The Bamum script in London

Africa hosts a wealth of scripts and writing traditions. I have mentioned some of them in earlier posts, for instance the Bamum script from Foumban in Cameroon, the N’ko alphabet from Guinea, Ajami writing, and the Vai script from Liberia. Before introducing you to other African writing practices, I have to share the news with you that an eminent researcher on writing in Africa, Konrad Tuchscherer, is going to present his research in London.

On June 28, he’ll give a talk, entitled “Script in West Africa” at the British Library. A fitting location to remind the British public that far from being the oral continent that needs to be converted to writing by the activities of outsiders, is a treasure trove of scripts, innovated by daring inventors or having roots reaching back through millenia.

The British Library also hosts the Endangered Archives Programme, which provides funding for archival activities that help protect, preserve and share many of the world’s vulnerable archives, for instance the palace archives of the Sultan of Foumban. There is a yearly call for applications for funding. The bad news: this year’s call is closed. The good news: the programme just got extended, so you can apply next year. There’s much more precious evidence of African writing through the centuries to bring to light!

Writing repertoires

People in Casamance in Senegal are famously multilingual. But what works seamlessly in the oral modality is quickly turned into a burden in writing though.

If literacy is taught based on a strict norm, a language-based standard, writing more than one language requires much effort, since the conventions of several orthographies need to be taught, learned, memorised and put to the task. Most literacy campaigns in national languages therefore introduce literacy in only one language in any given area.

But what to do if your village hosts speakers of many different languages, such as Agnack, where speakers of Baïnounk Gujaher, Mandinka, various Joola languages, Mankanya, Kriol, and other languages cohabit? What if you want to write a note to a neighbour with whom you communicate in Mandinka but also want to keep a diary in Baïnounk Gujaher and leave a comment on Facebook of a friend in Dakar in Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca?

Driven by this question, a team of local transcribers, teachers, and linguists came up with the LILIEMA method, which introduces literacy based on entire repertoires rather than basing its teaching on one language only. Using the official alphabet of Senegalese languages, writers learn sound-letter associations based on words from the entire repertoire in the classroom and are thus enabled to express themselves in any language they wish in writing.

You can see LILIEMA in use on the Donkosira blog, where inhabitants of Agnack blog on aspects of local knowledge they want to share, and were they regularly use several languages to reach a wide audience with their posts. Have a look at this post for instance, on rice cultivation, which features Baïnounk Gujaher and Mandinka in addition to French, which is the only language written in its own and distinct orthography, since its is firmly inscribed into a European standard culture. Other posts feature Kriol or Joola Fogny, liberating writers and readers from impossible choices and setting them free to express themselves in writing as flexibly as they would in speaking.

Ö goes to Guinea

I’m still in Bamako, but a good connection means I can return to this blog just like a polygamous husband to his neglected other wife… And while not much happened in my online life, I spent a captivating week offline but directly connected to the various ways in which village residents from three West African countries – Mali, Senegal, and Guinea – present aspects of their diverse local knowledges.

Through recording local knowledge that is important to them on mobile phones and uploading it to the Donkosira blog if and when connectivity permits, it is their regard that determines what is deemed worthwhile documenting and sharing, and how it is presented. But blogs are a medium that requires use of the written modality in addition to photos and videos, and if this written information is to be offered in languages other than the colonial (and sole official) language of the three countries in the scope of the project, which is French, this causes great insecurity. Because the languages spoken in the villages Monzona, Damaro, Bouillagui and Agnack Grand and Agnack Petit are either locally confined or not taught at school, the first answer to the suggestion to write in them is: “But these languages are not written.”

Yet, almost all of the project participants had actually already produced writing in languages other than French – for instance in text messages or in transcriptions of stories and other texts. You can see an example in this post on proverbs by Ansoumana Camara. If you look at the ways in which the proverbs are transcribed in Konianké, the local Mande language, a truly ingenious strategy emerges: Ansoumana Camara has transferred the spelling rule of the language of first literacy, French, to Konianké. This type of writing is extremely widespread in West Africa, and a very economical way of writing in a multilingual environment that doesn’t offer much support to languages other than the colonial one. Sadly, it is often dismissed as corrupted and improper, so that its practitioners themselves dismiss it. Yet, these writing techniques testify of a great understanding of phonic regularities in French spelling and their transfer to new languages is highly skilful, and not at all deficient. So of course their value is recognised and they have a place of honour on the Donkosira blog.

Today, however, I want to tell you about a local flavour present in Ansoumana’s writing that is very endearing to me as a German. Since I’d first seen him write in Konianké, I had been intrigued by one thing: the presence of the letter ö. Ö has no place whatsoever in French orthography, but of course we Germans are very fond of our umlauts. I knew that the letter ö had been introduced in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire in the 1970s to write the the sound [ɔ] in national languages that had been officially standardised. But Ansoumana had stated that he had never learned to read and write a Guinean language. So how had the ö found its way into his spelling?

A Koniaké story transcribed by Ansoumana Camara from Damaro (Guinea)

Our workshop in Bamako offered the occasion to find out. It turned out that school teachers had introduced the letter ö because the sound [ɔ] appears in local names, such as Böbö [bɔbɔ], pronounced with a more open vowel than Bobo would be in French, and so a proper name served as a Trojan horse to introduce some aspects of writing national languages that otherwise had no right of existence in the Frenchg-based school curriculum. Thirty odd years after this school experience, the ö is still there – a tiny but persistent trace of spelling rules for national languages that still have no space in the school curriculum.

If you want to learn more about lead language writing, i.e. the transfer of spelling skills to repertoires in West Africa, you can find out more in this article:

Lüpke, Friederike (2018): Escaping the tyranny of writing. West African regimes of writing as a model for multilingual literacy. In Kasper Juffermans, Constanze Weth (Eds.): The tyranny of writing revisited. Ideologies of the written word. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 129–148.

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