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The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa: the presence of syllabaries

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Recent studies on writing systems in Africa have revealed a tradition of script development that started in the early nineteenth century with at least thirty scripts. Of the twenty that were put into use those that were invented before the 1930s appear to have been mainly syllabic and those of a later date mainly alphabetic. This transition cannot be explained by individual language traits or the early lack of familiarity with alphabets but rather by transmission that existed within West Africa where several of the syllabic systems are still in use today.
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The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa:
The Presence of Syllabaries
Alex de Voogt
American Museum of Natural History, USA
Recent studies on writing systems in Africa have revealed a tradition of script
development that started in the early nineteenth century with at least thirty
scripts. Of the twenty that were put into use those that were invented before
the 1930s appear to have been mainly syllabic and those of a later date
mainly alphabetic. This transition cannot be explained by individual language
traits or the early lack of familiarity with alphabets but rather by transmission
that existed within West Africa where several of the syllabic systems are still
in use today.
Keywords: syllabic writing, script invention, alphasyllabary, Vai, Nubian
The known history of writing systems extends back to the beginning of the
fourth millennium BC with only four independent inventions of writing
attested in the historical records in Mesoamerica, China, Mesopotamia and
Egypt, of which the latter two compete for the oldest writing tradition
in the world. All subsequent populations in those and in other areas that
adopted a writing system were at least familiar with the idea of writing.
Systems of writing, such as the logographic, syllabic and alphabetic systems,
seem to have developed chronologically with the alphabet being the
most recently-invented system of them all. However, the alphabet has not
displaced the other systems of writing and, despite alphabetization eorts
in the twentieth century, it still co-exists with other writing systems, and is
sometimes even in competition with them.
Africa has played a central role in the creation of writing systems.
Early dynastic writing from Egypt is one of the earliest occurrences of
writing, but there are at least three other African traditions of writing from
SCRIPTA, Volume 6 (October 2014):121–143
© 2014 The Hunmin jeongeum Society
122 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
antiquity that continue in their respective regions to this day. They date
back to the fourth century BC in the case of Sudan with the Nubian writing
tradition, and to a few centuries later for the Ethiopian scripts to the east
of Sudan, as well as the Berber scripts to the west.
Recent studies on writing systems in Africa have revealed a separate
tradition of script development that started in the early nineteenth century
(Tuchscherer 2007; Kootz & Pasch 2008; Rovenchak & Glavy 2011). More
than twenty scripts were developed and were implemented in sub-Saharan
Africa during this period with a general consensus in the literature for at
least fourteen of them (see also Table 1). About ten additional scripts were
developed, but were not or have not yet been put into use. For this total
of more than thirty scripts, the names of the inventors are known, lists of
signs have been collected, and the implementation of these writing systems
has been described where possible. The sheer number of scripts that
have been invented and documented for Africa is far higher than for any
other region and makes Africa particularly suitable for the study of script
development.
It is shown that of the African scripts invented in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries, scripts appear to have been mainly syllabic before
the 1930s (e.g., Figures 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10 below) and mainly alphabetic (e.g.,
Figure 5 below) in the period thereafter. It is argued that the explanation
for this transition is not found in the typological characteristics of the
individual languages or in the limited awareness of alphabets in the earlier
periods but rather in the historical contacts that existed within West Africa
where most of the syllabic systems were found and in some cases are still
used today.
1. Cultural transmission and script
Cultural traits are the units of analysis in the study of cultural transmission.
Their “rules, ingredients or both can be transmitted individually or as a
more or less complete set” (Lyman & O’Brien 2003:243). A study of cultural
transmission (see also Mesoudi et al. 2006; Henrich et al. 2008) of script
aims to understand how script as a cultural trait is exchanged between
people, the role of the context of transmission events, and the content of
information and biasing mechanisms. When examining script, distinctions
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 123
must be made between the transmission of the idea of writing, the system
of writing, and the shape and sound of the individual signs. These elements
of the same cultural trait do not necessarily transfer in concert. At the
same time, almost identical scripts have been implemented for unrelated or
particularly distinct languages. This suggests that the cultural transmission
of script is to be considered separately from that of language, despite the
appearance that they are inextricably connected.
The distinction between language and script in the context of cultural
transmission is further complicated by the fact that speakers of languages
that adopted a script are often multilingual. In most cases they will be
familiar with the written and spoken form of another language when the
process of developing a writing system for their own language is taking
place. While a person or a group of people may learn another language or a
script from another person or group, the act of developing a writing system
for one’s own language does not necessitate an interaction with other
people at that moment of inception. Script invention takes place some time
after contact with a people who write. Only when inventors start teaching
their own script design to others is the transmission process similar to
acquiring another language. Script acquisition, which takes places after the
invention of a script, is not documented in sucient detail for the above-
mentioned African examples to allow a proper analysis and is not part of
this study.
The transmission of the system of writing, as opposed to the idea of
writing and the physical appearance, has received increasing attention
in the literature. The idea that an alphabet is a superior system has been
questioned and the syllabary has been proposed as a system that is both
easier to acquire (Gleitman & Rozin 1973; Asfaha, Kurvers & Kroon 2009)
and the rst to be applied in the absence of other models (Daniels & Bright
1996:577–624). The preconception that syllabaries can only be successfully
used for languages with particular syllable structures and phonology has
been amply refuted by the existence of successful syllabic scripts that defy
these principles. Examples include the implementation of the alphasyllabic
Fidäl script to multiple languages in Ethiopia (Amha 2010), the success of
the syllabic Vai script in Liberia (Scribner & Cole 1981) and the (alpha)
syllabic Cherokee and Cree scripts in the United States. The efforts of
linguists to replace existing syllabaries can be seen as problematic as in
the case of the Caroline Islands script (de Voogt 2010a). The concept of
124 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
an alphasyllabary, dened here as a syllabary with a systematized vowel
representation (de Voogt 2010b) — i.e., one particular diacritic or sign
consistently used for one particular vowel — has mitigated the strong
contrasts between the two types, while the history of the alphabet has
found several precursors (Lehmann 2012) in what have previously been
called abjads.
Generalizations about the development of script are frustrated by
either an incomplete or a highly embellished record of their origin as well
as by the limited number of comparable scripts in terms of time period
and geography. In this light, the study of writing systems in Africa is of
particular interest due to the relatively large number of scripts generated
in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (see Table 1) as well as the use
of alphabetic, alphasyllabic and syllabic sign inventories in both Western
and Eastern Africa. Their relatively short history makes them less suitable
to the study of script transmission from generation to generation, i.e., so-
called ‘vertical transmission’. Instead, this study is mostly concerned with
the rst inception of a script for a particular language after one peer group
comes in contact with another, also known as ‘horizontal transmission’.
The table lists the names of fourteen writing systems for which there
is a consensus in the literature. The selection is a combination of the work
Table 1. Selected list of modern African writing systems
Name System Date of invention Location
Vai
Bassa
Bamum
Eghap/Bagam
Mende/Kikakui
Bassa
Osmanye
Kpelle
Loma/Toma
Gadabuursi
N’ko
Oromo
Wolof
Mandombe
syllabic
syllabic
syllabic*
syllabic*
syllabic
alphabet
alphabet
syllabic
syllabic
alphabet
alphabet
alphasyllabic
alphabet
alphasyllabic
1832/33
1836
1896
ca. 1910
ca. 1917
ca. 1910
1922
early 1930s
late 1930s
1933
1949
1956
1961
1978
Liberia
Liberia
Cameroon
Cameroon
Sierra Leone
Liberia
Somalia
Liberia
Liberia
Somalia
Guinea
Ethiopia
Senegal
DRC
* It is noted that in particular the Bamum and Bagam scripts were not always
strictly syllabic but at points also had logographic elements.
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 125
of Kootz & Pasch (2008), Rovenchak & Glavy (2011) and Tuchscherer
(2007) in so far as they agree on the scripts having been in use in Africa.
Only Rovenchak & Glavy (2011) mentions all fourteen of these scripts
and together with Tuchscherer they detail more than twenty scripts in
their respective publications. The dates are taken from Tuchscherer with
two exceptions: Mandombe and Gadabuursi. These two scripts were only
mentioned by Pasch (2008) and Rovenchak & Glavy (2011).
The Bassa syllabary and the Oromo script were included despite the fact
that according to Tuchscherer the Oromo script was not in use while Pasch
and Rovenchak & Glavy give evidence that its use extends up until today.
The Bassa syllabary was included based on evidence by Tuchscherer. Pasch
did not mention this script and Rovenchak & Glavy considered it a script
that was never in use.
2. Early history of writing in Africa
While Egypt may claim the earliest writing on the African continent, the
Sudanese Nile basin has an equally elaborate history of writing, part of
which concerns a group of Nilo-Saharan languages, classified by Rilly
(2004, 2010) as the North Eastern Sudanic branch. The first of these
Nubian scripts, as they are referred to here, is the Meroitic writing system
that developed ca. 300 BC and continued no later than the fth century
AD. The cursive signs are mostly inspired by those found in Egyptian
demotic script (see Figure 1a, 1b), but the system is alphasyllabic rather
than of the logographic type found in ancient Egypt (Rilly & de Voogt
2012).
A few centuries after the disappearance of Meroitic writing, the Nubians
in Sudan started using a language and script known as Old Nubian.
This script is largely based on the Coptic alphabet and its texts have
religious Christian content. Although the language of Meroitic is not fully
understood, Old Nubian is clearly a close neighbor to both the Meroitic
language and some of the later Nubian languages spoken in the region. The
Meroitic script was in use alongside Greek texts and Egyptian (Ptolemaic)
writing, the latter either in hieroglyphic, demotic or hieratic form. Coptic
gained prominence around the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh
century. Roman script was also present, although few Romans ever lived in
126 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
Nubia. In other words, both Meroitic and Old Nubian were developed at a
time that several scripts of dierent languages appeared in the region.
Egypt was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century and conse-
quently the Arabic script would eventually replace most, if not all, other
scripts in this region by the tenth century. This also aected Sudan although
the nal conquest of Sudan by Egyptian rulers did not take place until the
nineteenth century. Finally, British rule in the nineteenth century saw the
ocial introduction of another script, a Roman alphabet, for the instruction
of English in Sudanese schools.
Today’s Nubian languages have, in some cases, a documented grammar
and phonology for which an alphabet was developed by linguists but not
necessarily introduced to the speakers of the language. Even though these
Figure 1a. Close-up of a Meroitic oering table on display at the American Museum
of Natural History, New York (loaned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of
Archaeology and Anthropology #E7088).
Figure 1b. Transcription of the text using a Meroitic font. The inscription can be
read as wosi soreyi, which translates as “Oh Isis, Oh Osiris!”
wosisoreyi
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 127
languages are not taught in school, they continue to be spoken. There have
been several individual attempts to develop scripts for these languages (see
Figure 2) but these scripts remained largely unsuccessful and literacy has
remained limited to Arabic (Hāshim 2004; de Voogt & Döhla 2012).
It is noted that Meroitic, Old Nubian and today’s Nubian languages
have used demotic, Coptic and Arabic scripts that were originally used for
languages belonging to a dierent language family. Both the sign inventory
and system of writing were constructed for languages with significantly
dierent typologies.
In Ethiopia, a script tradition goes back to the writing of the Ge‘ez
language that started around the fourth century AD. The alphasyllabic
script of that time, also known as Ethiopic script, has inspired subsequent
scripts that are still largely similar but that serve a series of languages
in Ethiopia (see Figure 3). Fidäl script, as the modern alphasyllabary
is commonly referred to, is not only used for Amharic but also for an
increasing number of neighboring tongues. Again the languages have
significant typological differences coming from Ethio-Semitic, Cushitic,
Figure 2. Nubian grati messages using Arabic script on Sai Island, Sudan (see de
Voogt & Döhla 2012)
128 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
Omotic and Nilo-Saharan linguistic families (Amha 2010:193).
The Berber languages are known to have a script called Tinagh that
has also seen a number of modern versions (Elghamis 2011). The script
was rarely used for inscriptions and its history has remained obscure
due to the limited data available. Nevertheless, its relation to the ancient
kingdom of Numidia and ancient north Arabic scripts is generally accepted.
Modern versions of this script include Cabilia or Kabylia (see Figure 4), the
Figure 3. MetLife advertisement in Ethiopic script transcribing Amharic.Collection
of Konrad Tuchscherer.
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 129
dominant Berber language of Algeria with no previous Tinagh tradition
but a politically active group of users.
In all these traditions, the development of a new writing system is
clouded with questions of origin and motive. The shape and system of
writing are usually fairly well understood but the reasons for choosing
either an (alpha)syllabic or alphabetic script are unclear. Daniels & Bright
Figure 4. An example of an Arabic, Kabylia and French text as used in Algeria.
Photograph by Alex de Voogt, 2011.
130 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
(1996) suggested that a syllabary is the natural choice for people unfamiliar
with any system of writing, while alphabets are not adopted independently,
i.e., without prior familiarity with this system. Alternatively, it could be the
case that both syllabaries and alphabets are developed only after contact
with a similar system.
3. The process of script invention in sub-Saharan Africa
In comparison to ancient scripts, modern, i.e., nineteenth century and later,
script development presents us with a contrasting set of information. By
denition these scripts do not boast a long history and only a few are still
in use, i.e., the Vai (Figure 6), Bamum (Figure 8, 9, 10) and to some extent
the Mende or Kikakui script (Figure 7). Unlike scripts from antiquity, these
scripts have a known inventor and at least some of the circumstances of
their invention have been described. The sheer number of script inventions
in Africa allows for generalizations when it comes to the transmission of
writing systems in this region.
Kootz & Pasch (2008) made a distinction between early and modern
scripts, and organized the discussion of the modern scripts by region.
Rovenchak & Glavy (2011) also discussed the scripts per region but collated
“individual forms of writing” (2011:87–108) and “scripts linked to religious
communities” (2011:79–86) into separate chapters. These distinctions
ensured that systems that were never implemented or that were limited to
Figure 5. Examples of N’Ko alphabetic signs using a font developed by Jason Glavy
in 2011. The rst line is read from right to left with the approximate transcription
/s k r i p t a/. The vowels in the second line have diacritics below the vowel
indicating nasalization and over the vowel marking length and tone. The vowels
from right to left, /u a e e/, illustrate nasalization as well as markings indicating a
long vowel with falling tone, a high tone, a long vowel with low tone, and a rising
tone, respectively.
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 131
a secret society were analyzed separately. The Fula scripts (Pasch 2008:104,
106) and Mandombe scripts (Pasch 2008:116) described by Pasch were
classified as individual and religious forms of writing, respectively. In
other words, some scripts were exclusively used by one person or by
one religious group. Tuchscherer (2007) had already published a similar
overview, by way of an article rather than a monograph, in which a map
shows a comprehensive number of known scripts. He also distinguished
the dierent rates of success. Tuchscherer’s historical work, which includes
extensive eldwork in West Africa, is presented in a series of publications
and is particularly useful for understanding the transmission process and is
taken here as the primary reference source.
The regional study of writing systems points to the possible awareness
of writing in particular areas, i.e., the idea of writing was present or was
the direct inspiration for a script. The Vai script, for instance, has been a
well-known source of inspiration in West Africa leading to script creation in
nearby areas after the people were made aware of the possibility of writing
their own language or even learning how to write Vai prior to developing
a script for their own language. The various attempts at creating Hausa
(Rovenchak & Glavy 2011:58–62), Nubian (Hāshim 2004) and Somali
(Rovenchak & Glavy 2011:63–65) scripts equally suggest that people were
aware of previous attempts at writing their language after which they built
on that experience.
4. The chronology of African script development
The organization of the discussion in both Kootz & Pasch (2008) and
Rovenchak & Glavy (2011) does not make note of a general trend when
scripts are presented chronologically. If individual scripts are excluded, the
syllabic scripts appear largely limited to the time before the Second World
War, while the alphabetic scripts seem clearly preferred in the period after
the war.
The two main exceptions include the alphabetic Bassa script and the
Somali scripts. They were implemented in the 1920s and 1930s and were
not syllabic. Rovenchak & Glavy (2011:63) report that the Somali script
Osmanya, for instance, had been used to a limited extent for almost fty
years. Somalia, however, had already been exposed to a long tradition of
132 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
Arabic writing and Arabic had been used for writing the Somali language.
A similar connection with Arabic script is found with Mohammed Turay
who invented Kikakui or Mende script and who was an Islamic scholar
as Tuchscherer (1995:170) has pointed out. He had training in Arabic
although he was less likely to be familiar with an Arabic writing system
for other languages. The Bassa alphabet, on the other hand, was developed
by the Liberian, Thomas Lewis, after he had lived in the United States,
indicating that he was well versed in the Western alphabetic writing
system and, more importantly, with the application of this system to
other languages. The origin of the Bassa alphabet has received much
embellishment even though the history of the script was recorded by Lewis
himself (Tuchscherer, personal communication).
Syllabaries were rarely successfully implemented after the Second
World War although some (alpha)syllabaries were proposed. In the case
of the Bété, Mwangwego, Kii and Ndebe Igbo (alpha)syllabic scripts,
classied as “individual forms of writing” by Rovenchak & Glavy (2011),
the inventions were meant to write more than one language/dialect, or
to serve as universal writing systems (see Table 2). In other cases they
purposefully moved away from the alphabetic systems that surrounded
them in order to emphasize their unique character.
Figure 6. Extract from an early nineteenth century Vai manuscript from Liberia
with glosses by Konrad Tuchscherer and Mohamed Nyei.
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 133
Figure 7. Tax receipt from Sierra Leone in Mende Kikakui script written by Bokari
Kanneh. Photograph by Konrad Tuchscherer, 2006.
134 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
Figure 8. Zakari Nkepu, Bamum literate, standing in front of a Bamum King List
at the Bamum Palace in Foumban, Cameroon.Photograph by Konrad Tuchscherer,
2004.
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 135
5. Historical developments
In a set of over a dozen scripts that have been implemented in sub-Saharan
Africa, the change in preference from the syllabic to the alphabetic system
is clearly marked by the late 1930s or the onset of the Second World War.
A number of historical events suggest possible explanations for this change.
The period that marks the change of preference from syllabary to
alphabet in sub-Saharan Africa coincides with at least two developments,
one linguistic and the other political. In 1934, the Institute of Linguistics
was founded, an organization which further formalized bible translation
and alphabetization efforts worldwide. At the same time the Africa
Alphabet was developed, which assisted with writing African languages in
alphabetic form. Both developments can be interpreted as the onset of the
alphabetization eorts in the region. The main object of these eorts was to
translate the Bible into local languages. The Africa Alphabet was developed
in 1928 by Diedrich Westermann, who co-directed the International
Institute of African Languages and Cultures in London (Tuchscherer 1995:
180–181). His alphabet, which was based on the International Phonetic
Alphabet, was aimed at writing any African language for both practical
and later for scientic purposes. It became the basis of many orthographies
in Africa soon after and was not limited to any particular region. Although
these developments seem to fit as an explanation, it is noted that the
Summer Institute of Linguistics did not start their language-based programs
for Africa until 1962 while the British and Foreign Bible Society with a
similar tradition of alphabetization and translation had been active since
1804. An extensive tradition of missionaries bringing their alphabets to
Table 2. Non-alphabetic “individual forms of writing” (Rovenchak & Glavy 2011)
Script (location) Date System Purpose
Bété (Ivory Coast)
Mwangwego (Malawi)
Kii*
Ndebe Igbo (Nigeria)
1952
1979
2006
2009
syllabic
alphasyllabic
alphasyllabic
alphasyllabic
all sounds of human languages
all languages of Malawi and its
neighbors
all Bantoid languages
dierent dialects of Igbo
* This script is a collaboration between Romuald Franklin Ngamga from Cameroon
and Hye Yeon Nam (Rovenchak & Glavy 2011:102).
136 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
Africa preceded the presence of the Africa Alphabet (Errington 2001),
suggesting that the extensive exposure to alphabets long preceded the
period of the 1930s.
Although the Bible-translation movement was instrumental in the
proliferation of the alphabet, they did not necessarily reject the local
scripts. They seem to have ignored the Mende script (Tuchscherer 1995:
180) but the Vai script, also a syllabary, was implemented for Bible
translation. According to Tuchscherer (2002:459): “In the early nineteenth
century, Protestant missionaries, devoted to producing Bible translations
in the vernacular, were active in reducing hitherto unwritten languages
to writing. In the wake of the success of the Cherokee script in the
1820s, they were encouraged to consider the advice of Worcester, who
had suggested that syllabaries were ideal for the writing of syllabically-
organized languages…” However, the main outcome of this idea was the
development of the Bassa syllabary, not to be confused with the Bassa
alphabet. The Bassa syllabary was, unsuccessfully, introduced by William
Crocker in 1835.
The second, political, development is the onset of decolonization.
Figure 9. Zakari Nkepu, standing in front of a Foumban sign.Photograph by
Konrad Tuchscherer, 2006.
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 137
The year 1935 is considered by some as a turning point (e.g., Mazrui &
Wondji 1999) in Africa’s history that includes the start of the Second
World War with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and the ensuing
continent-wide struggle for political independence after the war. This
time was one of socio-political change that is both elaborate and complex.
Although it is likely to have had an effect on script development, script
invention seems never to have been a prominent theme in the discourse
of decolonialization. For example, in the Asmara Declaration on African
Languages and Literatures, which was formulated in 2000 (Cantalupo
2000), there is no mention of locally developed scripts. The multilingual
announcement of the gathering in Asmara, Eritrea, used Hausa, Kiswahili
and Tigrinya languages but all expressed in the Latin alphabet rather than
any earlier or alternative form of writing.
Most “individual forms of writing” (Rovenchak & Glavy 2011:87–108)
started after the 1950s and independence movements seem to have left a
clear imprint on the various attempts of developing these particular scripts
Figure 10. Manuscript of NJOYA Mohalim Nouredine Mohamed Ben El-Hadj
Sin of Manka regarding the birthday celebrations of the Prophet Mohamed,
1971. ‘j77’ translates as ‘God.’ Archives du Palais des Rois Bamoun (APRB),
MS#1152.Reproduced by permission of the APRB.
138 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
in Africa. It does not explain the dierence in choice between syllabic and
alphabetic systems. A few non-alphabetic scripts are recorded (see Table
2), but the alphabetic examples are more common and as a system appear
more closely associated with scripts used by the colonial powers.
Though coincidental, the marked change between syllabic and alphabetic
writing systems cannot be suciently attributed to the above-mentioned
developments, linguistic or political. The increased attention to African
languages may have added examples of alphabets in the region using
the universal alphabetic notation systems developed in Europe. These
alphabets did not necessarily replace syllabaries and their introduction
does not explain the success of syllabaries prior to the 1930s.
By focusing on the presence of syllabaries, since the presence of
alphabets did not dramatically change in this period, it is reasonable
to assume that the nineteenth century syllabaries were designed with a
limited understanding of writing practices but with a clear idea that writing
was possible and advantageous. There did not seem to be a consensus that
the scripts had to be dierent or unique but rather that they would need
to be uniquely suited to a language. The syllabic system was then taken
from neighboring users of script, most likely the Vai script. In contrast,
some of the later attempts by Africans at developing a universal writing
system for African languages (see Table 2) are also (alpha)syllabic. These
eorts, continuing to this day, combine both the idea of a unique system
of writing and of a competing system of writing. They move away from
applying an existing system of writing, the alphabet, and set both system
and signs apart from the European tradition. Next to these developments
that favored a syllabic system are occasional inventions of script using an
alphabet, always with a particular knowledge of or exposure to alphabets
as opposed to syllabaries on the part of the inventor.
6. Regional histories
The chronological list of writing systems (see Table 1) shows syllabaries
followed by alphabets. The syllabaries are concentrated in West Africa,
mainly Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. It is possible to argue that the
adoption of a syllabary in this region was mostly the result of the presence
of the Vai script, the earliest of these scripts. This would explain not only
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 139
the adoption of a script by so many neighboring peoples but also why they
opted for a syllabary.
Tuchscherer (2007) has shown that the Vai were instrumental in the
spread of writing in the regions of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and perhaps
more surprisingly, also in Cameroon where the presence of Vai people has
been attested. The connection between the two regions and the role of the
Vai are not limited to the script but are part of a sustained contact that
further strengthens this historical reading.
At least in West Africa, it is necessary to conclude that the choice of a
syllabary is as much a regional as it is a temporal aair. The dierences
among the syllabaries of West Africa suggest that it is the idea of writing
and the idea of a syllabary that became part of the transmission process,
not the graphic forms of the scripts themselves.
In the eastern part of Africa, both the Somali and Nubian efforts are
rooted in a long tradition of writing. The proposed scripts have been
alphabetic, or based on the Arabic script, and this would be consistent
with the idea of writing being transmitted together with the idea of an
alphabet that can be applied to another language. Having been exposed to
the alphabetic system for centuries, the idea of writing one’s own language
could then be accommodated by the alphabetic system already known in
the region.
The detailed histories of modern African scripts that have become
available suggest that most scripts have been developed after the idea of
an applicable system of writing was also introduced to the people involved.
Suggestions that the Cherokee may have inspired the Vai (Tuchscherer
2002), and the process of misinterpreting an alphabet as a syllabary
(Riesenberg & Kaneshiro 1960) point to a transmission process in which
the idea of writing is always transmitted jointly with the idea of a system
of writing that can be applied. More evidence is needed to support such a
claim and the continent of Africa may still oer surprises in this respect.
7. Cultural transmission of scripts
Recent descriptions of script invention in sub-Saharan Africa allow
better insight into the choice of writing system that was made during the
early development of a script. The clear break around the 1930s from a
140 SCRIPTA, VOLUME 6 (2014)
preference for syllabic to one of mostly alphabetic systems may suggest
a linguistic or political development to be at the basis of this change.
But instead, the spread of the syllabary was part of an active dispersal
of writing that occurred after the development of the Vai script while
alphabets were more common in Somalia and Sudan where a tradition of
alphabetic or Arabic scripts is present.
The alphabetization projects as well as the oncoming independence
movements urged some inventors to develop competing scripts rather than
a rst script. An increasing number of examples in which a European script
was applied to an African language both increased the contact with writing
and the possible competition between systems. Alphabetic scripts seem to
have better survived the competition. Still, the continuous development
of new (alpha)syllabic scripts in sub-Saharan Africa and the survival of a
handful of syllabaries dating back to the nineteenth century suggest that
the 1930s did by no means announce the end of the syllabary in Africa. On
the contrary, it has given Africans interested in script development a choice
between alphabet and (alpha)syllabary.
The application of an existing system, such as the Western alphabet,
to a new language may be equated with an imperialist or colonial eort
(Errington 2001). In these cases, the signs and the system of writing are
likely to be preserved. Similarly, if there is much exposure to a particular
syllabary without outsiders imposing their design, a newly invented script
may adopt a familiar system of writing with a design of signs that is more
likely to change. The latter can be observed with the scripts inuenced by
the Vai. Ultimately, the history of African scripts illustrates that the idea
of writing can be transmitted together with the idea of a system of writing
and that this influence can be separate from the shape and form of the
individual signs.
Acknowledgements
I wish to acknowledge the generosity of Andreij Rovenchak and Jason
Glavy for the use of their fonts and giving me the inspiration to embark on
this study. I owe particular thanks to Konrad Tuchscherer whose helpful
comments and illustrations greatly improved the nal result. Finally, I am
most grateful to Vincent Francigny and Arnold de Voogt for their assistance
The Cultural Transmission of Script in Africa 141
with collecting material in the field and Constance Dickmeyer and the
editors for their helpful corrections of the text.
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<adevoogt@amnh.org>
... This evidence counters the idea by Cooper (2006) can formulate new ideas about the evolution of script. Recent research on secondary script formation in African societies provides a new understanding of the process and the motivations for developing a script (Tuchscherer, 2007;Rovenchak & Glavy, 2011;de Voogt 2014). Even after the first scripts were formed, not every language group started to write their own language. ...
... African scripts invented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to have been mainly syllabic before the 1930s and mainly alphabetic in the period thereafter (de Voogt, 2014). The explanation for this transition is not found in the typological characteristics of the individual languages or in the limited awareness of alphabets in the earlier periods, but rather in the historical contacts that existed within West Africa where most of the syl labic systems were found. ...
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The evolution of writing systems has occurred in multiple regions of the world starting in the third millennium BCE. The first writing systems were largely logographic in nature, but often included syllabic or even consonantal signs. Alphabets and alpha-syllabaries with their small sign inventories developed in the fifteenth century and fourth century BCE, respectively. History has shown that logographic, syllabic, and (alpha)syllabic systems all continue to function until today and are even newly developed, especially in sub- Saharan Africa. The administrative function of scripts is neither mandatory nor inevitable and no discernable development of scripts towards smaller sign inventories, less ambiguity or less variation can be generalized.
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