|Native to||Egypt, Sudan|
|Region||Along the banks of the Nile in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan|
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 Mahasi–Fadijja 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 Coptic 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.
Old Nubian is written in an uncial variant of the Coptic alphabet, including three unique letters: ⳡ /ɲ/ and ⳣ /w/ are both apparently derived from Meroitic script; so is also ⳟ /ŋ/, unless it is a ligature of two Greek gammas.
Old Nubian made extensive use of nomina sacra. Abbreviation was also used more generally throughout the language: in addition to nomina sacra formulas, a line over a letter could indicate:
- a vowel which formed a syllable by itself, or was preceded by one of ⲗ, ⳟ, ⲣ, or ϫ;
- a consonant with an /i/ (sometimes unwritten) preceding it.
The sound /i/ could be written ε, ε̄ι, η, ι or υ; /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 as well, the values were not marked.
Punctuation marks included a high dot •, sometimes substituted by a double backslash \\ (⳹), used roughly like an English period or colon, a slash / (⳺) used like a question mark, and a double slash // (⳼) sometimes used to separate verses.
- -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:
- 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 these, 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"
- ⲕⲧ̅ⲕⲁ ⲅⲉⲗⲅⲟ̅ⲥⲛ ⲓ̈ⲏ̅ⲥⲟⲩⲥⲓ ⲛⲁ⋊αν τρικα• ⲇⲟⲗⲗⲉ ⲡⲟⲗⲅⲁⲣⲁ ⲡⲉⲥⲥⲛⲁ• ⲡⲁⲡⲟ ⲥ̅ⲕⲟⲉⲗⲙ̅ⲙⲉ ⲉⲕ̅ⲕⲁ
- κτ̄κα γελγελο̄ϲουανον ῑη̄ϲουϲι ναϫαν τρικα• δολλε πολγαρα πεϲϲνα• παπο ϲ̄κοελμ̄με εκ̄κα
- Kitka gelgelosuannon Iisusi manyan 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."
- Burstein, Stanley: When Greek was an African Language.
- Extended details on all the letters of the Old Nubian alphabet, especially the additional ones, can be found in this Unicode proposal by Michael Everson and Stephen Emmel.
- The Basic Languages of Christian Nubia: Greek, Coptic, Old Nubian, and Arabic. Ancient Sudan website.
- Old Nubian basic lexicon at the Global Lexicostatistical Database
- 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.
- 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.