Writing in Africa – The Vai Syllabary (ꕙꔤ)

Our next writing system takes us to the West African country of Liberia and Sierra Leone, in which lie some 120,000 native speakers of this Mande language called Vai. A tonal language of 12 vowels (of which 5 are nasal) and 31 consonants, using a syllabary to represent the sounds of this language surely is a marvelous feat. Modern texts show a total of 212 characters representing each and every syllable possible in Vai. However, more characters existed in the earlier versions of this writing system, with more logograms and numbers in the Vai script.

Unlike Ge’ez in the Horn of Africa and Tifinagh in Algeria and Morocco, the origins of Vai only date back to the 19th century, invented by Momolu Duwalu Bukele from modern Liberia. It is hypothesised that this syllabary could have had some inspiration from the Cherokee syllabary, used to represent the sounds of the Cherokee language. This was due to the emigration of Cherokee people to Liberia shortly after the invention of the Cherokee syllabary. That syllabary, in contrast with Vai, contained way fewer characters and no logograms (Cherokee contained about a dozen consonants and 6 short and 6 long vowels). One possible theory for this influence is the Cherokee Austin Curtis, who married into a prominent Vai family and became an important Vai chief himself. It is notable that the romantic “inscription on a house” that first drew the world’s attention to the existence of the Vai script was in fact on the home of Curtis, a Cherokee.

A writing system of enthralling curves, lines, circles and dots, the Vai syllabary sure looks way different from the syllbary which influenced it. Below is the basic syllabary used in modern texts and writing (and yes, the /pu/ character looks like a #)vai1

There were once separate glyphs for syllables ending in a nasal, such as don, with a long vowel, such as soo, with a diphthong, such as bai, as well as bili and sɛli. However, these have been dropped from the modern script. The syllabary did not distinguish all the syllables of the Vai language until the 1960s when distinctions were added by modifying certain glyphs with dots or extra strokes to cover all CV syllables in use.

The Vai syllbary also included its own punctuation marks, and among those, it is the question mark which really fascinated me – a swirl bisected by two vertical lines.

vai_punc

In the mid 1800s, the Vai syllabary included its own logograms as well, although they looked nothing like the words they are used to represent. Among the 16 or so which existed, only 2 are used today, which are the Vai characters “to die” and “thing”.vai3

During the 1920s, numerals were developed for the Vai syllabary, but were never used in written texts. Instead, Western numerals were used, and continue to be used today. This did not stop the Vai syllabary from becoming one of the two most successful indigenous writing systems of West Africa, the other being the N’ko alphabet.

Overall, the Vai syllabary has proven to me the limits of how large a sustainable syllabary can be. The Japanese hiragana and katakana only consist of 46 letters each, and the Cherokee syllabary contained 89 letters. It turns out that as the phoneme inventory gets larger, so does the number of possible syllables, and in turn, the number of characters used to represent these sounds. The Vai syllbary certainly reached the upper limit of how big a syllabary can possibly get.

Today, the Vai syllbary has ventured into digital platforms, with the Unicode Standard adding it in April 2008. It is not known if social media platforms would adopt the Vai syllabary. Nonetheless, this writing system never fails to intrigue language enthusiasts about its origins, its ties with the writing system of an indigenous American language and its fascinating letters.

 

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