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southern Egypt, Sudan
 Eastern Sudanic
Northern (Nobiin)
Western (Midob)
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: nub

The Nubian language group, 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. Kenzi-Dongolawi. Kenzi (or Kenuzi) is spoken north of Mahas in Egypt while Dongolawi is spoken south of Mahas around Dongola; they are generally considered two varieties of one language. With population displacement due to the Aswan High Dam there are communities of Nubian speakers in Lower Egypt and in Eastern Sudan (Khashm el-Girba). Apart from these two distinct varieties spoken along the Nile, three other varieties existed.
  3. Midob (Meidob) in and around the Malha volcanic crater in North Darfur.
  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.



Nubian is considered to be a subfamily within Eastern Sudanic, and ultimately within Nilo-Saharan. Within Eastern Sudanic, it is thought to be most closely related to the Taman languages.


Of all the Nubian languages, the ones spoken along the Nile traditionally have received the most attention. Many manuscripts have been unearthed in the Nile Valley, mainly between the first and fifth cataracts, testifying to a firm Nubian presence in the area during the first millennium. Nobiin and a dialect cluster related to it, Kenzi-Dongolawi, are found in the same area. These languages were the languages of the Christian Nubian kingdoms. Historical comparative research has shown that the Nile-Nubian languages do not form a genetic unit; the speakers of Nobiin arrived first in the area, followed later by the speakers of the Kenzi and Dongolawi varieties.

The other Nubian languages are found hundreds of kilometers to the southwest, in Darfur and in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan. In the past, there has been debate as to whether the Nubian languages spread to the Nile valley from Kordofan and Darfur or moved in the opposite direction. For a long time it was assumed that the Nubian peoples dispersed from the Nile Valley to the south, probably at the time of the downfall of the Christian kingdoms. However, comparative lexicostatistic research in the second half of the twentieth century has shown that the spread must have been in the opposite direction (Thelwall 1982, Adams 1982, among others). Greenberg (as cited in Thelwall 1982) calculated that a split between Hill Nubian and the Nile-Nubian languages occurred at least 2,500 years ago. This account is corroborated by non-linguistic evidence — for example, the oral tradition of the Shaiqiya tribe of the Jaali group of arabized Nile-Nubians tells of coming from the southwest long ago.


There are three currently active proposals for the script of Nubian: the Arabic alphabet, the Latin alphabet 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 Arabic 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

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