The politics of ‘hello’

Travellers in the Arabic world will be familiar with the traditional Islamic greeting ‘as-salam al-aykum’ (literally: ‘peace be upon you’), followed by the equally traditional Islamic response ‘wa al-aykum as-salam’ (lit: ‘and upon you be peace’).

Until recently I had considered such an expression to be universally-accepted throughout the Arabic world. But not so. The expression is subtly different in Juba Arabic.

In Juba Arabic, if you are greeting a single person – as opposed to a group – the common usage of this oft-espoused phrase is, “salam taki”.

Why the difference?

Well, first of all, speakers of Juba Arabic – which is a curious melange of Khartoum Arabic and tribal languages – tend to be fairly cavalier with the use of articles. Out goes the ‘as’ before ‘salam’ and the ‘al’ before ‘taki’.

But the really interesting thing is that the Juba Arabic, when said to a single person, is in the singular, whilst the Khartoum Arabic – and I admit to never having noticed this before – is in the plural.

The reason for the greeting being in the plural in most Arabic countries is that the greeting is also being extended to the angels that, according to Islamic belief, permanently accompany a person.

But in Juba, the plural has been dropped, I am informed, because the predominantly Christian and animist southerners do not hold to such believes.

Just one example of how political dynamics have influenced the development of Juba Arabic.

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