Old Nubian language

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Old Nubian
Native to Egypt, Sudan
Region Along the banks of the Nile in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan
Era 8th–15th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 onw
Glottolog oldn1245[1]
Old Nubian manuscript.jpg
A page from an Old Nubian translation of the Instructions of the Archangel Michael, from the 9th-10th century, found at Pakhoras, now at the British Museum. Michael's name appears in red: Nubians during the period frequently used Greek personal names, often with a terminal ‑ι added.

Old Nubian is an ancient variety of Nubian, attested in writing from the 8th to the 15th century (the most recent known text was written in 1485). It is ancestral to modern-day Nobiin and related to other Nubian languages such as Dongolawi. It was used throughout the medieval Christian kingdom of Makuria and its satellite Nobadia. The language is preserved in at least a hundred pages of documents, mostly of a religious nature, written using a modified form of the Greek script; the best known is The Martyrdom of Saint Menas.


Old Nubian had its source in the languages of the Noba nomads who occupied the Nile between the First and Third Cataracts 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 Nobadia. Nobadia was converted to Monophysite Christianity by the priests Julian and Longinus, and thereafter received its bishops from the pope of Alexandria.

Old Nubian is one of the oldest written African languages but was used only sporadically. The civil administration and legal records tended to employ Greek, while the church leadership (originally all Egyptians) were fluent in Coptic. Over time, more and more Old Nubian began to appear in both secular and religious documents, and the language also influenced the use of Greek and Coptic in the region (e.g., some confusion of Greek grammatical genders & use of variant verb tenses). 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.[2]


Old Nubian is written in an uncial variant of the Greek alphabet, including three unique letters: /ɲ/ and /w/ are both apparently derived from Meroitic script characters and so is /ŋ/ unless it is a ligature of two Greek gammas. Additionally, Old Nubian used the variant for the Coptic letter Ϭ.[3]

Old Nubian made extensive use of nomina sacra. Abbreviations were also used more generally in the language. In addition to nomina sacra formulas, a line over a letter could indicate:

  • a vowel that formed a syllable by itself or was preceded by one of ⲗ, ⳟ, ⲣ, or ϫ;
  • an /i/ (sometimes unwritten) preceding a consonant.

The sound /i/ could be written ε, ε̄ι, η, ι or υ or by a line over the following consonant letter; /u/ was normally written ου. In diphthongs, a diaeresis was sometimes used over ι to indicate the semivowel y. Geminate consonants were written double; long vowels were usually not distinguished from short ones.

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 grammatical case suffixes and postpositions are added; the main ones are the following:

  • -l nominative, marking the subject of a main clause: e.g. diabolos-il "the devil (subj.)"; iskit-l "the earth (subj.)"
  • -n(a) genitive, marking the possessor: e.g. iart-na palkit-la "into the sea of thoughts"
  • -k(a) "directive", marking the direct or indirect object: e.g. Mikhaili-ka "Michael (obj.), to Michael"
  • -lo locative, meaning "at"
  • -la inessive, meaning "in(to)"
  • -do adessive, meaning "on"
  • -dal comitative, meaning "with"

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. ^ Burstein, Stanley: When Greek was an African Language.
  3. ^ "Revision of the Coptic block under ballot for the BMP of the UCS" (PDF). Unicode Consortium. Retrieved September 4, 2015. 

External links[edit]

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.
  • Zyhlarz, Ernst, (1928) Grundzüge der nubischen Grammatik im christlichen Frühmittelalter (Altnubisch): Grammatik, Texte, Kommentar und Glossar. Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, vol. 18, no. 1. Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft.