The Animals of Nubia

A couple of days ago a friend used a photo from our blog to decorate an entry of his own relating to the Khartoum Zoo. The photo was that of the snake that we found last year under one of the rocks that we moved in the course of our dig:

Among the people who follow our friend’s blog there are some who have knowledge of both animal and plant species and sometimes identify what is depicted in related photos. Anticipating such identification we commented that the name for the snake in Old Nubian would be MIET.

This term is to be found in the Dictionary of Old Nubian compiled by the late G.M Browne.

Browne remains the main authority in the Old Nubian language, the precursor of the modern Nubian dialects spoken in the Middle Nile Valley.

However, more and more researchers are being interested in the Nubian languages, which are divided into five large groups:

1. the Kenzi-Dongolawi,

2. the Nobiin or Fadidja/Mahas,

3. the Meidob,

4. the Birgid, and

5. the Hill Nubian.

The first two are spoken in the Middle Nile Valley, while the last three in the suggested as original homesteads of the Nubian peoples, namely between Darfur, Kordofan, and the Nuba Mountains.

Old Nubian seems to be closer to the Nobiin, to which belong the Sukkot sub-dialect and tribe, with which the inhabitants of Sai island ιdentify themselves.

However, the words used in Nubia today for the snake, as we are taught both by the dictionary of Fadidja/Mahas Dialect by Mokhtar M. Khalil (Warsaw 1996) and by the Dongolese Nubian Lexicon of Charles Huber Armbruster (Cambridge 1965), are not the same:

The other animals that we found under the rocks were scorpions and spiders.

We have found an Old Nubian term only for the scorpion, which is interestingly the same in Dongolawi:

However, we have of course various other modern terms for these species:

There are of course many other animal names attested in our written sources in Old Nubian.

Some of them find parallels to one or the other of the two main branches of Nubian used in the Middle Nile Valley – or to Arabic; some do not.

Such differences and similarities bespeak of the (dis)continuity in the linguistic situation in any given place, which in the examples just presented would give an inverse to the commonly accepted picture: Dongolawi preserves the term used in Old Nubian, which is considered as linguistically closer to the Nobiin.


Moreover, such observations give also indications for the historical setting in which a term and the object it refers to were introduced in that given place; like strangely enough for the spider, which undoubtedly existed in Medieval Nubia, but everybody uses today the Arabic term for it.

What to do with the origins nimitis, a term used in both Nubian and Arabic languages too, is a question that can remain open, both lexicographically and also as a real problem, tormenting inhabitants and visitors in Nubia today…

Just to say how much we miss already our friends on Sai…

This entry was posted in Nubia, Old Nubian, Sai Island. Bookmark the permalink.

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