Writing in Africa – the Nsibidi script

Nsibidi_autonym.svgTucked away in the region of southeast Nigeria lies the birthplace of a writing system used to document the Igbo, Ekoid and Efik languages. This is the Nsibidi script, in which thousands of symbols are found across various items like pottery, wall designs and leaves. A mess of lines, dots, circles and arcs unreadable to many, the Nsibidi script is an ideographic script, in which individual symbols can have logographic characteristics.

Nsibidi was thought to date back to the pre-15th century CE, and the possible early forms of this writing system was used way back in the 5th century CE, found on pottery excavated by archaeologists. If the inscriptions on the Ikom monoliths in the Cross River region were considered to be indeed Nsibidi, this would push its date of birth way back into the 2-3 millennia BCE. Concentrated around the northern Cross River region, Nsibidi is normally attributed to the Ejagham people, also known as the Ekoi. This in turn, influenced other cultures such as the Igbo to form magnificent designs like the Uli. Nsibidi then became a uniting factor among ethnic groups along the Cross River region.

Used in court cases or judgement cases known as Ikpe, Nsibidi was able to document a stunningly large amount of information using a rather few number of diagrams. The following picture is an Ikpe from Enyong written in Nsibidi and has been translated by J.K. Macgregor.


This Nsibidi inscription means:

“The record is of an Ikpe or judgement case. (a) The court was held under a tree as is the custom, (b) the parties in the case, (c) the chief who judged it, (d) his staff (these are enclosed in a circle), (e) is a man whispering into the ear of another just outside the circle of those concerned, (f) denotes all the members of the party who won the case. Two of them (g) are embracing, (h) is a man who holds a cloth between his finger and thumbs as a sign of contempt. He does not care for the words spoken. The lines round and twisting mean that the case was a difficult one which the people of the town could not judge for themselves. So they sent to the surrounding towns to call the wise men from them and the case was tried by them (j) and decided; (k) denotes that the case was one of adultery or No. 20.”

What truly stuns me about Nsibidi is indeed the efficiency of this writing system and its ability to use several symbols to represent information which would translate into entire sentences or paragraphs. What is lacks, however, is a uniform method of pronunciation so when we look at Nsibidi symbols, we can get the general idea of what it means, but to figure how it is pronounced would be a more arduous task. It is not necessarily a bad thing though, as Nsibidi has influenced many cultures in the Cross River State, and there are a ton of languages spoken there, many would have way different sounds from each other. For example, Efik is one of the few languages which lack p and g sounds, and Igbo has the very special gb consonant, which I covered in one of my posts earlier on. If Nsibidi were any other writing system, say a syllabary, many of the sounds of various languages may not be adequately represented, and Nsibidi would have gained less influence.

All in all, Nsibidi is an intriguing indigenous writing system in Africa which has influenced not only Cross River cultures but also some cultures across the world. Art and designs in these regions can trace their roots back into this part of Nigeria, home to the Ekoid languages, Efik and Igbo. But it is this very traditional script which inspired future writing systems, invented by the speakers of the Igbo language.

2 thoughts on “Writing in Africa – the Nsibidi script

  1. Pingback: Writing in Africa — Nwagแปฅ Aneke Script | The Language Closet

  2. Pingback: Language Science Central

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