Writing in Africa – I say N’ko (ߒߞߏ‎)

Solomana Kante, a Guinean writer and an inventor of a writing system, but most importantly, a man who was determined to change the beliefs that Africans were a cultureless people. The Manding languages lacked an indigenous writing system at that time. And so, after a night of deep meditation, Kante went on to create an alphabet for his language in April 14, 1949.

Years later, new findings on the origins of N’ko surfaced. An anecdote by French officer Colonel Malenfant spoke of a mysterious script written in June 1791, in Boucassin, by a Saint Domingue colony slave named Tamerlan. Literate and a former priest in his home country, Tamerlan wrote down the name of his writing in 3 letters that Haitian researcher Rodney Salnave judged to be N’Ko. If this writing was indeed N’ko, it would be two centuries older than believed and that Souleymane Kante did not create the N’Ko alphabet in 1949 ; he only revived it from files that his family brought from hometown in Mali. The original inventor would have been future Bambara king Ngolo Diarra in the early 18th century.

A neat alphabet of 27 letters, the N’ko bears several similarities to the Arabic script; the use of writing from right to left, and letters being connected to one another. However, vowels and tones were marked in the N’ko script, justifying its status as an alphabet. It also had its own number writing system, and diacritics to mark out vowel length and tones. Yes, the languages N’ko represented featured tones.

nko

Today, many publications in the N’ko script exist, covering a huge variety of subjects from astrology, physics, religion, geography and philosophical works. Several newspapers in Guinea and the Ivory Coast use this writing system as well. Used mainly by Maninka and Dyula speakers in Guinea and Ivory Coast respectively, N’ko has managed to reach out to Bambara speakers in Mali as well. In fact, its influence is so strong, there has been documented use of N’ko for religious publications in the Yoruba and Fon languages of Benin and southwest Nigeria. More diacritics were added to account for the different sounds of Yoruba and Fon compared to the Manding languages.

Today, N’ko has been classed as among the most successful of the West African scripts. From its use in the literary language (intended as a common language, binding elements of the principal Manding languages) to its use in computers and smartphones, N’ko has certainly come a long way in gaining influence and popularity among the Manding communities and beyond. Surely, I’d look forward to N’ko making an appearance on social media as a language choice.

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