Languages of South Sudan

Languages of South Sudan
Official languages English (Commonwealth variant)
National languages

and about 60 other languages

Lingua franca(s) English, Juba Arabic
A sign in English in South Sudan.

South Sudan is a multilingual country, with over 60 indigenous languages spoken. The official language of the country is English,[2] which was introduced in the region during the colonial era (see Anglo-Egyptian Sudan).

The indigenous languages with the most speakers are Dinka, Nuer, Bari and Zande. In the capital city of Juba, an Arabic pidgin known as Juba Arabic is used by several thousand people.

Indigenous languages

There are over 60 indigenous languages spoken in South Sudan. Most of the indigenous languages are classified under the Nilo-Saharan language family; collectively, they represent two of the first order divisions of Nilo-Saharan (Eastern Sudanic and Central Sudanic). The remainder belong to the Ubangi languages of the Niger–Congo language family, and they are spoken in the southwest.

The most recent available population statistics for many South Sudan indigenous languages go back to the 1980s. Since then, the war of independence led to many civilian deaths and massive displacement of refugees to Sudan and beyond. Due to the drafting of colonial borders in Africa by European powers during the 19th and 20th centuries, some indigenous languages of South Sudan are spoken in neighboring countries, in some cases more so than in South Sudan. Zande, for example is estimated to have twice as many speakers in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the Banda group of languages may have more speakers in the Central African Republic than in South Sudan.

In South Sudan, the languages with the most speakers are Nuer with 740,000 speakers in 1982, and Dinka sociolinguistic language or dialect continuum with perhaps 1.4 million in 1986; these two groups of languages are also closely related to one another. Bari had 420,000 in 2000, and Zande had 350,000 in 1982. Of the Ubangi languages, available figures indicate that Zande is the only one with a substantial number of speakers in South Sudan.[3]

Indigenous language loss

Since 1950, three South Sudanese indigenous languages have become extinct, no longer having even ceremonial use - Togoyo, Mittu, and Homa.[4] Of the 68 living languages recognized by ethnologue, 17 are categorized as "in danger." Boguru is used only ceremonially. Aja and Mangayat have only elderly speakers who rarely have the opportunity to use the languages.[5]

West Central Banda, Indri, and Njalgulgule are used commonly among the elderly, but no members of the child-bearing generation speak them actively. An additional 9 languages are not being transferred to children, and although Bonga and Lokoya are spoken by all generations within their population, they are rapidly losing users.[6]

Non-indigenous languages

In the state of Western Bahr Al Ghazal, in its border region with the neighboring country of Sudan, there is an indeterminate number of Baggara Arabs—a traditionally nomadic people—that resides either seasonally or permanently. Their language is Chadian Arabic and their traditional territories are in the southern portions of the Sudanese regions of Kordofan and Darfur. In the capital, Juba, there are several thousand people who use an Arabic pidgin, Juba Arabic.[7][8] Since South Sudan was part of Sudan for a century, some South Sudanese are conversant in either Sudanese Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic.

During the Rejaf Conference held in April 1928 during the Anglo-Egyptian condominium it was decided that schooling in the South would be in the English language. Although after independence the Sudan government tried to replace English with Arabic, part of the peace agreement in 1972 ensured that English continued as the medium of education in most schools in southern Sudan. English is widely spoken by those who have had the opportunity of going to school, either within South Sudan or in the diaspora.

South Sudan's ambassador to Kenya said on 2 August 2011 that Swahili will be introduced in South Sudan with the goal of supplanting Arabic as a lingua franca, in keeping with the country's intention of orientation toward the East African Community rather than Sudan and the Arab League.[9]

A group of South Sudanese refugees who were raised in Cuba during the Sudanese wars, numbering about 600, also speak fluent Spanish. They have been named the Cubanos, and most had settled in Juba by the time of the country's independence.[10]


  1. Ethnologue: Ethnologue Languages of the World – South Sudan - Status, Retrieved 3 December 2016
  2. "The Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, 2011". Government of South Sudan. Retrieved 12 July 2011. Part One, 6(2). "English shall be the official working language in the Republic of South Sudan".
  3. Ethnologue, Sudan
  4. ethnologue
  5. ethnologue
  6. ethnologue
  7. Tosco, Mauro (1995). "A Pidgin Verbal System: The Case of Juba Arabic" (PDF). Anthropological linguistics. 37 (4): 423–459. JSTOR 30028330.
  8. Arabic dialectology specialist Alan S. Kaye, considers it partially decreolized. Ethnologue has a contrarian judgement that Juba Arabic is a creole.
  9. "South Sudanese still in Kenya despite new state". Coastweek. 5 August 2011. Archived from the original on September 29, 2011. Retrieved 6 August 2011.
  10. Radio France International, "Los cubanos, la élite de Sudán del Sur". Retrieved 11 July 2011

External links

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