Writing in Africa

Africa, a continent of thousands of ethnic groups, the most among all continents. Alongside these ethnic groups lie the linguistic diversity, rivaled only by the language diversity of Papua New Guinea. Many of these languages are still vulnerable to endangerment and extinction, and many of these also lack a written form to document their language. The next few posts are going to cover the various wonders of writing systems in Africa, most of these were invented in the past 50 years.

The Latin alphabet has dominated the African continent to represent many of the various languages spoken there. We see isiXhosa, isiZulu, Swahili being written in the Latin alphabet, and Yoruba using the Latin alphabet with diacritics. The Arabic abjad is also used in some parts of Africa to represent languages other than Arabic, though with some modifications, like Wolof and Somali. It is also interesting to note that the Malagasy language changed writing systems from the modified Arabic abjad to the Latin alphabet. So one may wonder, how about those writing systems that existed before the colonisation of Africa?

Let’s go to Ethiopia, where we find one of our answers. Ethiopia is home to Amharic, Tigrinya and other various languages. Most of these speakers use a writing system native to the Horn of Africa, the Ge’ez script, in which the letters are referred to as fidäl (ፊደል). Invented in the 6-5th century BCE, this script is still used today to write Amharic and Tigrinya. Thus it is not uncommon to come across shop signs written in Ge’ez. Ok now on to some technical things.

The Ge’ez script started out as an abjad until the 4th century CE, originally having 26 letters to represent the 26 consonants in the language. And yep, there were no vowels used. It was not until the incoming influence from Christian scripture when the Ge’ez script started having diacritics and additions to the consonants to represent vowels, transforming the Ge’ez script into an abugida in the process. There are over 200 symbols used in the Ge’ez script, organised in such a way that it resembles a syllabary. Amharic_Fidel.png

Our next answer takes us to the deserts of Algeria and Morocco, where we encounter the Berbers, who use the Tifinagh alphabet. The letters we see today are a product of development on the writing system over possibly two thousand years. The Tifinagh alphabet may have started out as a Libyco-Berber abjad, before eventually used to represent the Tuareg languages. It was not until 1980 when the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet was introduced and used in the Berber languages, particularly the Standard Moroccan Berber and Northern Berber languages. Its use was not without oppression though, as Morocco once arrested and prosecuted people for using this script in the 1980s to 1990s, and it was not until recently when publications were made using the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet. Today, the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet is taught in some schools in Morocco, but many other speakers tend to publish books in the Berber Latin alphabet (like in Algeria today).

These are the two most commonly used indigenous writing systems in African still used today, and there’re still many more writing systems we have not talked about yet, including intriguing ones like the Mandombe script and the Nsibidi ideograms. All these will be shared in the next few posts. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Writing in Africa

  1. You might find this interesting being that I can read and write in fidäl I’m fairly sure Tigrinya has somewhere around 260-275, depending on how you write and what dialect you speak. Amharic has around 220 more or less, depending on dialect. It’s really interesting because if you can read and write in Tigrinya you can usually distinguish it from other languages without having to read because it simply has letters the others don’t. It’s the same with the Sebat Bet languages, they use an extended fidäl.


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