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East African Arabic

F or centuries the ruler of the East African coast  – the whole area called Uswahili  – was the Sultan of Oman. Mombasa and Zanzibar rebelled at times, and at one time so did Lamu.  But ultimately the whole area was held together, but under the breakaway Sultan of Zanzibar.  He and his people were Omanis that rebelled against the home rulers.  Just like the USA British who broke away from the home country because of internal differences, but then developed strong fraternal relations later.

Omani and Yemeni
Thus Omani Arabic is the primary linguistic influence in Arabic in East Africa.  Most Swahili forms borrowed from Arabic where different from Standard Arabic or the more popular but non-standard Egyptian Arabic (like "gamel" instead of "camel"), can be traced to Yemeni-Omani forms.  As I, a non-speaker understand it, there is not a great difference between the Yemeni and Omani language forms.  Omani is the foundational Arabic language form.

Earlier Arab traders who settled on the East African coast settled down and learned the local Bantu language, married local women, introduced Islam and thus much Arab culture and vocabulary.

The Swahili language and culture grew up this way.  The Arabs may have maintained their Arabic, but also spoke Swahili, the form of Bantu language common on the coast.  Arabic was a minority language.

East African (Zanzibari and Tanzanian) Arabic should likely be classified as a dialect of Omani Arabic.  But there arenít many left who speak it.  Here is where some confusion comes in.  The Arabian Arabs, as opposed to the Kenya or East African Arabs, are Yemeni.

I do not know of any recent Omani immigrants or workers in Kenya, though that does not mean there arenít any.  I have not actually lived on the coast, so my contacts are indirect, meeting people through others who live there.  Coastal non-citizen Arabs I know of are Yemeni origin.

The Arabs I met in Nairobi over the years all came from Yemen.  They were Yemenis in Kenya on work permits.  They served as sheikhs, imams and teachers in schools, and as businessmen.  They learn Swahili to communicate with the local people, both African and Arab.

Coastal Kenyan Arabs
Coastal Kenyan Arabs I have met are business people, and they do not speak Arabic, but Swahili.  They learn Arabic as a formal language but do not use it at home, that I am aware of.  However, it seems their ties outside Kenya are in Yemen.

I know some have gone there for various business.  Some have studied outside in Arabic countries, but I cannot say if that would be in Yemen or more developed areas like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

There are other Yemeni Arabs in business on the coast who do speak Arabic and do maintain contact with Yemen, but not Oman, as far as I know.  (But it takes only one negative example to prove any such observation wrong.)

The 1989 Kenya census shows 7,881 "Other Arabs." Kenya Arabs are shown as 33,71 4, with 40,456 my projection for 1996.

It is my impression that in general, East African coastal Arabs do not speak Arabic as a native language.

Nubian Creole Arabic
The Nubi, or Nubians, are shown in the 1989 Kenya census as 6,000.  They still live in Kibera, as a separate tribe, speaking the same Nubian Creole Arabic.  This is said to be no longer intelligible with Sudan Creole Arabic.  An article in the Sunday Nation (written by a Nubi) says the Nubi in Nairobi cannot understand Sudan Arabic Creole speakers.  The author is a Catholic priest, "Father Kizito, " who has a regular column and wrote this feature on the Nubi.  I am uncertain if Kenyan Creole Arabic is intelligible with Ugandan Nubian Creole.

My understanding is that Sudan Creole is a different speech form from Juba Arabic.  At any rate, the Kenya Nubi(ans) use Swahili to speak with the world, not any form of Arabic.  Creole Arabic (Nubian, or Kinubi  – the Swahili name for their speech) is only a home language, and is not written.  They are highly literate in Swahili and English.  I doubt if the population numbers would warrant translation or direct ministry in Nubian Creole.

It seems to me that Juba Arabic would be a viable and appropriate language form for at least non-print communication in Sudan.  I do not think it is viable for Kenya, even for the Nubi.  Everything related to learning or writing or contact with the outside world appears to be in Swahili (or English) and they seem totally bilingual.  Unfortunately, I have not had sufficient personal contact to say whether Swahili is their decision-making language.  If not Swahili, then it would be Nubian Creole Arabic, not Juba Arabic.

The people are called Nubi, or possibly Nubis (and alternatively, Nubians).  Their language is appropriately referred to as Nubian (Creole) or Nubi.  However, the term Kinubi for their language seems to indicate their bilingualism in Swahili and their association with Kenyan African society.

Though some refer to their language as Kinubi, it would not be appropriate in technical linguistic usage to call their language by this term, as that is the word for their language in Swahili.

Arabic in Kenya
I think there are sufficient formal and anecdotal data to indicate that Arabic is not a primary language of any indigenous group of Kenyans.   It appears that the primary constituency whose mother tongue is English would be primarily Yemenis who are non-citizens.

I think a case might be made for Arabic on the Tanzania coast, but not for Zanzibar.  The African Zanzibaris rebelled against the Omani Zanzibaris in a bloody revolution right after independence.  Those not killed fled to Oman or other places.

There are likely again some Omani speakers there, but Arabic would be out of fashion and all the Omani-origin Zanzibaris speak Swahili as a native language.  When they fled to Oman, they took Swahili with them and it is well-established there as a mother tongue.

But Swahili was actually spoken in Oman before the Zanzibar revolution, from what I have read.  They actually imported Swahili to the homeland before independence.  Thus it appears that Swahili would be the mother-tongue of Omani-Zanzibari Arabs, and many coastal Tanzania Arabs.

Some Omani Arabs have more recently immigrated to Zanzibar, but also speak Swahili.  More specific investigation needs to be done to determine how many monolingual or primary-language Arabic speakers there are in Tanzania.

Maeshummo, an Omani, wrote to comment on this topic:

"I read your paper which talked about the the Arabs in East Africa.  The relationship of Tanzania and Swahili to Oman.  I grew up in Oman and have acutely observed the different layers.  Oman is an onion." -- Maeshummo, email to Orville Boyd Jenkins, 04 March 2013

Also related
Arabic in East Africa

Orville Boyd Jenkins
Written January 1996
Revised and Posted on OJTR 09 May 2004
Last edited 23 April 2013

Copyright © 1996, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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