Monday, February 4, 2008

More on Nubian (and the claimed connection with Fur)

I have looked a little more at the Nubian text, which I laboriously pieced together from about a dozen pictures I took of a stone tablet at a local museum (the former palace of Sultan Ali Dinar, in fact), and then attempted to decipher. I am afraid to say that I am actually not totally convinced that it is Nubian, since the only letter I can make out that might not be Coptic is a double-gamma, which is in fact not at all what a Nubian double gamma (representing ŋ) should look like - the second gamma should be rotated to the bottom so the letter looks like a bracket, but instead appears to be simply two gammas appended horizontally (see lines 10 and 11 for the clearest examples). So I thought for a minute it could actually be Coptic rather than Nubian (or even some other language written with a Coptic script for that matter). On the other hand it may be that in your average religious text (which is the theme of most extant Nubian texts) there would be so many loan words from Greek and Coptic, that very few of the uniquely Nubian sounds would show up. Unfortunately I can't back this hypothesis up, since I don't have access to any other Nubian texts, but I would bet on this pretty heavily.
The little that I can make out for sure from the text is a bit of Greek religious terminology:

...besides this there are a lot of perplexing strings of letters to be honest, and I am not necessarily even sure where to put the word breaks. What this makes me think is that perhaps this is either an early Nubian text before there was any sort of standardizing of the orthography. Perhaps it is an early attempt to approximate the spoken language, which makes me wonder if some of the difficulty, or repetition of letters is an attempt to render the tones of the language. All currently spoken languages of the Nubian family are tonal, so Ancient Nubian also must have been tonal, but there is no evidence of that having been marked in any way. What if early attempts at writing it like this, experimented in that? The only other possibility that comes to mind is that the consonant clusters represent strangely abbreviated words (there is one string of 8 consonants in a row 6 lines from the bottom). In addition to the strange consonants there are some pretty implausible dipthongs... how would you pronounce "uoiai"?
Finally, to revisit my somewhat preposterous assertion that Fur might be another Nubian language, having arrived in the region along with Midob, and then diverged under the influence of the Jebel Marra "accretion zone" languages. The first thing I was thinking of was merely the sounds of Fur consonants:






plosive, voiceless





plosive, voiced



ʒ [dʒ]


fricative, voiceless



fricative, voiced









l, r


these seem to match up pretty exactly with Nubian, except for a few sounds in Nubian which are not in Fur, but are probably mostly for Greek loan words (like ξ, χ). I still have not gotten around to doing much of a lexical analysis since I have been quite busy here, doing health/nutrition and education projects here in Darfur... as well as entertaining other interests like the OLPC (the first G1G1 recipient of Darfur, if you've been following that project). Anyone else involved in i18n or L10n projects for Saharan and Sahelian languages? I am really interested to get my XO running in Arabic...


mark said...

FYI, Gerald Browne also thought that Old Nubian was tonal based on a comparison with Werner's Grammatik des Nobiin. If you want, I could scan some Old Nubian texts for comparison with your stone table.

khawaji said...

ooh, that would be great!! thanks! I have been itching for some Nubian primary source material (if you have access to "the Miracle of St. Menas" I remember thinking that had some interesting hagiographical content with a wider vocabulary than a straight liturgical text, or translation of a Bible passage)

mark said...

Did you get it?