Making a Unicode Font for the Nubian Language Revitalization Movement

This time, I (So Miyagawa) decided to interview Arbaab (Hatim Eujayl), who is making Sawarda Nubian, an Old Nubian script based font, for the Nubian language revitalization movement. First, I provide some basic information on Nubian languages and people; the interview with Arbaab follows that.

Nubian Languages and People

Nubian languages are considered to be included in the North Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language phylum. Nilo-Saharan languages are one of the major language groups in Africa, which are used mainly in North-East Africa, Central-East Africa, and the Sahel region of West Africa. Nubian languages are mainly used in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt, from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan to Egypt. The Nubian people are those whose mother tongue is a Nubian language or their offspring. The biggest group among Nubians are those who speak the Nobiin language in Egypt and Sudan.

Meroitic is an ancient language used in the Meroe Civilization in North Sudan. Their predecessors, Kushites, occupied Ancient Egypt and established the 25th Dynasty. Meroitic has its own writing system, the Meroitic script. Thanks to the research by Griffith, the phonetic value of Meroitic script was largely deciphered. The writing system is a so-called Alphasyllabary or Abugida, a syllabic writing system which is based on a consonant and a fixed base vowel. This type of writing system is also encountered in Ethiopia, India, Southeast Asia, and North America (indigenous people). Recently, Claude Rilly, a scholar of this language and writing system, proposed that Meroitic is a para-Nubian language. From my point of view, this hypothesis is the most plausible today. 

After the collapse of the Meroe Kingdom, the Roman Empire influenced this region. Around the fourth to sixth century CE, the Nubian Three Kingdoms arose, namely Nobatia, Makuria, and Alodia. Makuria annexed Nobatia in the seventh century. Around the sixth century, these three kingdoms converted to Coptic Christianity. Their liturgical languages are Greek, Coptic, and Old Nubian. Old Nubian is the oldest written Nubian language, recorded between the eighth and fifteenth centuries. It was written in the Coptic alphabet supplemented by three characters derived from the Meroitic cursive script. In 2021, a descriptive grammar of Old Nubian written by Nubiologist Vincent W.J. van Gerve Oei was published.

Currently, Nubians are active in the revitalization movement of their languages. In Egypt and Sudan, younger generations mostly speak Arabic and knowledge of their language heritage is gradually decreasing. Still, there are Nubian communities all over the world (Nubian diaspora). They use Old Nubian script which their ancestors used in the Medieval Nubian Kingdoms, for their language. So far, there are Coptic Unicode fonts, such as Antinoou, which support the Nubian special letters derived from Meroitic as well. However, Old Nubian has its own style of writing which was derived from one of the styles of Coptic handwriting. 

Our interviewee is currently making a Unicode font which enables the unique Old Nubian handwriting style.

Copyright ©2021, Hatim-Arbaab Eujayl

Brief bio of Arbaab

  • Arbaab, could you introduce yourself to the readers?

Hello everyone! My name is Hatim Eujayl, nicknamed Arbaab. I’m a Sudanese-American college student and an affiliate of different projects to educate people on the cultures of Sudan, including the Sounds of Sudan YouTube channel, the Geri Fai Omir (“Read, Write, Count”) children’s book project, and, of course, the Sawarda Nubian font development project. 

Interview with Arbaab

  • Question 1: Could you introduce your font to us?

The Sawarda Nubian font is the first publicly available font for the Nubian languages explicitly based on Old Nubian writing as found in Nubian manuscripts. I started developing it in 2020, as a byproduct of the incredible NubiaFEST lecture “Faras: A New Nubian Typeface” by Dr. Vincent van Gerven Oei, which laid out the fundamental issues with the state of Nubian type design, namely that it was all Coptic-based, rapidly becoming outdated, and unable to meet the needs of both Nubian and Nubiologist users. 

  • Question 2: What does the development of fonts mean for modern-day Nubians?

The Nubian language revitalization movement is very deeply linked to the digital world, and most people will first encounter Nubian writing in typed form, especially if they’re a modern Nubian trying to learn their language. As a result, Nubian fonts play a huge role in determining how people perceive Nubian writing, and as a result, I think having Nubian fonts that draw from the actual Old Nubian manuscript tradition basically acts as a way to teach people about Nubia’s written heritage. It allows them to encounter and emulate the unique letter forms that emerged in Nubia.

But beyond that, I think Sawarda, and just having a general increase in the number of Nubian fonts, moves us away from the era of purely functional Nubian writing. Developing fonts means opening up creative opportunities with the Nubian script, and making heritage fun, which I think is super important for helping people reconnect with their heritage or learn about someone else’s. 

So, basically, I think the development of fonts is both an opportunity for Nubians to preserve their heritage and innovate with it; it helps bridge the past with the present, and lays the groundwork for a really beautiful and creative Nubian written future.

  • Question 3: Could you tell us your future plans for the development and dissemination of your fonts?

Sawarda’s ultimate goal is to contain not only the characters needed for Old Nubian with all relevant ligatures and diacritics, but also to contain all the Latin, Arabic, and Meroitic characters (with the relevant diacritics) needed to meet the most basic, functional needs of Nubians and Nubiologists. Some of the Nubian characters and the metrics also need to be revised in order to allow Sawarda to be a more convenient font. As I reach new milestones, I will continue releasing updated versions of the font, until a final version that reaches Sawarda’s original goals is developed.

My hope is, at this point, scholarly publications that work with Nubia will embrace Sawarda, and Nubian language activists will consider it an option when they need to write Nubian along with the better established fonts in the Nubian language community, like Sophia Nubian or Noto Sans Coptic. 

Copyright ©2021, Hatim-Arbaab Eujayl

However, I think more importantly, I’d like to start developing fonts outside Sawarda to meet other aesthetic or functional needs within the Nubian writing community. For a while, I would recreate logos in Nubian and Meroitic to test the aesthetic possibilities of both scripts, and I think making that type of creativity with these ancient scripts more widespread is important. My ultimate goal, honestly, is not so much to make specific fonts, but to help build a culture of Nubian type design. Beyond font development, I plan to develop more resources for learning about various Nubian written styles and for developing new Nubian fonts, so creatives everywhere, particularly Nubian creatives, can expand the aesthetic possibilities of the script and truly bring it back to life. 

  • Thank you so much, Arbaab!! 

Arbaab (interview, images) & Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei (checking my explanations about Nubian languages)

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