I was looking up African graphic design when I found this book on writing systems and I was so excited that I did!
Now that I’ve now read it, I’m both pleased and sad; pleased because now I know some African systems of writing; sad because I fear that they may never come to practical use in my lifetime.
But! I’ve learnt so much, though. I’m enlightened and optimistic. People all over the continent have been doing important work for centuries, and I’m so glad to finally be catching up.
Saki, the writer of this book, is a Zimbabwean graphic designer and typographer who lived abroad and then returned home in 1997 to start a design practice called Ziva (Zimbabwean Institute of Vigital Arts).
In 2004, after 20 years of research and travel, he published Afrikan Alphabets. It’s crazy that, up until this book, I’d never heard of Saki (and I can’t find an online archive of his work either).
I really respect the effort that went into this book, and I definitely want to visit Zimbabwe to experience more of his work in person.
One of the “controversial” things about him, by the way, is that he spells Africa as Afrika. He does this because that’s how African languages tend to pronounce it— k. And honestly, it makes sense to me. The Yorùbá alphabet, for example, doesn’t even have a c.
The Living Scripts of Africa
I can’t count how many times I’ve been in conversations where we bemoan the lack of written history in Africa (specifically Sub-Saharan Africa, since ancient Egypt is known for pioneering writing). The most important thing I wanted from this book then was to learn about this history.
I got more than just that. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only did we have written systems of communication, but some are actively used today. (I wonder why I never looked this up on the internet.) They’re not widely adopted but they’re alive.
Take the Berber script, for example:
In 2003, the ancient Berber script used to write Tifinagh, the language of the Tuaregs, was adopted over both Roman and Arabic alphabets by the administrative council of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture to teach Amazigh in Morocco.
The Amazigh are indigenous people of North Africa who have lived in the region for thousands of years. They’re an ethnic group, similar to Igbo or Hausas in Nigeria. Neo-Tifinagh, the modern fully alphabetic script developed from earlier forms of Tifinagh is used officially in signage and communication.
As the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets puts it, “Tifinagh is an illustration of the ability of a written language to survive utterly everything: political and military threat, social and cultural change, wind, weather, the biting sands of the Sahara”.
Another living writing system is the Bamum Script, created for the Bamum/Shü-mom language in the early 1900s by King Njoya of Cameroon, who was 25 years old at the time.
The Bamum script is a syllabary, which means the characters represent sounds (a, ka, u, ku…) instead of single letters (a, b, c…). It was developed over a number of years (the book says 30 but Wikipedia says 14) and the final script has 83 characters: 10 numbers and 73 syllables.
This guy was so impressive. He designed a pharmacopoeia (drug dictionary), calendars and maps. He kept records and legal codes, and even wrote a Kama Sutra-like book! He did this with fellow royals, including his artistic cousin (and namesake) Ibrahim Njoya.
Not surprisingly, colonization fucked it all up. In spite of this, the Bamum script is still being taught at King Njoya’s old palace today. I hope to see this for myself sometime.
I was overjoyed to learn about these living writing systems, but it was also amazing to learn about historical ones, from popular ones like Nsibidi, Adinkra and Bantu to lesser-known ones like the Ethiopic script and the Mande syllabaries of West Africa (Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Mali).
A lot of the other scripts don’t technically qualify as writing systems, even if we decided to recreate them digitally, but they can still be very useful as relics of the past and inspiration for art. Adinkra, for example, is heavily used in Ghanaian graphic design.
There are still ongoing attempts to create a practical African writing system although many languages have settled for a slightly modified Latin alphabet.
Some of the contemporary alphabets I learnt about in the book include the Wolofal, N’ko and Fula alphabets and I personally know a few Nigerian experiments with typography too. Two of them are based on the Latin alphabet:
- Danfo Std, by Dá Design (and currently on exhibition at the Venice Bienalle!)
- Syringe, by Karo Akpokiere
And two are complete writing systems:
I’m genuinely happy I found this book. Although I’ve written this review, I’m not done reading it. It’s the kind of book you consult over and over again for different things: historical typography, graphic design, interesting travel destinations and even tattoos, lol. It will also come in useful if I ever decide to properly learn any of these writing systems.
At the very least, now I can confidently discuss the writing systems of Africa; and in fact, at least two of them still exist today.