Nuba Vision

Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2002

Nuba Languages and History:
Who is related to who in and outside of the Nuba Mountains and did they come from anywhere else?

Robin Thelwall, Calgary

A Bit about myself

I first went to the Sudan to take up a post as lecturer in Phonetics in the English Dept at Khartoum University in July 1966 after two years postgraduate studies in this field at Edinburgh.

In my reading up about the languages of the Sudan, which attracted me because there were so many of them, and so many had had hardly any descriptive work done on them, I read about the complexity of the linguistic situation in the Nuba Mountains.

In December 1966 I took a lift, with my wife, with an anthropologist friend, Lewis Hill, who was going by Landrover to Bara and El Obeid, where he would put us on a lorry for Kadugli. One of my students, Abdulla Ibrahim Abdalla Kumodo was in Kadugli and we had arranged to meet him there. We stayed in the government rest house which was quite busy. The weather at that time of the year was fine and the Jebels looked most attractive with good grass and trees in bloom.

I met up with Abdulla and we spent several hours sitting in cafes at the market place. He would try and identify a few of the many people we saw passing. Finally we asked one passerby if he would sit with us and tell me a few words in his language. I had a standard wordlist of 100 items for fieldwork and he turned out to speak a language that he called Logorik. I discovered on returning to Khartoum that this was a variety of what the scholarly literature called Daju and had several related languages in the Mountains. Logorik (also known as Liguri) was spoken to the north east of Kadugli near Hajar el Mek.

It turned out that Abdulla’s family lived in Hajar el Mek and on later visits we stayed with him and his very hospitable family, consisting of his father who ran a sewing machine on the veranda of one of the merchant’s shop in town and his mother and stepmothers and brothers and sisters of whom there always seemed a crowd and always a new youngster crawling around the house.

I pursued further research on Daju and continued by working on varieties spoken near Lagowa and later in Darfur at Nyala and south of Jebel Marra in the Wadi Azum. Also during my work in Darfur I worked on varieties of the Nubian language group (Birgid and later Midob) and did a little work on some "Hill Nubian" languages spoken in the northern Nuba Mountains. I had always been interested in history and later came into regular contact with those archeologists working on the early Sudan. This led me to try and make historical sense of what is known of the languages of the Sudan and their relationships for the understanding to some little degree of the past history of languages in Sudan and perhaps of the past history of the peoples. Unfortunately language history is not exactly the same as ethno-history, but you can’t do the one without some idea of the other, and vice versa.

So what follows is a sketch of what linguists know about the historical relationships of the languages of the Nuba Mountains and what we may infer, and perhaps speculate, about the past of the speakers of those languages. The sources that Suleiman Rahhal mentions in his outline about the Nuba peoples and languages in "The Right to be Nuba" have been superseded over the years since the late 50s and early 60s, but have not been made easily available to the general reader.

A Bit about African language classification

The most significant new account of the relationships of all the languages in Africa was made by the American Joseph Greenberg in a series of articles published after 1945 and collected and revised in a single volume published in 1955 and revised somewhat in 1966. Since that time a large amount of work has been done in the recording and description of languages all over Africa. So, although there are still a large number of languages still almost undescribed (including most of the languages of the Nuba Mountains) we do have just enough material to revise Greenberg’s outline in a number of areas

One of the problems affecting most of the classifications before Greenberg is that many of the fundamental ideas about the different ethnic and linguistic groupings were influenced by old European ideas of race including the use of such terms as Hamitic and Semitic (and even Hamito-Semitic) and Negroid. Greenberg made one crucial change by trying to get away from "ethnic" or racial labels and replacing them with geographical labels which, other things being equal, should be more neutral.

Greenberg proposed four major language families for all of Africa (also called phyla after botanical classifications): Niger-Kordofanian (covering languages spoken from West Africa to East and South Africa including the very numerous Bantu sub-group and some languages of the Nuba Mountains), Afroasiatic (covering Arabic, Berber of North Africa, a large number of languages in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa and a group including Hausa around the Lake Chad area), Khoisan (which includes languages spoken in Namibia and South Africa) Nilo-Saharan (mostly in the Sudan and Chad but also as far west as Mali and into Ethiopia and East Africa, including the very numerous Nilotic sub-group). Within Nilo-Saharan Greenberg proposed a large sub-group - Chari-Nile - which has subsequently been revised out of existence. The model of Nilo-Saharan that I will use here is that developed by M.L. Bender as a result of his own work over the last 35 years and his use of new publications over that time. I will also base my analysis on some of my own work on the Daju language group and the Nubian group. Full references are available to anyone who wishes to contact me.

A Bit of History

Evidence for the history of the Sudan is extremely limited before the 1800s with the major exception of the Nile Valley. We know quite a lot about the Kerma, Napata, Meroe and Nile Nubian civilisations although we do not understand Meroitic and are not sure of its relationship to other present-day language groups of the Sudan or Africa. Reliable scholars have rejected the possibility of Meroitic being related to Afroasiatic languages (the nearest geographically is Beja). Recent attempts to review the situation incline towards it being part of Nilo-Saharan, but this is still unproven. We also know of political states in Aksum in Northern Ethiopia, in Kanem and Bornu in eastern Nigeria; of the Funj state in the Blue Nile and the Daju, Tunjur and Fur "states" in Darfur as well as the relatively recent Kingdom of Taqali in the Rashad area of the Nuba Mountains. The Nuba Mountains only figure in indirect ways - perhaps as illustrations on Egyptian walls of wrestlers or certain hairstyles and facial scarring. Also as slaves in Egypt and other countries outside the Sudan.

A Bit of a Problem!

In scholarly writing there is almost no-one who now confuses Nubia or Nubian with Nuba or Nuba Mountains. In Arabic, and particularly in Sudanese usage the terms seem to get confused. There is no ethnic group in the Nuba Mountains that uses this term for themselves. The problem is that we have almost no archeological evidence or ethnic history for the regions west of the Nile, from Aswan to Malakal, which clearly links to the Nile states. So any claims about links between Nuba (Mts) and Nubia or Nubians (except for the Hill Nubian languages which are discussed below) are speculative.

How to simplify the complexity of the Nuba Mountain Language Situation

Of the about fifty languages spoken in the Nuba Mountains (I am of course talking about the situation that persisted at least until the late 70s) we classify them into members of two or perhaps three language families - Nilo-Saharan and Kordofanian (sub-family of the Niger-Kordofanian family). Of course in addition there is Arabic which could not have been spoken in the area prior to the Muslim invasions of Egypt in the 700s (Common Era) or the first century AH and there are also speakers of Fulani and some other West African languages. All the other languages of the Mountains well predate that period and in most cases were spoken there from time immemorial. The Kordofanian languages consist of four groups: Heiban, Talodi, Rashad and Katla - these names are based on their geographical centres (proposed by Thilo Schadeberg) and differ from names used in previous literature. The Kadugli Group was earlier classified by Greenberg as part of Kordofanian but removedfrom that relationship by Schadeberg and is currently considered probably part of Nilo-Saharan. The Kordofanian sub-groups are located in the southern and eastern areas of the Nuba Mountains. The Kadugli Group is located in the south east central fringe area near Kadugli.

The rest of the Nuba languages are classified as part of a major sub-group of Nilo-Saharan called East Sudanic. Relatives to these languages outside the Mountains include the various Nilotic groups and some smaller groups including Tama of Darfur, Nera of Eritrea and the Jebel groups of the Upper Blue Nile.

The "Hill Nubian" and Daju languages spoken in the Mountains have their major relatives outside the Mountains and we can reconstruct some details of their history and as a result propose that they each came into the Nuba Mountains to settle among the existing Nuba populations.

We are very confident that Nobiin (and later Dongolawi) came to the Nile from a centre of dispersion in Darfur-Kordofan which they occupied and controlled for perhaps 4000 years. We know that there were Nubian speakers on the Nile at least as early as the 500s CE and probably much earlier. The fact that the Hill Nubian languages have words for the days of the week dating back to Christian Nubian indicates that these languages were in contact at least during the Christian Nubian period which probably covers 500 CE - 1400 CE. This does not necessarily mean that the Hill Nubians did more than expand from central Kordofan into the Nuba Mountains during the period of Nubian political dominance from Aswan to Kosti (at least). But given the location of the Hill Nubian speakers (Dair, Dilling, Karko etc) along the NE edge of the Mountains it appears that they were "incomers" settling among the existing Nyima and Temein groups who were there before them, at least.

The Daju-speaking Groups

The Daju Language Group consists of at least six varieties spread out over a wide area from Eastern Chad to the Nuba Mountains.

We know that Southern Darfur was the centre of a Daju state perhaps as early as 1200 CE which was later displaced by the Tunjur and then the Fur who ruled from the Jebel Marra range. There are various traditions of Daju dispersion including a number of myths celebrating Ahmad el-Daj. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Daju controlled the area between southern Jebel Marra and perhaps as far east as the western edges of the Nuba Mountains. The Shatt and Liguri who are now well inside the Nuba Mts and north-east of Kadugli have been separated from the rest of the Daju for a long time (perhaps as much as 2000 years). The Daju of Dar el-Kabira and Lagawa are much more closely related linguistically to the Nyala and then to the Dar Sila Daju. This makes us think that there were two periods of Daju movement east, the first by the Shatt and Liguri and the second and perhaps related to the expansion and dominance by the South Darfur Daju, by the Lagawa Daju.

The arrival of Islam

Again the picture is very incomplete and uncertain. The following proposed "events" are based on the latest summary to be published this year.

639-640 AD Arab Muslim conquest of Egypt led by Amr ibn al ‘As for Khalifa ‘Omar. This begins the first Muslim contacts with Lower Nubians who are forced to pay tribute in slaves and livestock and promise no aggression against Egypt.

641-2 AD Islamic armies of ‘Amr ibn al`As reach the plain north of Dongola but fail to capture it.

646 AD Egyptians attack Nubia.

652 AD A "baqt" treaty established between Nubia and Egypt under Abdallah ibn Sa’ad ibn Abi Sahr. Nubia would provide 360 slaves each year and promise no attacks; Egypt would provide 1300 "kanyr" of wine. Old Dongola is captured for a period; conflicts noted between Makuria and Nobatia

950 AD Some Muslims reported at Soba

1275-1365 Period of warfare between Mamlukes and Nubians

1276 AD Mamluke Egyptians sack Dongola; forced conversion to Islam; King Dawud captured

1289 AD Last Mamluke military campaign against Dongola.

1317 AD Defeat of the last Christian king in Nubia and the first Muslim king Abdullah Barshambu on the throne in Dongola; "baqt" re-established; first mosque is built at Dongola

ISLAM REACHES THE CENTRAL SUDAN: Rise of Funj and Fur Sultanates

1504 AD The fall of Soba, capital of the last Christian kingdom of Alwa; the beginning of the

Islamic Funj Sultanate at Sennar.

Extracted from online draft: Historical Dictionary of the Sudan (3rd Edition) for subsequent Islamic chronology to the present. Forthcoming in Early 2002 by Richard Lobban, Robert Kramer and Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Scarecrow Press

What can we conclude?

We can propose "layers" of the Nuba language groups (and by implication their speakers) in terms of oldest inhabitants to most recent.

Oldest Kordofanian

Nyimang; Temein; Kadugli (perhaps representing and expansion of East Sudanic)

Daju Shatt & Liguri (perhaps as early as 100 BCE)

Hill Nubian (perhaps sometime between 300 and 1400 CE)

Most recent Daju Lagawa (perhaps as late as the 1300s)

The relationship between Kordofanian and the rest of Niger-Kordofanian is still not clear but the family has a time depth of a minimum of 6000 years.

The earliest date for the arrival of Islam in the Nuba Mountains is likely to be after the beginning of the establishment of Sennar, i.e. after 1504 CE

The only two groups for whom presence in the Nuba Mountains is within the last two thousand years are the Lagawa Daju and the "Hill Nubians". All other languages (and by inference people) are likely to have been in the Mountains for at least 2000 years or more.