A royal syllabary

In the mind of many, Africa is the oral continent. But Africa hosts some of the earliest writing systems in the world, and has remained a continent prolific in the invention of scripts since the times of hieroglyphs, Meroitic writing, Nubian, Ethiopian and Berber scripts that mark the earliest attestation of writing there.

Today, I look at one of the youngest scripts originating from Africa, the Bamum script of Foumban, a Sultanate in Western Cameroon. Its earliest incarnations go back to 1896, when it was invented by the Sultan Njoya the 17th. Six different versions of the script were developed over the years. The earliest ones were logographic – the signs depicted real-world objects. Later versions turned the Bamum script into a syllabic writing system, in which each sign stands for a syllable of the language. ‘Ideal’ syllabic writing systems should have a different letter for every syllable of the language(s) written with them, which can be a tall order. Most syllabic writing systems stop short of offering a complete inventory of signs.

Waiting for the Sultan to start his audience (you can see his throne in the doorway in the background to the left), Foumban 2004

Many sources state that Njoya developed the Bamum script under the influence of German colonial administrators, as Cameroon was a German colony during the first twenty years of his reign. But newer research has revealed a family of syllabic scripts invented all over Africa in the late 19th century, starting with the Vai script in Liberia. Syllabic scripts went out of fashion from the 1930s onwards, when the Africa alphabet created by linguists of the International Africa Institute became influential through the activities of missionaries, colonial linguists and administrators. Today, the Bamum script is little used, but retains a high symbolic prestige. When I visited Foumban in 2004, I obtained an audience with the current Sultan and his education minister and visited the palace school where it is taught. Currently, it is being documented in the Bamum script and archives project.

The Bamoum dynasty in the Latin and Bamum script
Sign in Foumban
More from the linguistic landscape of Foumban
It’s clear which language the military speaks/writes…

If you want to read more about the Bamum script and the family of 19th century syllabaries in Africa, you can read this article:

De Voogt, Alex. 2014. The cultural transmission of scripts in Africa: the presence of syllabaries. Scripta 6: 121-134

Languaging in speech and signs

My third post on African languages in the UNESCO year of indigenous languages looks at a particular type of multilingualism that is extremely rare in the West. All over Africa (and in other areas of the world where Deaf people do not receive specialized education separate from hearing learners), hearing and Deaf people form speech communities where hearing and non-hearing members share sign languages. These sign languages are often specific to particular locations and not related to the widely distributed national and international sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL). In contrast to most Western settings, where education is focussed on acquiring spoken and written language, and where communication in sign languages is mainly limited to Deaf people and their families, Deaf people in these settings are fully integrated into their local communities. Their hearing members are often multilingual in several spoken languages but also master and pass on the sign language. The extent to which sign languages in these settings are conventionalized and in which communicative contexts they are used depends on the size and time-depth of the community. You can read an account of village sign communities in rural Mali here:

Nyst, Victoria, Sylla, Kara & Magassouba, Moustapha (2012) Deaf signers in Douentza, a rural area in Mali In: Zeshan, Ulrike and Connie de Vos eds. 2012. Sign languages in village communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Sign Language Typology Series 4. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 

If you want to have a look at how sign language is shared with hearers in a setting where it is not highly conventionalized (because there is only a single Deaf person), have a look at this blogpost and video situated in the village Djibonker in Senegal by Mia Weidl and Andrés Carvajal.

Sulemaana Kantè: writing unity in difference

My first post on indigenous African languages is dedicated to Sulemaana Kantè, the Guinean inventor of the N’ko script for the writing of Manding languages. He has been called a cultural fundamentalist by Jean-Loup Amselle, because he created a script and linguistic standard aiming at unifying a Manding language out of a cluster of closely related and fluidly interwoven registers spanning several countries in 1949. But characterizing him as an ethnonationalist does not do justice to his vision, which is one of creating unity while respecting difference, making it very faithful to the many social exchanges that acknowledge and thrive on diversity in the Mande world. His version of a standard language does not erase variation or impose one lect to the exclusion of other local varieties, unlike its colonially created contemporaries. The forms of a ‘clear register’ called kángbɛ and mainly based on his native Maninka are taught to disciples of N’ko, but at the same time they receive profound knowledge of the etymologies of these forms, of their correspondences in other local varieties, and of regular sound correspondences between forms in different lects.

nko in nko
The word N’ko in the N’ko script. N ko means ‘I say’ in Manding language

Kantè’s legacy lives on, since N’ko has become a very influential alternative to the barely used colonial standard language Bambara, and because his philosophy connects writing and literary production to local experience and Mande political imagination.

You can read more about him and N’ko in the articles below, and in Coleman Donaldson’s PhD thesis, among several other references:

Vydrine, Valentin (2001): Souleymane Kante, un philosophe-innovateur traditionnaliste maninka, vu à travers ses ecrits en Nko. In Mande Studies 3, pp. 99–131. 

Donaldson, Coleman. 2018. Orthography, standardization and register: The case of Manding. In Pia Lane, James Costa & Haley de Korne (eds.), Standardizing minority languages, 175–199. New York and London: Routledge.