Language and Conflict: The Political History of Arabisation in Sudan and Algeria


  • Heather J. Sharkey

    1. University of Pennsylvania
    Search for more papers by this author
    • Heather J. Sharkey is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (University of California Press, 2003) and American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton University Press, 2008). The author is grateful to the two anonymous referees who provided valuable feedback on an earlier draft of this article.


Upon decolonisation, nationalist leaders in two North African countries, Algeria and Sudan, promoted a policy called Arabisation (ta'rib), which sought to impose standard literary Arabic at the expense of English (in Sudan), French (in Algeria), and other local languages (in both places). This language policy reflected the worldview of Muslim leaders, who hoped to break from the colonial past and start afresh while forging alliances with Arab Islamic states. Arabisation succeeded in expanding the use of literary Arabic in Sudanese and Algerian government bureaus as well as in schools and universities. However, in some circles it helped to stimulate oppositional identities that rejected pan-Arabism as a focal point for national pride and that challenged the cultural foundations of national cohesion. Taking a comparative approach, this study argues that Arabic language policy in Algeria and Sudan featured strongly in postcolonial nationalism and civil conflict. It concludes by considering the status of language cultures and policies today in Algeria, the Republic of the Sudan, and the newly independent Republic of South Sudan, and contends that state-led efforts at ‘language rationalisation’ have not eliminated multilingualism in practice.