Writing Systems of Africa

On my trip to Ethiopia in 2015, I discovered the beautiful language of Amharic. After seeing the script on signs, documents, and in people's notebooks, I became fascinated with different writing systems, especially African ones. I wanted to write this post to showcase and document the diversity of language on the continent, because it may not occur to a regular person the variety of scripts in Africa.

A writing system is a harmonic blend of technology and beauty. At its very core, scripts are a visual depiction of language, which allows people to transfer and preserve information. Linguists have discovered that there have been only four independent creations of written language: in Egypt, Iraq/Iran, China, and Mesoamerica. Any other writing system can be traced back to these as its origin, or is inspired by their function and form.

Africa has incredible linguistic diversity. The most dominant language groups are the Niger-Congo (including Bantu), Afroasiatic (Berber and Semitic languages), and Nilo-Saharan. As a result of colonialism, most of the languages use the Latin alphabet in their writing. Arabic is prevalent in North Africa. Some languages, however, do not use Latin or Arabic, and have their own system of writing. 

The questions I was interested in were:

  1. What are the current methods to write languages in Africa?
  2. Which of these are ancient inventions, and which are modern creations?
  3. Why is there such limited use of indigenous scripts?
  4. Why is Latin writing most preferred? What are the social and political reasons for this?

By examining the indigenous writing systems of Africa, we can appreciate the extreme diversity of cultures and history in Africa and take off the glasses of colonialism. Ultimately, many writing systems were created to preserve the language and culture of a people, so that the language sees long-term survival. In the map below, the systems highlighted in blue will be examined in detail. This is not an exhaustive analysis of every system on the continent. The systems were chosen to represent different orthographies, languages, and popularity.

 

 
 A south-up map of Africa with some of the non-Latin writing systems placed on the regions where they're used. From Isibheqe.org.

A south-up map of Africa with some of the non-Latin writing systems placed on the regions where they're used. From Isibheqe.org.

 

 

GE'EZ

Perhaps the most well-known, and most widely used native African script is Ge’ez. It’s used to write languages in and around Ethiopia, including Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), Tigrinya, and Tigre. In fact, it is the only African script that is used widely in everyday interactions. Ge’ez is also a written liturgical language (sacred languages used apart from daily speech) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ge’ez script most likely was derived from the abjad South Arabian script. In the 4th century CE, vowel markings were attached to South Arabian forms in a systematic way, and this slowly evolved to the modern Ge’ez script. The resulting form was an abugida, in which a consonant-vowel is one unit, based on a consonant letter with attached vowel notation. Some believe that the influence of Christian literature sparked the change from an abjad to abugida. The name abugida, which applies to many Indian and South-East Asian scripts, is taken from four letters of Ge’ez: a, bu, gi, da, much like how “alphabet” is derived from Greek.

For brevity’s sake the basic inventory of syllables is depicted below. There are more syllables to represent labialized velar consonants, and other consonants. 

 
 

In the Ge’ez abugida, diacritics are marked for the vowels u, i, a, e, ə, o. The original consonant block is used when the vowel is ä [ə]. For some consonants, an extra diphthong -wa or -yä is added. Some simple Amharic words and sentences are given below. 

 

TIFINAGH

Libyan (or Libyco-Berber) is not a language, it is an ancient script that was found in North-West Africa. Little is known about its origin, but it is believed to have a modern descendent: Tifinagh. Tifinagh is pronounced [tifinaɣ], where [ɣ] is similar to [ʁ]. It is an abjad script characterized by simple geometrics shapes. From this script, the modern Neo-Tifinagh alphabet was derived. Both of these scripts are used to write Berber languages, which is spoken by many in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mali, and Niger. It should be noted that Arabic and Latin scripts (the Berber Latin Alphabet) have been historically preferred over Neo-Tifinagh, which was only adopted in Morocco in 2003, and has limited use, mainly for artistic symbolism.

Libyan scripts were developed between 300 BC and 200 AD. There are theories that this system was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs or the Phoenician alphabet. In fact, it is believed that “Ti-finagh” is derived from the word Phoniq. 

Neo-Tifinagh was developed in 1980 and is a full alphabetic script. The decision to officially adopt Neo-Tifinagh in Morocco was met with some backlash. A Professor of Tamazight (another name for the Berber languages), Salem Chaker, opined that Tifinagh can only “play an identity or emblematic role and cannot be used as a basis for a functional writing system.” The script has been at the center of political disputes in North Africa as well. Morocco imprisoned people using the script during the 1980s and 1990s. Later, the Gaddafi regime of Libya had banned public use of Tifinagh.

To view a website written in Neo-Tifinagh, visit the Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe.

 

 

 
 The Neo-Tifinagh syllabary.

The Neo-Tifinagh syllabary.

 Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in Tifinagh.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in Tifinagh.

 Bilingual road sign in Morocco.

Bilingual road sign in Morocco.

 

VAI

The Vai script is used to write the Vai language, which is spoken by around 100,000 people in Liberia and 15,500 in Sierra Leone. This script was invented in 1833 by Momolu Duwaly Bukele. It is in the form of a syllabary of 212 symbols, which is distinct from an abugida in that there isn’t necessarily any systematic affixation of vowel markings. Vai is written from left to right. To be literate in the language, one must only need to recognize around fifty symbols. Vai contains seven oral vowels (e i a o u ɔ ε) and five nasal vowels (ĩ ã ũ ɔ˜ ε˜), and 31 consonants. Note the difference between Vai and Ge'ez. Looking across each row in the syllabary below, Vai has no systematic diacritic marking of vowel sounds, so it cannot be classified as an abugida.

The origin of the script is unclear. While it was invented by Bukele, it is believed that ancient logos and pictures were the source for some of the modern logos. Additionally, Vai bears resemblance to the Cherokee (a native American language) syllabary. Numerous Cherokee emigrated to West Africa, and it is known that one man married into a prominent Vai family. In any case, the script was standardized in 1962 at the University of Liberia. It is important to note that Vai is just one language in this incredibly linguistically diverse region of West Africa. Despite Vai script being used by only one language, it is popular in that group.

 This is the complete Vai syllabary. The logos in red were additions made by Momolu Massaquoi.

This is the complete Vai syllabary. The logos in red were additions made by Momolu Massaquoi.

 Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in Vai.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in Vai.

 

DITEMA TSA DINOKO

Perhaps the most contemporary and creative African script is known as Ditema Tsa Dinoko (Isibheqe Sohlamvu in Zulu). This script can be used to write any Southern Bantu language, such as Sesotho, Zulu, and Tswana. The Southern Bantu languages are found in South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Created within the past three years by linguists, programmers, and designers, this special writing system is inspired by traditional litema art of Lesotho. Additionally, since the Bantu languages are agglutinative, words that are written with the Latin alphabet can get very long. For example, ‘I’m going to show you very well’ in English, translates to ‘Ngizokubonisisa’ in isiZulu. The Ditema tsa Dinoko script is not necessarily linear, and the units form the affixes that characterize agglutinative languages.

 

  Litema  art in Lesotho.

Litema art in Lesotho.

 
 This is "Isibheqe Sohlamvu" written in its language. Notice that the triangular units are not linear, and have been placed artistically and colored.

This is "Isibheqe Sohlamvu" written in its language. Notice that the triangular units are not linear, and have been placed artistically and colored.

Look at the diagrams below to understand how Ditema tsa Dinoko is constructed. Consonant features are added to triangular shapes that represent vowels. The final result is a syllabic block. The symbols can be seen as diagrams of the tongue and mouth, which makes this system similar to the way Hangul (Korean) is written.

 

 

A FEW MORE IMPORTANT SYSTEMS

 
 

 

USAGE OF SCRIPTS

The scripts I showed above represent just a small pool of African linguistic diversity. Mostly, there are more modern creations of scripts, which have stories similar to the creation of Vai and Ditema tsa Dinoko. It can be concluded that there are only two scripts, Ge'ez and Tifinagh, that were created more than one millennium ago, which I will call, "ancient scripts". 

The modern scripts have limited usage. If they are used, they are mostly for symbolism and cultural preservation. Sometimes books (including the Bible and Quran) have been translated into the scripts. Very few schools teach non Latin or Arabic scripts. Mandombe, which is shown above, is taught in Kimbanguist Church schools in three countries, and in a university in Kinshasa, DRC. In 2003 the Democratic Republic of Congo gave permission to teach Mandombe in primary and secondary schools, but there are no statistics on its usage. Other scripts such as N'ko and Vai are mostly taught at community centers. Ditema tsa Dinoko is almost exclusively used in symbolism and art, and has no practical use because of such limited information on the script.

Comparing the ancient scripts, we see that Tifinagh has extremely limited usage compared to Ge'ez. Ge'ez is the only African script, modern or ancient, that is still used in daily interactions and formal situations.

A recurring theme in the use of African scripts is the uniting of people or nations. Strong cultural ties across Africa are a motivation to create Ditema tsa Dinoko, Mandombe, and N'ko. Common features for these languages are that they can be used to write multiple languages, correctly, in ways that the Latin alphabet fails to do so. On the contrary, Oromo switched from Ge'ez writing to the Latin alphabet. The Oromo people make up around 50% of Ethiopia, and speak a Cushitic language called Oromo. Between 1970 and 1991, it was unclear which system Oromo should be written in, and simultaneously, the Ethiopian Revolution was happening. There is some evidence to support the claim that the reason for the switch was the persecution and discrimination against the Oromo by the Amhara, leading to further cultural separation between the two ethnic groups.

 

 Oromo girl in Chiro, Ethiopia.

Oromo girl in Chiro, Ethiopia.

 Mandembe writing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mandembe writing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 

LATIN AND ARABIC WRITING

 In the 1900s, this Tanzanian girl is wearing a fabric with Swahili Arabic text.

In the 1900s, this Tanzanian girl is wearing a fabric with Swahili Arabic text.

If you were to map the use of the Latin alphabet on a map of Africa, the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa would be covered, with the exception of Ethiopia. If you did the same with Arabic, the whole of North Africa would be covered. African languages started using Latin letters when Christian missionaries first came to Africa, prior to colonization. During the "Scramble for Africa", the use of Latin became systematic, sometimes imposed by colonial governments and sometimes not. As a result, literacy was introduced to parts of Africa that did not have writing systems. The Latin alphabet is thought to be the world's most versatile script, because it's used for so many languages around the world.

Arabic, on the other hand, was present on the continent for hundreds of years before Latin. The spread of Islam across North Africa brought the religion and language. However, Arabic has been adapted into other related systems, such as Ajami. Swahili was a language that used to be written in Arabic before its switch to the Latin alphabet. In both systems, the true phonology of Swahili is difficult to preserve, resulting in discrepancies in pronunciation. The Arabic Swahili letter ب (ba) could result in the following Latin Swahili letters: b p mb mp bw pw mbw mpw.

 

 

FINAL NOTE

The linguistic diversity of Africa is exceptional, and this report is by no means an exhaustive look at the languages and writing systems. However, it provides a look into the languages of Africa that are not presented in today's media and academia. I want to end this by saying Egyptian Hieroglyphs are the origin of Latin, Greek, and Coptic, and therefore we can trace many writing systems back to Africa, where writing was independently invented, and that it is unfair to think of the Latin alphabet as distinctly un-African.

 

RESOURCES

  1. Ager, Simon. “Oromo.” Omniglot, 2017, www.omniglot.com/writing/oromo.htm. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  2. Ager, Simon. “Somali.” Omniglot, 2017, www.omniglot.com/writing/somali.htm. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  3. Ager, Simon. “Tifinagh   .” Tifinagh, 2017, www.omniglot.com/writing/tifinagh.htm. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  4. Bright, William, and Peter T. Daniels. The World's Writing Systems. New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 2007.
  5. Everson, Michael, et al. “Proposal to Add the Vai Script to the BMP of the UCS.” 1 Aug. 2005.
  6. Gregersen, Edgar A. Language in Africa: an Introductory Survey. New York, Gordon & Breach, 1977.
  7. Inscribing Meaning: What's in a Script? National Museum of African Art, africa.si.edu/exhibits/inscribing/script.html. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  8. “Isibheqe.” Isibheqe.org, 2015.
  9. Jenkins, Orville Boyd. Origin of Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre Languages . orvillejenkins.com/languages/tigretigrinyageez.html. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  10. Mungai, Christine. “In the Race between African Scripts and the Latin Alphabet, Only Ethiopia and Eritrea Are in the Game.” Mail & Guardian Africa, Mail & Guardian Africa, 11 June 2014, mgafrica.com/article/2014-06-11-in-the-race-between-african-scripts-and-the-latin-alphabet-only-ethiopia-and-eritrea-are-in-the-game/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  11. Pasch, Helma. “Mandombe.” Afrikanistik Aegyptologie, 2010, www.afrikanistik-aegyptologie-online.de/archiv/2010/2724. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.
  12. Scelta, Gabriella F. “The Comparative Origin and Usage of the Ge’Ez Writing System of Ethiopia.” 2001.
  13. Van Niekerk, Garreth. “Indigenous Alphabet on the Cards for SA.” City Press, 8 Feb. 2016, city-press.news24.com/News/indigenous-alphabet-on-the-cards-for-sa-20160206. Accessed 18 Mar. 2017.