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Nubian language

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Title: Nubian language  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, History of Sudan, Demography of Sudan, Nubian people, Meroitic language, Stratum (linguistics), Magyarab people, Karko people, Culture of North Africa
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Nubian language

southern Egypt, Sudan
Linguistic classification: Nilo-Saharan?
ISO 639-2 / 5: nub

The Nubian languages, according to the most recent research by Bechhaus-Gerst comprises the following varieties:

  1. Nobiin (previously known by the geographic terms Mahas or Fadicca/Fiadicca).
  2. Midob (Meidob) in and around the Malha volcanic crater in North Darfur.
  3. Kenzi-Dongolawi, the largest Nubian language, with over a million speakers. May be closest to Birgid.
  4. Birgid – originally spoken north of Nyala around Menawashei until the 1970s. The last surviving aged speakers were interviewed by Thelwall at this time. Some equally aged speakers on Gezira Aba just north of Kosti on the Nile south of Khartoum were interviewed by Thelwall in 1980.
  5. Hill Nubian – a group of closely related dialects spoken in various villages in the northern Nuba Mountains – in particular Dilling, Debri, and Kadaru.

Old Nubian is preserved in at least a hundred pages of documents, mostly of a Christian religious nature, written with an uncial variety of the Greek alphabet, extended with three Coptic letters and three unique to Old Nubian, apparently derived from Meroitic. These documents range in date from the 8th to the 15th century A.D. Old Nubian is currently considered ancestral to modern Nobiin.

Synchronic research on the Nubian languages began in the last decades of the nineteenth century, first focusing on the Nile Nubian languages Nobiin and Dongolawi/Kenzi. Several well-known Africanists have occupied themselves with Nubian, most notably Lepsius (1880), Reinisch (1879), and Meinhof (1918); other early Nubian scholars include Almkvist and Schäfer. Additionally, important comparative work on the Nubian languages has been carried out by Thelwall and Bechhaus-Gerst in the second half of the twentieth century.


There are three currently active proposals for a Nubian alphabet: based on the Arabic script, the Latin script, and the Old Nubian alphabet. Since the 1950s, Latin has been used by 4 authors, Arabic by 2, and Old Nubian by 1, in the publication of various books of proverbs, dictionaries, and textbooks. For Arabic, the extended ISESCO system may be used to indicate vowels and consonants not found in the Arabic alphabet itself.


  • Adams, W. Y. (1982), 'The coming of Nubian speakers to the Nile Valley', in Ehret, C., & Posnansky, M. (eds.), The Archeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley / Los Angeles, 11–38.
  • Armbruster, Charles Hubert (1965) Dongolese Nubian. Cambridge University Press.
  • Asmaa M. I. Ahmed, "Suggestions for Writing Modern Nubian Languages", and Muhammad J. A. Hashim, "Competing Orthographies for Writing Nobiin Nubian", in Occasional Papers in the Study of Sudanese Languages No. 9, SIL/Sudan, Entebbe, 2004.
  • Bechhaus-Gerst, Marianne (1989) 'Nile-Nubian Reconsidered', in M. Lionel Bender (ed.), Topics in Nilo-Saharan Linguistics, Hamburg: Heinrich Buske.
  • Bechhaus-Gerst, Marianne (1996) Sprachwandel durch Sprachkontakt am Beispiel des Nubischen im Niltal. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer diachronen Soziolinguistik. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Jakobi, Angelika & Tanja Kümmerle (1993) The Nubian Languages. An Annotated Bibliography. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.
  • Thelwall, Robin (1982), 'Linguistic Aspects of Greater Nubian History', in Ehret, C., & Posnansky, M. (eds.), The Archeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley/Los Angeles, 39–56. Online version.

External links

  • Panafrican localization page on Nubian (summaries of information, links)
  • Nubian alphabet examples (Arabic)

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