Everywhere and nowhere: Ajami writing

In African formal education systems, the Latin script dominates, with the exception of Arabic-writing North Africa and the Horn of Africa, writing in Ge’ez. In secular state schools, literacy is mainly taught in the ex-colonial languages, which all use Latin-based orthographies. But even schools that teach so-called “national languages” – indigenous languages that are officially recognised – teach these languages in the Latin alphabet. Outside of Arabic lessons, the Arabic script is nowhere to be seen in the formal education sector.

This insistence on the Latin script, which is often seen as a neutral, modern, choice, flies in the face of longstanding writing practices that have emerged all over Africa in areas in the sphere of influence of Islam. Just as the Latin script spread with Christianity and was adapted to write languages other than Latin originally in religious contexts, the Arabic script was extended to write in the languages of Islamic scholars. West Africans cultivated this type of literacy, called Ajami (from ‘Ajamiyy ‘stranger’ in Arabic) from the 13th century onward. All over Africa, writers engage(d) with the Qur’ān, writing in the margins of religious manuscripts, penning personal letters, religious prose and poetry, using the Arabic script for the writing of Fulfulde, Hausa, Mandinka, and many other languages. For some languages, this writing crystallised into language-focused literary traditions roughly from the 17th century onward. In others contexts it remains a fluid informal practice.

Important West African languages with Ajami writing traditions (Souag 2010: 1)

To this day, Ajami writing is an important form of literacy, especially in areas that ironically are regarded as hot spots of illiteracy in official literacy statistics. According to this logic, which ignores the many different types of
Qur’ānic schools, where Ajami writing is learned alongside writing and reading of Arabic by some of the students, somebody without literacy knowledge in the Latin script is illiterate. Not surprisingly, this lack of recognition often leads its practitioners to under-report Ajami skills or even hide them from authorities, because these eye Qur’ānic schools and the knowledge acquired there with suspicion. This is a real shame, since Ajami writing is a very ergonomic form of literacy for languages for which not many resources are available. Ajami extends the writing conventions of Arabic to any language and has intricate design principles adjust it to this purpose. One of these tweaks is a special character called by Souag 2010 the “Ajami diacritic” that signals to the reader that a sound must be pronounced differently from its Arabic counterpart. This flexibility has turned Ajami writing into a robust practice that doesn’t require much costly infrastructure, quite unlike standard writing of national languages in the Latin script. But standard language ideologies are so strong that with growing recognition of Ajami, calls for its standardisation are getting louder. Yet, just like many language ideas exported from Western monolingual standard cultures, such a move would rob Ajami of the very underpinning of its success in linguistically diverse and fluctuating societies.

Read more on the ingenious design principles of West African Ajami writing in this article:

Souag, Lameen (2010): Ajami in West Africa. In Afrikanistik Online 7, pp. 1–11

Show me how you count and I tell you where you’re from

Because we’re so focussed on languages, we linguists tend to describe linguistic phenomena as if they belong to a single language (“In Urban Wolof…”, “In Gujaher…”). We know of course that features can be shared by languages – and this also means that languages are better understood as imaginary boxes drawn around a number of linguistic features, with some features possibly ending up in more than one box.

Some previous posts in this series have already shown how particular concepts can be shared widely among different languages, be they words with particular meanings, or entire counting systems. Today, I want to look at counting again, but not at the speech side of counting, as I have done when writing about counting money and describing how many speakers of Atlantic languages take the body as the semantic basis for number words, but on the gestures that accompany counting.

Every child knows that when counting on your fingers, you start with the thumb, right? Well, not so in Casamance. There, every child knows that when counting on your fingers, your pinkie finger comes first. You can watch speakers of Baïnounk Guñaamolo count in this video by Sokhna Bao Diop.

The differences in finger counting are a helpful reminder that “speaking a language” is an incomplete way of describing what it means to communicate successfully in a culturally appropriate way. Gestures and other features such as facial expression, posture, position towards interlocutors and many more are part and parcel of language, and of the manifold intricate things language users know and do, often without paying attention to them at all…

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.