Monday, August 17, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of South Sudan

This week we're back with yet another African country profile following our recent posts on the languages of Zimbabwe, Chad, and Zambia. However, today we're looking at the linguistic landscape of one of the world's newest countries, South Sudan. It gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 after a referendum in which over 98% of voters supported independence.

The Official Language

The sole official language of South Sudan is English, which is co-official with the Arabic language in Sudan. As usual, English was first introduced during the colonial era. Between 1899 and 1956, the area that is now South Sudan was part of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which was basically a British colony. In any case, while the English language is used by the government and in other important areas, there are almost no native English speakers in South Sudan.

Other Languages

A family of bongos, an antelope species found in South Sudan.
So if most South Sudanese people don't speak English as their first language, what do they speak? According to the Ethnologue there are 68 living languages in South Sudan, most of which belong to the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo language families. However, most language statistics for South Sudan date back to the 1980s, so there aren't very good estimates for how many speakers most of these languages have.

That said, we do know a bit about the most spoken indigenous languages in South Sudan, which include Arabic, Bari, Zande, Dinka, and Nuer. Two closely related varieties of Arabic, an important lingua franca, are used in South Sudan: Sudanese Arabic and Juba Arabic, which is either a pidgin or a creole of Sudanese Arabic, depending on who you ask.

In terms of Nilo-Saharan languages, one of the most important is undoubtedly Dinka, the language of the country's largest ethnic group. Several different varieties of the Dinka language are used in South Sudan, which are thought to make up a total of over 1 million native speakers. Other prominent Nilo-Saharan languages include Nuer, which is also spoken in Ethiopia, and Bari, the language of the Bari people.

Finally, there's Zande, the country's most important Niger-Congo language. The exact number of speakers is unknown, but we do know that it is also spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has also been mentioned in the news that Swahili might be introduced as a new lingua franca in South Sudan as well, but we'll just have to wait and see what happens with that in the future!