Nobiin language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Spoken in: Egypt, Sudan 
Region: Along the banks of the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan
Total speakers: 495,000 (SIL 2005)
Language family: Nilo-Saharan
  Eastern Sudanic
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: nub
ISO/FDIS 639-3: fia 

Nobiin is a Northern Nubian language of the Nilo-Saharan phylum. "Nobiin" is the genitive form of Nòòbíí "Nubian" and literally means "(language) of the Nubians". Nubian peoples immigrated into the Nile Valley from the southwest, where other Nubian languages are still spoken, at least 2,500 years ago, and Old Nubian, the language of the Nubian kingdoms, is considered ancestral to Nobiin. Nobiin is a tonal language with contrastive vowel and consonant length. The basic word order is Subject Object Verb.

Nobiin is currently spoken along the banks of the Nile river in southern Egypt and northern Sudan by approximately 495,000 Nubians, and present-day Nobiin speakers are almost universally bilingual in local varieties of Arabic ( Egyptian and Sudanese Arabic, respectively). Many Nobiin-speaking Nubians were forced to relocate in 1963-1964 due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam at Aswan, Egypt, to make room for Lake Nasser.

There is no standardized orthography for Nobiin. It has been written in both Latinized and Arabic scripts; also, recently there have been efforts to revive the Old Nubian alphabet. This article adopts the Latin orthography used in the only published grammar of Nobiin, Roland Werner's (1987) Grammatik des Nobiin.

Geography and demography

Before the construction of the Aswan dam, speakers of Nobiin lived in the Nile valley between the third cataract in the South and Korosko in the North. About 60% of the territory of Nubia was destroyed or rendered unfit for habitation as a result of the construction of the dam and the creation of Lake Nasser. At least half of the Nubian population was forcedly resettled. Nowadays, Nobiin speakers live in the following areas: (1) near Kom Ombo, Egypt, about 40 km north of Aswan, where new housing was provided by the Egyptian government for approximately 50,000 Nubians; (2) in New Halfa in the Kassala state of Sudan, where housing and work was provided by the Sudanian government for Nubians from the inundated areas around Wadi Halfa; (3) in the Northern state of Sudan, northwards from Burgeg to the Egyptian border at Wadi Halfa. Additionally, many Nubians have moved to large cities like Cairo and Khartoum. In recent years, some of the resettled Nubians have returned to their traditional territories around Abu Simbel and Wadi Halfa.

Before the construction of the Aswan Dam, the Nobiin people lived mainly between the first and the third cataracts along the shores of the Nile. Yellow dots show places where communities of Nobiin speakers are found today.
Before the construction of the Aswan Dam, the Nobiin people lived mainly between the first and the third cataracts along the shores of the Nile. Yellow dots show places where communities of Nobiin speakers are found today.

Practically all speakers of Nobiin are bilingual in Egyptian Arabic or Sudanese Arabic. For the men, this was noted as early as 1819 by the traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in his Travels to Nubia. The forced resettlement in the second half of the twentieth century also brought more Nubians, especially women and children, into daily contact with Arabic. Chief factors in this development include increased mobility (and hence easy access to non-Nubian villages and cities), changes in social patterns such as women going more often to the market to sell their own products, and easy access to Arabic newspapers. In urban areas, many Nubian women go to school and are fluent in Arabic; they usually address their children in Arabic, reserving Nobiin for their husband. In response to concerns about a possible language shift to Arabic, Werner notes a very positive language attitude. Rouchdy (1992a) however notes that use of Nobiin is confined mainly to the domestic circle, as Arabic is the dominant language in trade, education, and public life. Sociolinguistically, the situation may be described as one of stable bilingualism: the dominant language (Arabic in this case), although used widely, does not easily replace the minority language since the latter is tightly connected to the Nubian identity.

Nobiin has been called Mahas(i), Mahas-Fiadidja, and Fiadicca in the past. Mahas and Fiadidja are geographical terms which correspond to two dialectal variants of Nobiin; the differences between these two dialects are negligible and some have in fact argued that there is no evidence of a dialectal distinction at all. Nobiin should not be confused with the Arabic-based creole Ki-Nubi.


Nobiin is one of the few African languages having a written history that can be followed over the course of more than a millennium. Old Nubian, preserved in a sizable collection of mainly early Christian manuscripts and documented in detail by Gerald M. Browne (1944-2004), is considered ancestral to Nobiin. 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. A dialect cluster related to Nobiin, Kenzi-Dongolawi, is found in the same area. The Nile-Nubian languages were the languages of the Christian Nubian kingdoms.

The other Nubian languages are found hundreds of kilometers to the Southwest, in Darfur and in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan. 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. Greenberg (as cited in Thelwall 1982) calculated that a split between Hill Nubian and the two Nile-Nubian languages occurred at least 2,500 years ago. This is corroborated by the fact that the oral tradition of the Shaiqiya tribe of the Jaali group of arabized Nile-Nubians tells of coming from the southwest long ago. The speakers of Nobiin are thought to have come to the area before the speakers of the related Kenzi-Dongolawi languages (see classification below).

Since the seventh century, Nobiin has been challenged by Arabic. The economic and cultural influence of Egypt over the region was considerable, and, over the centuries, the Egyptian Dialect of Arabic spread south. Areas like al-Maris became almost fully Arabized. The conversion of Nubia to Islam after the fall of the Christian kingdoms further enhanced the Arabization process. In what is today Sudan, Sudanese Arabic became the main vernacular of the Kingdom of Sennar, with Nobiin becoming a minority tongue. In Egypt, the Nobiin speakers were also part of a largely Arabic-speaking state, but Egyptian control over the south was limited. With the Ottoman conquest of the region in the sixteenth century, official support for Arabization largely ended as the Turkish and Circassian governments in Cairo sometimes saw Nobiin speakers as a useful ally. However, as Arabic remained a language of high importance in Sudan and especially Egypt, Nobiin continued to be under pressure and its use became largely confined to Nubian homes.


Nobiin is one of the about eleven Nubian languages. It has traditionally been grouped with the Kenzi-Dongolawi cluster, mainly based on the geographic proximity of the two (prior to the construction of the Aswan Dam, varieties of Kenzi-Dongolawi were spoken north and south of the Nobiin area, in Kunuz and Dongola respectively). The uniformity of this 'Nile-Nubian' branch was first called into doubt by Thelwall (1982) who argued, based on lexicostatistical evidence, that Nobiin must have split off from the other Nubian languages earlier than Kenzi-Dongolawi. In Thelwall's classification, Nobiin forms a 'Northern' branch on its own whereas Kenzi-Dongolawi is considered part of Central Nubian, along with Birged (north Darfur) and the Hill Nubian languages ( Nuba Mountains, Kordofan province).

In recent times, research by Marianne Bechhaus-Gerst has shed more light on the relations between Nobiin and Kenzi-Dongolawi. The groups have been separated so long that they do not share a common identity; additionally, they differ in their traditions about their origins. The languages are clearly genetically related, but the picture is complicated by the fact that there are also indications of contact-induced change (Bechhaus-Gerst 1996). Nobiin appears to have had a strong influence on Kenzi-Dongolawi, as evidenced by similarities between the phoneme inventories as well as the occurrence of numerous borrowed grammatical morphemes. This has led some to suggest that Kenzi-Dongolawi in fact is "a 'hybrid' language between old Nobiin and pre-contact Dongolawi" (Heine & Kuteva 2001:400). Evidence of the reverse influence is much rarer, although there are some late loans in Nobiin which are thought to come from Kenzi-Dongolawi (Bechhaus-Gerst 1996:306).

The Nubian languages are part of the Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan. On the basis of a comparison with seventeen other Eastern Sudanic languages, Thelwall (1982) considers Nubian to be most closely related to Tama, a member of the Taman group, with an average lexical similarity of just 22.2 per cent.


Nobiin has open and closed syllables: ág ‘mouth’, één ‘woman’, gíí ‘uncle’, kám ‘camel’, díís ‘blood’. Every syllable bears a tone. Long consonants are only found in intervocalic position, whereas long vowels can occur in initial, medial and final position. Phonotactically, there might be a weak relationship between the occurrence of consonant and vowel length: forms like dàrrìl 'climb' and dààrìl 'be present' are found, but *dàrìl (short V + short C) and *dààrrìl (long V + long C) do not exist; similarly, féyyìr 'grow' and fééyìr 'lose (a battle)' occur, but not *féyìr and *fééyyìr.


Nobiin has a five vowel system. The vowels /e/ and /o/ can be realised close or more open (as [ɛ] and [ɔ], respectively). Vowels can be long or short, e.g. jáákí 'fear' (long /aː/), jàkkàr 'fish-hook' (short /a/). However, many nouns are unstable with regard to vowel length; thus, bálé : báléé ‘feast’, ííg : íg ‘fire’, shártí : sháártí ‘spear’. Diphthongs are interpreted as sequences of vowels and the glides /w/ and /j/.

Monophthongs Front Central Back
Close i, iː   u, uː
Close-mid e, eː   o, oː
Open   ɑ, ɑː  


Consonant length is contrastive in Nobiin, e.g. dáwwí 'path' vs. dáwí 'kitchen'. Like vowel length, consonant length is not very stable; long consonants tend to be shortened in many cases (e.g. the Arabic loan dùkkáán ‘shop’ is often found as dùkáán).

Consonant phonemes
  Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p b     t d     k ɡ    
Nasal   m       n   ɲ   ŋ    
Fricative     f   s z ç       (h)  
Affricate             ɟʝ        
Trill           r            
Approximant           l   j   w    

The phoneme /p/ has a somewhat marginal status as it only occurs as a result of certain morphophonological processes. The voiced plosive /b/ is mainly in contrast with /f/. Originally, [z] only occurred as an allophone of /s/ before voiced consonants; however, through the influx of loanwords from Arabic it has acquired phonemic status: àzáábí 'pain', ázbíró 'aspirine'. The glottal fricative [h] occurs as an allophone of /s, t, k, f, g/ (síddóhíddó 'where?'; tánnátóóntánnáhóón 'of him/her'; ày fàkàbìrày hàkàbìr 'I will eat'; dòllàkúkkàndòllàhúkkàn 'he has loved'. This process is unidirectional (i.e. /h/ will never change into one of the above consonants) and it has been termed 'consonant switching' (Konsonantenwechsel) by Werner (1987:36). Only in very few words, if any, /h/ has independent phonemical status: Werner lists híssí 'voice' and hòòngìr 'braying', but it might be noted that the latter example is less convincing because of its probably onomatopoeic nature. The alveolar liquids /l/ and /r/ are in free variation as in many African languages. The approximant /w/ is a voiced labial-velar.


Nobiin is a tonal language, in which tone is used to mark lexical contrasts. Tone also figures heavily in derivational morphology. Nobiin has two underlying tones, high and low. A falling tone occurs in certain contexts; this tone can in general be analysed arising from a high and a low tone together.

  • árré 'settlement' (high)
  • nùùr 'shadow' (low)

In Nobiin, every utterance ends in a low tone. This is one of the clearest signs of the occurrence of a boundary tone, realized as a low tone on the last syllable of any prepausal word. The examples below show how the surface tone of the high tone verb ókkír- ‘cook’ depends on the position of the verb. In the first sentence, the verb is not final (because the question marker –náà is appended) and thus it is realized as high. In the second sentence, the verb is at the end of the utterance, resulting in a low tone on the last syllable.

  • íttírkà ókkéénáà?   (vegetables:DO cook:she.PRESENT-Q)   'Does she cook the vegetables?'
  • èyyò íttírkà ókkè.   (yes vegetables:DO cook:she.PRESENT)   'Yes, she cooks the vegetables.'

Tone plays an important role in several derivational processes. The most common situation involves the loss of the original tone pattern of the derivational base and the subsequent assignment of low tone, along with the affixation of a morpheme or word bringing its own tonal pattern (see below for examples).

For a long time, the Nile Nubian languages were thought to be non-tonal; instead, early analyses employed term like ' stress' or 'accent' to describe the phenomena now recognized as a tone system . Carl Meinhof reported that only remants of a tone system could be found in the Nubian languages. He based this conclusion not only on his own data, but also on the observation that Old Nubian had been written without tonal marking. Based on accounts like Meinhof’s, Nobiin was considered a toneless language for the first half of the twentieth century. The statements of de facto authorities like Meinhof, Westermann, and Ward heavily affected the next three decades of linguistic theorizing about stress and tone in Nobiin. As late as 1968, Herman Bell was the first scholar to develop an account of tone in Nobiin. Although his analysis was still hampered by the occasional confusion of accent and tone, he is credited by Roland Werner as being the first to recognize that Nobiin is a genuine tonal language, and the first to lay down some elementary tonal rules.


A Nubian wedding near Aswan, Egypt
A Nubian wedding near Aswan, Egypt


The basic personal pronouns of Nobiin are:

  • ày-
  • ìr-
  • tàr-
  • ùù-
  • úr-
  • tér-
you (singular)
he, she, it
you (plural)
my àyíín án ànní
your ìríín ín ìnní
his/her tàríín tán tànní
our ùùíín úún ùùní
your úríín únn únní
their téríín ténn ténní

There are three sets of possessive pronouns. One of them is transparently derived from the set of personal pronouns plus a connexive suffix –íín. Another set is less clearly related to the simple personal pronouns; all possessive pronouns of this set bear a High tone. The third set is derived from the second set by appending the nominalizing suffix -ní.

Nobiin has two demonstrative pronouns: ìn 'this', denoting things nearby, and mán 'that', denoting things farther away. Both can function as the subject or the object in a sentence; in the latter case they take the object marker -gá yielding ìngà and mángá, respectively (for the object marker, see also below). The demonstrative pronoun always precedes the nouns it refers to.

  • ìn íd dìrbád wèèkà kúnkènò   (this man hen one-OB have:3.sgPRESENT)   'This man has a hen.'
  • mám búrúú nàày lè?   (that girl who be.Q)   'Who is that girl?'


Nouns in Nobiin are predominantly disyllabic, although monosyllabic and three- or four-syllabic nouns are also found. Nouns can be derived from adjectives, verbs, or other nouns by appending various suffixes. In plural formation, the tone of a noun becomes Low and one of four plural markers is suffixed. Two of these are Low in tone, while the other two have a High tone.

  • -ìì (L): féntí → fèntìì '(sweet) dates'
  • -ncìì (L): àrréé → àrèèncìì 'falls'
  • -ríí (H): áádèm → ààdèmríí 'men, people'
  • -gúú (H): kúrsí → kùrsìgúú 'chairs'

In most cases it is not predictable which plural suffix a noun will take. Furthermore, many nouns can take different suffixes, e.g. ág 'mouth' → àgìì/àgríí. However, nouns that have final -éé usually take Plural 2 (-ncìì), whereas disyllabic Low-High nouns typically take Plural 1 (-ìì).

Gender is expressed lexically, occasionally by use of a suffix, but more often with a different noun altogether, or, in the case of animals, by use of a separate nominal element óndí ‘masculine’ or kàrréé ‘feminine’:

  • íd ‘man’ vs. ìdéén ‘woman’
  • tòòd ‘boy’ vs. búrú ‘girl’
  • kàjkàrréé ‘she-ass’ vs. kàjnóndí ‘donkey’

The pair male slave/female slave forms an interesting exception, showing gender marking through different endings of the lexeme: òsshí 'slave (m)' vs. òsshá 'slave (f)'. An Old Nubian equivalent which does not seem to show the gender is oshonaeigou 'slaves'; the plural suffix -gou has a modern equivalent in -gúú (see above).

In compound nouns comprised of two nouns, the tone of the first noun becomes Low while the appended noun keeps its own tonal pattern.

  • kàdíís 'cat' + mórrí 'wild' → kàdììs-mórrí 'wild cat'
  • ìkìríí 'guest' + nóóg 'house' → ìskìrììn-nóóg 'guest room'
  • tògój 'sling' + kìd 'stone' → tògòj-kìd 'sling stone'

Many compounds are found in two forms, one more lexicalized than the other. Thus, it is common to find both the coordinated noun phrase háhám ámán 'the water of the river' and the compound noun bàhàm-ámán 'river-water', distinguished by their tonal pattern.


Verbal morphology in Nobiin is subject to numerous morphophonological processes, including syllable contraction, vowel elision, and assimilation of all sorts and directions. A distinction needs to be made between the verbal base and the morphemes that follow. The majority of verbal bases in Nobiin end in a consonant (e.g. nèèr- ‘sleep’, kàb- ‘eat’, tíg- ‘follow’, fìyyí- ‘lie’); notable exceptions are júú- ‘go’ and níí- ‘drink’. Verbal bases are mono- or disyllabic. The verbal base carries one of three or four tonal patterns. The main verb carries person, number, tense, and aspect information.

  • ày féjírkà sàllìr   (I morning.prayer pray:I.PRESENT)   'I pray the morning prayer.'

Only rarely do verbal bases occur without appended morphemes. One such case is the use of the verb júú- 'go' in a serial verb-like construction.

  • áríj wèèkà fà júú jáánìr   (meat one:OB FUTURE go buy:IPRESENT)   'I'm going to buy a piece of meat.'


The basic word order in a Nobiin sentence is Subject Object Verb. Objects are marked by an object suffix -gá, often assimilating to the final consonant of the word (e.g. kìtááb 'book', kìtááppá 'book-OBJECT' as seen below). In a sentence containing both an indirect and a direct object, the object marker is suffixed to both.

  • kám íw kàbì   (camel corn-OB eat:he.PRESENT)   'The camel eats corn.'
  • ày ìk ìn kìtááp tèèr   (I you-OB this book-OB give:I.PRESENT)   'I give you this book.'

Questions can be constructed in various ways in Nobiin. Constituent questions ('Type 1', questions about 'who?', 'what?', etc.) are formed by use of a set of verbal suffixes in conjunction with question words. Simple interrogative utterances ('Type 2') are formed by use of another set of verbal suffixes.

  Type 1 Type 2
I -re/-le -réè
you -i -náà
s/he -i -náà
we -ro/-lo -lóò
you (pl) -ro/-lo -lóò
they -(i)nna -(ì)nnànáà

Some of the suffixes are similar. Possible ambiguities are solved by the context. Some examples:

  • mìn ámán túúl áányì?   (what water in live:PRES.2/3SG.Q1)   'What lives in water?'
  • híddó nííl mìrì?   (where Nile run/flow:PRES.2/3SG.Q1)   'Where does the Nile flow?'
  • ìr sààbúúngà jáánnáà?   (you soap:OB have:2/3SG.PRES.Q2)   'Do you have soap?'
  • sàbúúngà jáánnáà?   (soap:OB have:PRES2/3SG.Q2)   'do you sell soap?' / 'Does he/she sell soap?'
  • úr báléél árágróò?   (you (pl.) dance:PRES1/2PL.Q2)   'Do you (pl.) dance at the party?'

Writing system

Old Nubian, considered ancestral to Nobiin, was written in an uncial variety of the Greek alphabet, extended with three Coptic letters — ϣ "sh", ϩ "h", and ϭ "j" — and three unique to Nubian: "ny" and "w", apparently derived from Meroitic; and "ng", thought to be a ligature of two Greek gammas.

There are three currently active proposals for the script of Nobiin (Asmaa 2004, Hashim 2004): 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.

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