colloquial Arabic. Despite its international character, however, Modern Standard Arabic varies from country to country. It has been, however, the language used in Sudan's central government, the press, and Radio Omdurman. The latter also broadcast in classical Arabic. One observer, writing in the early 1970s, noted that Arabic speakers (and others who had acquired the language informally) in western Sudan found it easier to understand the Chadian colloquial Arabic used by Chad Radio than the Modern Standard Arabic used by Radio Omdurman. This might also be the case elsewhere in rural Sudan where villagers and nomads speak a local dialect of Arabic.
Despite Arabic's status as the official national language, English was acknowledged as the principal language in southern Sudan in the late 1980s. It was also the chief language at the University of Khartoum and was the language of secondary schools even in the north before 1969. The new policy for higher education announced by the Sudanese government in 1990 indicated the language of instruction in all institutions of higher learning would be Arabic.
Nevertheless, in the south, the first two years of primary school were taught in the local language. Thereafter, through secondary school, either Arabic or English could become the medium of instruction (English and Arabic were regarded as of equal importance); the language not used as a medium was taught as a subject. In the early 1970s, when this option was established, roughly half the general secondary classes (equivalent to grades seven through nine) were conducted in Arabic and half in English in Bahr al Ghazal and Al Istiwai provinces. In early 1991, with about 90 percent of the southern third of the country controlled by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the use of Arabic as a medium of instruction in southern schools remained a political issue, with many southerners regarding Arabic as an element in northern cultural domination.
Juba (or pidgin) Arabic, developed and learned informally, had been used in southern towns, particularly in Al Istiwai, for some time and had spread slowly but steadily throughout the south, but not always at the expense of English. The Juba Arabic used in the marketplace and even by political figures addressing ethnically mixed urban audiences could not be understood by northern Sudanese.
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