It seems fairly clear that in the medieval period the entire region from the First Cataract to the confluence of the Niles was occupied by speakers of the Nubian language or languages. Along the Nile today there are two fairly distinct Nubian languages, their difference being roughly comparable to that between High German and Dutch. This division may however be a fairly recent development; in the Middle Ages there may only have been dialect differences of a single language. In the western Sudan (Kordofan and Darfur provinces) there are several more distant Nubian languages. All are members of the African Nilo-Saharan family.
Nubians are not the original inhabitants of the Middle Nile; they seem to have migrated to the Nile Valley from the west some time during the history of the Kushite Empire (c. 850 BC - 350 AD), to which they became subject. The previously established language of Kush, called Meroitic, was not Nubian, though perhaps fairly closely related. After the fall of Kush the Meroitic language was wholly supplanted by Nubian, and there are no surviving Meroitic speakers today. Meroitic was written in an alphabetic script of which there are many surviving examples, but they have so far largely defied translation.
In the high Middle Ages, the Nubian language of the medieval kingdoms was written in a modified Coptic alphabetic script. It was used especially for legal and commercial documents and for correspondence, while religious texts were mostly either in Greek or in Coptic. In the far north Arabic was also extensively employed in commerce, as there were many Egyptian merchants resident in or traveling through Nubia.
In the late Middle Ages Arab nomads overran the territories of Makouria and Alodia, supplanting the formerly large kingdoms with a series of warring sheikhdoms. Arabic became the sole language of written communication, and increasingly supplanted Nubian as the spoken language as well. Today, spoken Nubian survives only in the area between the First Cataract and a point between the Third and Fourth Cataracts - the former territories of Nobadia and the northern part of Makouria. The written language however has been lost altogether, and all written communication is in Arabic. Virtually all Nubian men are today bilingual, as are younger women.
Sources: Thelwall 1982; Adams 1982.
(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)
See also articles on individual texts from Medieval Nubia.