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.