Old Nubian language

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Old Nubian
Native toEgypt, Sudan
RegionAlong the banks of the Nile in Lower and Upper Nubia (southern Egypt and northern Sudan)
Era4th–15th century
Nubian alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3onw
Old Nubian manuscript.jpg
A page from an Old Nubian translation of the Investiture of the Archangel Michael, from the 9th-10th century, found at Qasr Ibrim, now at the British Museum. Michael's name appears in red with a characteristic epenthetic -ⲓ.

Old Nubian (also called Middle Nubian or Old Nobiin) is an extinct Nubian language, attested in writing from the 8th to the 15th century AD. It is ancestral to modern-day Nobiin and closely related to Dongolawi and Kenzi. It was used throughout the kingdom of Makuria, including the eparchy of Nobatia. The language is preserved in more than hundred pages of documents and inscriptions, both of a religious (homilies, prayers, hagiographies, psalms, lectionaries), and related to the state and private life (legal documents, letters), written using an adaptation of the Coptic alphabet.


Old Nubian had its source in the languages of the Noba nomads who occupied the Nile between the first and third cataracts of the Nile and the Makorae nomads who occupied the land between the third and fourth cataracts following the collapse of Meroë sometime in the 4th century. The Makorae were a separate tribe who eventually conquered or inherited the lands of the Noba: they established a Byzantine-influenced state called Makuria which administered the Noba lands separately as the eparchy of Nobatia. Nobatia was converted to the Miaphysite Christianity by Julian of Halicarnassus and Longinus, and thereafter received its bishops from the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.[2]

Old Nubian is one of the oldest written African languages and appears to have been adopted from the 10th-11th century as the main language for the civil and religious administration of Makuria. Besides Old Nubian, Koine Greek was widely used, especially in religious contexts, while Coptic mainly predominates in funerary inscriptions.[3] Over time, more and more Old Nubian began to appear in both secular and religious documents, while several grammatical aspects of Greek, including the case, agreement, gender, and tense morphology underwent significant erosion.[4] The consecration documents found with the remains of archbishop Timotheos suggest, however, that Greek and Coptic continued to be used into the late 14th century, by which time Arabic was also in widespread use.


The script in which nearly all Old Nubian texts have been written is a slanted uncial variant of the Coptic alphabet, originating from the White Monastery in Sohag.[5]. The alphabet included three additional letters /ɲ/ and /w/, and /ŋ/, the first two deriving from the Meroitic alphabet. The presence of these characters suggest that although the first written evidence of Old Nubian dates to the 8th century, the script must have already been developed in the 6th century, following the collapse of the Meroitic state.[6] Additionally, Old Nubian used the variant for the Coptic letter ϭ.

Character ⲉⲓ ⲓ̈ ⲝ/ϩ̄
Transliteration a b g d e i z ē th y k l m n x o
Phonetic value /a, aː/ /b/ /ɡ/ /d/ /e, eː/ /i, iː/ /z/ /i, iː/ /t/ /j/ /k, ɡ/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /ks/ /o, oː/
Character ⲟⲩ ϣ ϩ
Transliteration ou p r s t u ph kh ps ō š h j ŋ ñ w
Phonetic value /u, uː/ /b/ /ɾ/ /s/ /t/ /i, u/ /f/ /x/ /ps/ /o, oː/ /ʃ/ /h/ /ɟ/ /ŋ/ /ɲ/ /w/

The characters ⲍ, ⲝ/ϩ̄, ⲭ, ⲯ only appear in Greek loanwords. Gemination was indicated by writing double consonants; long vowels were usually not distinguished from short ones. Old Nubian featured two digraphs: ⲟⲩ /u, uː/ and ⲉⲓ /i, iː/. A diaeresis over (ⲓ̈) was used to indicate the semivowel /j/. In addition, Old Nubian featured a supralinear stroke, which could indicate:

  • a vowel that formed the beginning of a syllable or was preceded by ⲗ, ⲛ, ⲣ, ⳝ;
  • an /i/ preceding a consonant.

Modern Nobiin is a tonal language; if Old Nubian was tonal as well, the tones were not marked.

Punctuation marks included a high dot •, sometimes substituted by a double backslash \\ (), which was used roughly like an English period or colon; a slash / (), which was used like a question mark; and a double slash // (), which was sometimes used to separate verses.



Old Nubian has no gender or any articles. The noun consists of a stem to which derivational suffixes, plural markers, case markers, postpositions, and the determiner are added.


Old Nubian has one definite determiner -(ⲓ)ⲗ.[7] The precise function of this morpheme has been a matter of controversy, with other scholars adopting the proposing nominative case or subjective marker. Both the distribution of the morpheme and comparative evidence from Meroitic, however, point to a use as determiner.[8][9]


Old Nubian has a nominative-accusative case system with four grammatical cases determining the key functions in the sentence,[10] as well as a number of lexical cases for adverbial phrases.

Accusative -ⲕ(ⲁ)
Genitive -ⲛ(ⲁ)
Dative -ⲗⲁ

The most common plural is in -gu-; e.g. uru-gu-na "of kings", or gindette-gu-ka "thorns (object)", becoming -agui- in the predicative. Rarer plurals include -rigu- (e.g. mug-rigu-ka "dogs (obj.)" (predicative -regui-) and -pigu-.


The basic pronouns are the following:

  • ai- "I"
  • ir- "you (singular)"
  • tar- "he, she, it"
  • er- "we (including you)"
  • u- "we (excluding you)"
  • ur- "you (plural)"
  • ter- "they"

Demonstratives include in- "this", man- "that"; interrogatives include ngai- "who?", min- "what?", islo "where?", iskal "how?".


The verb has five main forms: present, two different preterites, future, and imperative. For each of them, there are subjunctive and indicative forms. It conjugates according to person, e.g. for doll- "wish" in the present tense:

  • dollire "I wish"
  • dollina "you (singular) wish", "he, she, it wishes"
  • dolliro "we wish", "you (plural) wish"
  • dollirana "they wish"

Sample text[edit]

  • ⲕⲧ̅ⲕⲁ ⲅⲉⲗⲅⲟ̅ⲥⲛ ⲓ̈ⲏ̅ⲥⲟⲩⲥⲓ ⲛⲁⳡⲁⲛ ⲧⲣⲓⲕⲁ• ⲇⲟⲗⲗⲉ ⲡⲟⲗⲅⲁⲣⲁ ⲡⲉⲥⲥⲛⲁ• ⲡⲁⲡⲟ ⲥ̅ⲕⲟⲉⲗⲙ̅ⲙⲉ ⲉⲕ̅ⲕⲁ
  • κτ̄κα γελγελο̄ϲουανον ῑη̄ϲουϲι ναϫαν τρικα• δολλε πολγαρα πεϲϲνα• παπο ϲ̄κοελμ̄με εκ̄κα
  • Kitka gelgelosuannon Iisusi nanyan trika• dolle polgara pessna• papo iskoelimme ikka

Literally: "Rock and-when-they-rolled-away Jesus eye pair high raising he-said father I-thank you."

Translated: "And when they rolled away the rock, Jesus, raising his eyes high, said: Father, I thank you."


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Old Nubian". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. ^ Hatke, George (2013). Aksum and Nubia: Warfare, Commerce, and Political Fictions in Ancient Northeast Africa. NYU Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-8147-6283-7.
  3. ^ Ochała 2014, pp. 44–45.
  4. ^ Burstein 2006.
  5. ^ Boud'hors 1997.
  6. ^ Rilly 2008, p. 198.
  7. ^ Zyhlarz 1928, p. 34.
  8. ^ Van Gerven Oei 2011, pp. 256–262.
  9. ^ Rilly 2010, p. 385.
  10. ^ Van Gerven Oei 2014, pp. 170–174.


  • Boud'hors, Anne (1997). "L'onciale penchée en copte et sa survie jusqu'au XVe siècle en Haute-Égypte". In Déroche, François; Richard, Francis. Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France. pp. 118–133.
  • Burstein, Stanley (2006). When Greek was an African Language (Speech). Third Annual Snowden Lecture. Harvard University. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  • Van Gerven Oei, Vincent W.J. (2011). "The Old Nubian Memorial for King George". In Łajtar, Adam; Van der Vliet, Jacques. Nubian Voices: Studies in Nubian Culture. The Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplements XV. Warsaw: Raphael Taubenschlag Foundation. pp. 225–262.
  • Van Gerven Oei, Vincent W.J. (2014). "Remarks toward a Revised Grammar of Old Nubian". Dotawo: A Journal for Nubian Studies. 1: 165–184. doi:10.17613/M6G63P. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  • Ochała, Grzegorz (2014). "Multilingualism in Christian Nubia: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches". Dotawo: A Journal for Nubian Studies. 1: 1–50. Retrieved June 19, 2018.
  • Rilly, Claude (2008). "The Last Traces of Meroitic? A Tentative Scenario for the Disappearance of the Meroitic Script". In Baines, John; Bennet, John; Houston, Stephen. The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication. London: Equinox Publishing. pp. 183–205.
  • Rilly, Claude (2010). Le méroïtique et sa famille linguistique. Afrique et Langage 14. Leuven: Peeters.
  • Zyhlarz, Ernst (1928). Grundzüge der nubischen Grammatik im christlichen Frühmittelalter (Altnubisch): Grammatik, Texte, Kommentar und Glossar. Leipzig: Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft.

Other sources[edit]

  • Browne, Gerald M., (1982) Griffith's Old Nubian Lectionary. Rome / Barcelona.
  • Browne, Gerald M., (1988) Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim I (with J. M. Plumley), London, UK.
  • Browne, Gerald M., (1989) Old Nubian Texts from Qasr Ibrim II. London, UK.
  • Browne, Gerald M., (1996) Old Nubian dictionary. Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium, vol. 562. Leuven: Peeters. ISBN 90-6831-787-3.
  • Browne, Gerald M., (1997) Old Nubian dictionary - appendices. Leuven: Peeters. ISBN 90-6831-925-6.
  • Browne, Gerald M., (2002) A grammar of Old Nubian. Munich: LINCOM. ISBN 3-89586-893-0.
  • Griffith, F. Ll., (1913) The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period. ADAW 8.
  • Satzinger, Helmut, (1990) Relativsatz und Thematisierung im Altnubischen. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 80, 185–205.

External links[edit]