Sudan's ethnic and linguistic diversity remained one of the most
complex in the world in 1991. Its nearly 600 ethnic groups spoke
more than 400 languages and dialects, many of them intelligible
to only a small number of individuals. In the 1980s and 1990s
some of these small groups became absorbed by larger groups, while
migration often caused individuals reared in one tongue to converse
only in the dominant language of the new area. Such was the case
with migrants to the Three Towns. There Arabic was the lingua
franca despite the use of English by many of the elite. Some linguistic
groups had been absorbed by accommodation, others by conflict.
Most Sudanese were, of necessity, multilingual. Choice of language
played a political role in the ethnic and religious cleavage between
the northern and southern Sudanese. English was associated with
being non-Muslim, as Arabic was associated with Islam. Thus language
was a political instrument and a symbol of identity.
Data as of June 1991