The Masalit language, also called Masarak, may be spoken by as many as several hundred thousand ethnic Masalit people in Dar Masalit, in the western part of Darfur, and in Wadai prefecture (Ouaddaï), Chad. The number and present location of Masalit speakers today is highly uncertain, given that many have been among the refugees fleeing Darfur for Chad and beyond.
Masalit is a Nilo-Saharan language of the Maban branch, most closely related to the highly endangered Massalat language of Chad, but also to several other languages spoken in Chad. Three Masalit dialects have generally been identified: northern (north and east of Geneina in West Darfur), western (around Ouaddaï, Chad), and southern (south of Geneina). In addition, the academic literature on Masalit identifies “heavy” and “light” sociolects. The former features complex agglutinative morphology and is more likely to be spoken in rural areas and by those of higher rank, while the latter shows more influence from Sudanese Arabic.
Sudanese Arabic has increasingly become the prestige language and the language of intergroup communication in Darfur, in refugee camps, and even in the Darfuri diaspora. Although use of Masalit remains vigorous in many communities, the events of the last two decades, including genocide and exile, put the future of the language in doubt.
Some of the earliest materials on Masalit date from the 1920s, but detailed documentation, especially multimedia, is sparse. A 1989 grammatical sketch by linguist John Edgar, focusing on morphophonology, is one of the most important resources. Documentation efforts by the Summer Institute of Linguistics resulted in a recent Masalit-French dictionary. There have also been scattered studies of individual linguistic features, a book chapter by König on the Masalit case system, and field notes by a linguist named R. Stevenson, among other materials.
The estimated 100-200 Darfuri refugees in New York City include a small number of Masalit speakers, and there are many more now in cities across the United States. ELA has collaborated with key organizations in the New York area that support and represent Darfuri refugees. Building off a linguistic field methods course hosted at NYU, ELA worked with Masalit speaker and community leader Daowd Salih, in collaboration with linguists John Singler and Chris Collins, both specialists in the languages of Africa.