Literacy is believed to have been particularly high in Christian Nubia. This is attested by the widespread graffiti found on building walls, rocks, and pottery.1 Moreover, written evidence indicates that multilingualism was very high among the Nubians. Documents written in Meroitic, Latin, Coptic, Hieratic, Greek, Old Nubian, and Arabic are found in large numbers and are widely spread.Greek
Following the conversion of the Nubian kingdoms to Christianity in the sixth century, Greek replaced Meroitic as the primary written language. Greek was evidently the legal language of Old Dongola; 2 administrative and church documents discovered in the town were largely Greek. Although Coptic and Arabic were used throughout the kingdoms, Greek was more dominant in Old Dongola and Alwa than in the area of Nobadia in northern Nubia. Also, it is worth mentioning that Greek was widespread among the Nubians centuries before the arrival of Christianity in the sixth century.
Archeological excavations indicate a widespread use of Greek and Coptic in Nubia since the fourth and fifth centuries, if not before.3 Large numbers of documents and text fragments concerning a wide range of subject matters including royal commemorations and diplomatic correspondences have been uncovered from pre-Christian sites.4 Hence, the dominance of Hellenistic cultural features in the Christian Nubian kingdoms, including the adoption of Greek as a primary language, did not begin in the sixth century. Nonetheless, Christianity did play a major role in solidifying the base of the Roman (Byzantine) culture in Nubia and in establishing Greek as the primary language in the region.
Following the sixth century and the establishment of Greek as the official language of the kingdoms, writings in Greek became widespread in a number of native traditions. An example of such traditions is the extensive use of nomina sacra, a Christian system for abbreviating reoccurring divine names and expressions such as cross, father, spirit, heaven, holly, and son.Coptic
Confronted by a common enemy (i.e., the Muslim Arabs), the Nubians and the Coptic community formed a strong bond. Although less common than Greek, Coptic was a primary language in Nubia; evidence for teaching Coptic has been found in el-Ghazali, a Faras cathedral, as well as in other locations in Nubia.5
Coptic differs significantly from Nubian in many respects. Unlike Coptic, Old Nubian has no gender classes; grammatically the two languages are different. For example, in Nubian, the qualified follows the qualifier, and postpositions are used in place of prepositions; different from the case in Coptic.6
Manuscripts written in Old Nubian can be found throughout Northern Sudan, as far south as Soba and as far west as Kordofan.7 Although the majority of Old Nubian documents are religious in nature, many administrative documents, concerning a wide variety of legal matters such as land and slave ownership, are found.8 The elaborate writing of these documents indicates a highly sophisticated culture and proficiency in literacy.
The found Old Nubian documents reflect the linguistic, cultural, and social complexity of the Nubian Christian society. It is worth mentioning that the Old Nubian alphabet consisted of Greek letters, in addition to Coptic and Meroitic characters, that are accommodated in the Nubian spoken language.
Like Greek, Old Nubian employed diacritical signs (i.e, dots used to mark vowels, consonants, numerals, as well as to separate between words, and to mark the end of sentences).9 Angled strokes and incurved lines were employed to indicate the end of a full text material. Asteriscs were used to mark word omissions.10 Also, Old Nubian is distinguished by a unique mark (-oy) placed at the end of proper names.11
Although Arabic became the primary language in Nubia sometime around the fourteenth century, Old Nubian continued to be used until the late fifteenth century, or later. Today, Arabic is the first language in Sudan and was used in Nubia long before the fall of the Christian kingdoms in the fourteenth century. Archeology shows that Arabic was commonly used in Christian burials. Not only that, but the Muslim calendar of el-Hijra was regularly used in dating Christian documents.
Edited: Dec. 2008.