Nubian languages

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Sudan, Egypt
Linguistic classification Nilo-Saharan?
ISO 639-2 / 5 nub
Glottolog nubi1251[1]

The Nubian languages (Arabic: لغات نوبية‎‎) are a group of related languages spoken by the Nubians of Nubia, a region along the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They form a branch of Eastern Sudanic, which is part of the wider Nilo-Saharan phylum.


In the 1973 Arab–Israeli War Egypt employed Nubian-speaking Nubian people as codetalkers.[2][3][4]


Bechhaus-Gerst (1996) finds the following varieties:

  1. Nobiin, the largest Nubian language. Previously known by the geographic terms Mahas and Fadicca/Fiadicca.
  2. Midob (Meidob), in and around the Malha volcanic crater in North Darfur.
  3. Kenzi and Dongolawi, no longer considered a single language. May be closest to Birgid.
  4. Birgid, 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 by the Dilling, Debri and Kadaru.

An additional language, Haraza, is known only from a few dozen words recalled by village elders in 1923.[5][6]

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 AD. 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.


The Nubian languages are traditionally divided into three branches: Northern (Nile), Western (Darfur) and Central. Ethnologue's classification is as follows:[7]

Glottolog groups all non-Northern Nubian branches in a single group named West-Central Nubian. Additionally, within Hill Nubian, Glottolog places Dair in the same branch as Kadaru.[8]

Some classifications place Kenzi-Dongolawi in the same group as Nobiin.[9] However, this classification is no longer generally accepted; Thelwall (1982) and Bechhaus-Gerst (1996) argued that there are significant differences between Kenzi-Dongolawi and Nobiin, and that Nobiin must have split off from the other Nubian languages earlier than Kenzi-Dongolawi.


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 four authors, Arabic by two and Old Nubian by one, in the publication of various books of proverbs, dictionaries and textbooks. For Arabic, the extended ISESCO system[citation needed] may be used to indicate vowels and consonants not found in the Arabic alphabet itself.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Nubian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ "Changing Egypt Offers Hope to Long-Marginalized Nubians". 
  3. ^ "Remembering Nubia: the Land of Gold". 
  4. ^ Cairo West. "El Nuba". Cairo West Magazine. 
  5. ^ Herman Bell (1975) "Documentary Evidence on the Haraza Nubian Language"
  6. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Haraza Nubian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  7. ^ "Nubian". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2017-06-24. 
  8. ^ "Glottolog 3.0 - Kordofan Nubian". Retrieved 2017-06-24. 
  9. ^ Jakobi, Angelika; Ruffini, Giovanni; Oei, Vincent W. J. van Gerven (2014-06-03). Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies: Vol. 1: 2014. punctum books. p. 203. ISBN 9780692229149. 
  • Adams, W. Y. (1982), 'The coming of Nubian speakers to the Nile Valley', in Ehret, C., & Posnansky, M. (eds.[clarification needed]), 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.[clarification needed]), The Archeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. Berkeley/Los Angeles, 39–56. Online version.

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