Archive for the ‘Old Nubian’ Category

Reading challenge, April 2015   2 comments

The study of spoken and (ancient) written languages intersect perhaps less than might be desirable, but sic semper erat, sic semper erit. Nevertheless, I would like to take a cue from Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese ( and suggest an intentional, focused reading effort for ancient language students.

For the month of April 2015, let’s take an opportunity to push reading limits, or at least to re-kindle reading habits in this or that language. It is no secret that wide exposure to multitudes of lines is a boon to philological understanding and enjoyment. By “exposure” I mean reading with understanding. And there’s the rub. This is what makes it possible for an advanced student to do 100 pages of text (or more) in a month, and a novice to do much less: the novice requires far more frequent recourse to the lexicon, grammatical tables, perhaps a translation, etc. than the more experienced user. But the payoff is experience itself. Here is some counsel from the great sinologist George A. Kennedy:

The value of a reference work is its capacity to furnish facts quickly, and a good reference work must be a well-ordered affair. But the quickness with which these facts are appropriated depends in large part on the skill of the user. And this skill results only from diligent practice. It is not enough to know about a book of reference; one must handle it, thumb the pages, know where the index is, know what sort of information it gives. You are not qualified for research unless you can locate the facts that are available quickly.



from his Introduction to Sinology: Being a Guide to the Tz’u Hai (Ci hai), (New Haven, 1981), 1 (emphasis in original)

He has the 辭海 cí hăi in mind, here as a reference work for students of Chinese history, but his advice is equally applicable to textual experience in a language, or philological experience.

Here, then, is the challenge for the month: not a contest, but an individual exhortation to purposefully spend a given amount of time and effort moving — or more picturesquely, plowing, sailing, crunching, &c. — through a text or texts, with understanding. You pick the language, the genre, the text(s), the length. The unique thing is to read carefully more than you might normally do for this month. It might be an opportunity to work especially hard on a language you’re now closely involved with, or it might be an opportunity to return to a language you’ve not read in a while. Simply to be not too vague, here are some language suggestions in no particular order (I assume that if you know the language well enough to do this, you know some texts to read, but in any case, the Bible is usually a good place to start due to the accessibility of texts and the ease of comparison with other versions):

  • Armenian
  • Christian Palestinian Aramaic
  • Syriac
  • Arabic
  • Jewish Babylonian Aramaic
  • Greek
  • Sogdian
  • Persian
  • Georgian
  • Turkish
  • Coptic
  • Gǝʿǝz
  • Uyghur

Do more than one language, if you like. How about reading the same text in more than one language? Read from printed editions, read from manuscripts, read from chrestomathies, whatever suits you. Quant à moi, my reading goals for the month include the following texts:

  1. Persian. 10 pages in the so-called Persian Diatessaron
  2. Turkish. Ali Bey’s Bible: Jonah 1-2; Mt 4:1-11; 11:17-19; 15:21-28
  3. Coptic. “Marina” (pp. 27-33) and “Siebenschläfer” (pp. 21–24) in W. Till, Koptische Heiligen- Und Martyrerlegenden: Texte, Übersetzungen Und Indices, vol. 1, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 102 (Rome: Pont. Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1935); volumes available here. Further on this story in Coptic, see here from my hagiography bibliography.
  4. Georgian. The five texts on David & Constantine in I. Abuladze and E. Gabidzashvili, ძველი ქართული აგიოგრაფიული ლიტერატურის ძეგლები, წიგნი IV სვინაქსარული რედაქციები (XI-XVIII სს.) (Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature, Vol. 4, Synaxarion Redactions, [11th-18th Centuries]) (Tbilisi, 1968), 359-366; and the Parable of the Man & Elephant in the two versions of Barlaam and Ioasaph.
  5. Old Turkic/Uyghur. The text on p. 53 of  W. Bang, “Türkische Bruchstücke einer Nestorianischen Georgspassion,” Le Muséon 39 (1926): 41–75 (cf. Gabain, Gr., p. 264); and the text in P. Zieme, “Ein uigurisches Sündenbekenntnis,” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 32 (1969): 107-121.
  6. Arabic/Garšūnī. Epistle of Ps.-Dionysius to Timothy, SMMJ 263

If you like, share what you plan to read in the comments below. And any thoughts on this enterprise generally are welcome, too. Happy studying!

Recently available resources for Nubian studies   Leave a comment

Well over two years ago I wrote a short post on some Old Nubian resources. Giovanni Ruffini has recently announced more work in general Nubian studies. These, three in number, are:

So, even though the corpus of Old Nubian is comparatively small, it’s exciting to see new work appearing widely available in this and related fields. Go have a look.

Resources on Old Nubian   3 comments

Several weeks ago I had HMML order some more books with Old Nubian texts and they arrived last week. Like the bulk of scholarly work on this language and its literature, these books are from the pen of Gerald M. Browne (1943-2004),[1] who worked in the classics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is best known for his work on Old Nubian, as well as on Coptic.

These most recent acquisitions at HMML are Beihefte from the series Beiträge zur Sudanforschung: Literary Texts in Old Nubian (1989) and The Old Nubian Miracle of Saint Menas (1994). Each volume includes the Old Nubian text with accompanying English translation and grammatical commentary; the former volume includes an Old Nubian-English glossary, and the latter a Greek-Old Nubian index and (bitonal) facsimile of the manuscript. Among other resources, HMML (or Saint John’s itself) has Browne’s Old Nubian Dictionary, CSCO 556 / Subs. 90 (Louvain, 1996) and Old Nubian Grammar (Munich, 2002).

Old Nubian, of the Nilo-Saharan language family, was used in what is now Sudan and southern Egypt, and its descendant, Nobiin, is still spoken in the region today. It was written in an alphabet derived from Greek akin to Coptic, and, as in Coptic, there are a few extra letters, these from Coptic and Meroitic. Notable linguistic features include SOV (subject-object-verb) word order, the use of postpositions (as opposed to prepositions), the genitive noun coming first in genitive constructions, and adjectives following the nouns they modify. Browne produced a grammatical sketch in 1989 (Introduction to Old Nubian [Berlin]) that is rare these days, but his more complete Grammar referred to above is now the standard. His Dictionary was supplemented in 1997 by three appendices in a separate volume, also available at HMML: Old Nubian Dictionary: Appendices, CSCO 562 / Subs. 92 (Louvain, 1997).

Texts in Old Nubian survive from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, with most from the tenth to the twelfth. Edited, these materials amount to under 100 pages of continuous text and include, among others, fragments from the Bible, some hagiography (the stories of St. Menas, St. George, and Epimachus), and the Nicene Canons. The longest continuous text is the Pseudo-Chrysostomian “Homily on the Venerable Cross”, the Greek original of which also survives. As is not surprising, there are connections between Old Nubian literature and that of Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity.

The study of Old Nubian is rather younger than that of most of its other eastern Christian neighbors. The British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862-1934) worked on the language in the early twentieth century: his Nubian Texts from the Christian Period (Berlin, 1913) contains some texts with English translation, a short description of the language, and a glossary. Werner Vycichl published some grammatical studies from 1956 to 1961 and, following Nubian excavations in the 1960s, F. Hintze did further work investigating the language. More recently, contemporaneous with Browne, the Russian scholar E.B. Smagina published some important works which, however, remain only in Russian.

There are, alas, no Old Nubian manuscripts available for research at HMML, but we can at least here study the language and its literature!


[1] See a brief obituary here. A partial bibliography of his Nubian studies will be found in his Grammar referred to later in this post.

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