Writing in Africa – The Adlam Alphabet

In the late 1980s, two Guinean teenage brothers, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry, devised a new alphabet to represent their Fulani language, spoken by about 24 million people in the Sahel Region in Western Africa. Using the first four letters of this new alphabet, they named it Adlam. Producing handwritten copies of books using the Adlam alphabet, their new writing system became popular throughout many Fulani communities, eventually leading to the brothers opening learning centres in Togo, Senegal, Benin and New York.

The Adlam was not the first of its kind though. Other efforts to create new alphabets for the Fulani script were first recorded in the 1960s in Mali and Senegal, and in the 1970s in Nigeria. All these were created to replace the inconveniences of the Latin and Arabic writing systems used to read and write Fulani. The laryngeals b, d and y (IPA /’j/) proved difficult to transcribe in the Latin alphabet without using special diacritics, for example, a hook on the b is used in all Fula-speaking countries. These transcription difficulties prompted a move to construct writing systems which are able to accurately represent their phonology and grammar (like Welsh, Fula has consonant mutation).

The Adlam script has gained popularity in many communities, but not for the Guinean government, which sentenced Ibrahim Barry to 3 months imprisonment in 2007. This did not stop the brothers from further developing the script, however. Through computers, Adlam made its way to the computer stage, gaining itself a Unicode standard, and people could type Fulani in Adlam for the first time in 2008. Applications too exist for people to type messages and learn the alphabet.

28 letters, and a few modifying diacritics. This was all which was needed to write Fulani in Adlam. An alphabet written from right to left, with uppercase and lowercase forms (and joined forms too), and additional diacritics to account for vowel length, consonant mutation and glottal stops (the uh’oh thing). Sounds native to Fulani were finally properly represented too.

A smart, creative and practical idea by the brothers, Adlam aims to make its way to social media platforms. Like other writing systems such as Cherokee, this feat is undoubtedly a huge, challenging one. However, Adlam has gained significant achievements since its creation just about 27 years ago, and gaining official support on digital platforms would be its biggest one yet.

adlam omniglot

Chart taken from Omniglot, one of the references used to write this article.

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