Sequoyah’s ghost at Grand Cape Mount, Liberia

Many of you may be familiar with Sequoyah, alias George Guess or Gist, a North American Cherokee who invented the Cherokee script in 1821. This script is a syllabary – it has a character for each syllable of the Cherokee language. But why would I write about a North American writing system from Georgia in a blog on African languages?

In 1832 or 1833, Momolu Duala Bukare, an inhabitant of Liberia, a country on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, designed a writing system for the Vai language. His script was also a syllabary, and in 1834, the Missionary Herald, the organ of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missionaries, which had also presented the Cherokee syllabary to its readers, wrote: “The occasion and manner of its being invented, as well as the characteristics of this method of writing, are nearly the same as those of the “Cherokee Alphabet” “

An illustration of the Cherokee syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 432)

What ensued was a longstanding quest to uncover the connections between these two so similar scripts created in such a short timespan in very different, though connected, corners of the world. Most scripts don’t arise out of nowhere but are inspired by existing writing, so one explanation was that both inventors had been prompted by similar written stimuli. But soon after the creation of the Vai syllabary, it emerged that it might be more directly related to the Cherokee script than that. Initial suspicions were that American missionaries who had worked among the Cherokee had brought knowledge of the Cherokee syllabary with them, and that this had spurred Momolu Duala Bukare to come up with his invention. Much later, research revealed that a Cherokee man, Austin Curtis, was living at Cape Mount, in Vai country, in 1829. Was he involved in the creation of the Vai script?


An illustration of the Vai syllabary (from Tuchscherer & Hair 2002: 440)

We won’t know for sure what inspired Bukare: abstract ideas and possibilities of writing, leading him to adopt a particular type of writing system – a syllabary – or direct exposure to a particular script. Perhaps the most amazing fact emerging from this mystery is the global connectedness of its protagonists, often imagined as belonging to ‘tribal’ and ‘remote’ groups. Read more on this fascinating story (and on yet more international entanglements) in this article:

Tuchscherer, Konrad, and P.E.H. Hair. 2002. Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script. Journal of African History 29:
427-486 

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