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Arabic in East Africa
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

How is the Arabic spoken in Tanzania, East Africa, related to the Arabic spoken in the Sudan and to the Arabic spoken in the Gulf?  Also how is the Arabic that is spoken in the Sudan related to Egyptian Arabic?

Along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania live a population of several thousand Arabs, who can be considered indigenous to the area, having lived there for many centuries.  Over the centuries, most have come to speak Swahili as a mother tongue, though some communities have maintained contact with Arab communities in the Arabian Peninsula.

It seems that Arabic is for them primarily a historical and religious language, rather than a language of the community.  In fact Swahili is now the mother tongue of the Zanzibari Arab community in Oman.

Omani and Yemeni
The Arabic base in Tanzania and Kenya is Omani, but in recent decades, Yemenis have been prominent in Kenya, in business and Islamic leadership, but local Arabs speak Swahili.  I am not sure in Tanzania.  The Arabs of both countries have Swahili as the native language.  Even Omani Arabs in Zanzibar had Swahili as mother tongue.  So much so, that now in Oman, Swahili is a language of Omanis, due to the great flight of Omani Arabs from Zanzibar in the 1963 revolt.

I reviewed this question in the mid-1990s with an Arabic language specialist.  There was some uncertainty, and I was not in a position at that time to do a field survey.  I had information from some colleagues who worked with Arabs on the Kenya coast, and other secondary indicators.

The Arabic specialist determined that Omani is the form of Arabic that should be listed for East Africa.  I note, however, that in light of current research, the Ethnologue notes that most, if not all, have Swahili mother tongue.

Omani and Yemeni (Southern) Arabic languages are considerably different from Egyptian Arabic.  I am not a speaker of any Arabic language, but am somewhat familiar with it from comparative studies, testimonies of various sources and Islamic studies.

Comparative linguists and others familiar with the Arabic languages report there are considerable differences, largely in pronunciation and word-forms.  Each regional form of Arabic has distinct characteristics.  Linguistics classification lists over 30 separate varieties of Arabic that are classified as separate languages.

Egyptian and Sudanese
Egyptian Arabic is the mostly widely-understood form of Arabic, due to the great volume of media in movies, TV and broadcasting.  But pronunciation and word forms of the language are different.  Sudanese is more like Yemeni, I think, but could have retained more Hijazi characteristics.  There was extensive Yemeni influence in the 1800s, through migration and Sufi missionary movements through the Horn and across Sudan, mixing with the Juhayna and other streams of Arabs.

I think Sudanese Arabic is more distant from Omani, I understand.  But Sudanese would not be mutually intelligible with Omani.  Different speakers give different testimonies about the level of intelligibility between the various languages.  And it depends on the level of education and breadth of exposure of various native speakers.  I can't say for foreign learners of one form.  I am not sure of the relation of Omani to Gulf dialects.

I should think Arabic would not be particularly helpful in local communication with the Arabs in Tanzania, other than as an identifying point.  In that regard, Classical would probably do as well.  It would be good to learn greeting forms and Swahili-Omani forms of speech for interpersonal communication.  I expect you will need coastal Swahili (Kisanifu) for communicating with the Arabs in Tanzania.

I am not sure what the status is for Arab communities around the Great Lakes.  I don't know how connected Arabs in communities like Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika are with overseas Arabs.  When I was in the Lakes region many years ago, it seemed their mother tongue was Swahili.

The Foreign Service Institute (US State Department) has what seem to be good programs for various Arabic languages.  I have seen some of these, and know people who have used some.  One of my friends used this approach in learning Sudanese Arabic.  He had assistance in Egypt, but I am not sure of the full approach he took.

In Community
I have been involved in developing programs in various languages in community with various resources in many countries.  I am not an advocate of language learning outside the community where the target language is spoken.  There are many negative effects on learning outside the language and culture context.  But I know likewise that, at least for some learners, some formal resources can be of help.

In general, the best orientation and pre-field preparation a person can do is worldview investigation, with good secondary sources that help develop a picture of the worldview to which the language is related, and which is the foundation of the decision-making approach of the people.

Also related
Language Profile:  East African Arabic


Topic first addressed in reply to an email query 23 September 2005
This article finalized and posted on Thoughts and Resources 24 January 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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