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
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
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.
Data as of June 1991