Writing in Africa — Nwagụ Aneke Script

Igbo, a language spoken by at least 45 million people mainly in Nigeria, has tried adopting several writing systems throughout its linguistic history. From Nsibidi to Ndebe, Igbo has experimented, or is currently experimenting with these systems, but what we know is that Igbo is now predominantly written in the Latin alphabet. A couple of people have tried to do something different, proposing writing systems that could represent not only the sounds of Igbo, but also what it means to speak Igbo.

The Nsibidi script, covered in a past post in this series, is an ideographic writing system, with pictograms and logograms depicting some words or concepts. It does not represent any sound at all. Today, Nsibidi has been featured in artistic elements, used as inspiration for Wakandan alphabet, and survives as a cultural representation of those who have traditionally used it.

As Igbo transitioned from using Nsibidi to the Latin alphabet, several orthographic iterations occurred, leading from one transcription system to another, as people tried to use the Latin alphabet to represent every sound in Igbo. This resulted in controversy after controversy, leading to its replacement by the Ọnwụ orthography in the 1960s. However, history is a tinge more interesting than this.

Enter Ogbuevi Nwagụ Aneke, a diviner who claimed to be illiterate. He would attempt to devise a new writing system for Igbo, more specifically, for the Umuleri dialect of Igbo. He claimed that on the eve of Nigeria’s independence in 1960, he was imparted with the ability to read and write Igbo by spirits. He then showed this ability by scribbling characters in exercise books, calling that writing Igbo shorthand, although later it would be known by his name, the Nwagụ Aneke script. Though largely dismissed as insignificant compared to his responsibilities as a diviner and a land owner, Nwagụ Aneke still persisted in his story of spiritual awakening, doing everyday writing in the characters he invented, or was imparted with. Diary entries and books were written in this script, and in fact, Nwagụ Aneke was Writer-in-Residence in the University of Nigeria from 1988 to 1991, when he passed away. From the resources we can gather online and through literature, the Nwagụ Aneke script did not appear to have widespread influence, but shows how he incorporated traditional Nsibidi symbols into his invention, presented as a form of proto-writing that had never really taken off.

Probably the only image of the Nwagụ Aneke script system you would come across online.

The Nwagụ Aneke script is a syllabary, but also contained pictograms representing full words. This is one of the similarities this script shares with Vai, although it is very unlikely Nwagụ Aneke took inspiration from that writing system. While there Nwagụ Aneke script bears all the hallmarks it requires to be a syllabary, there are some characters curiously missing. Independent vowels, i.e. those vowels that lack any preceding consonant sounds, were not written. This meant that in order to write, for example, Nwagụ Aneke, only the characters for “nwa”, “gụ”, “ne” and “ke” were written. Furthermore, Igbo is a tonal language. This script did not represent any sort of tones, which may need interpretation by context.

Although this script never quite gained widespread influence, and Nigeria still used the Latin alphabet to read and write Igbo under their revised orthography, the drive to create a writing system that represents Igbo lives on. For in 2009, a new writing system would rise and gain popularity in not only Igbo speakers, but also those interested in the Igbo language, culture, or those enthralled by interesting writing systems.

Afterword

Finding resources to cover this writing system was difficult due to its scarcity. Probably the most insightful paper found was the one by Chukwuma Azuonye, which described in more detail about its possible use and motivations, drawing several parallels with the Vai syllabary. Beyond this paper, there are not many resources available online if you are interested, but if anyone does find something interesting regarding this writing system that is not covered here, please let us know in the comments.

Further Reading

Azuonye, C. (1992) The Nwagụ Aneke Igbo script: Its origins, features and potentials as medium of alternative literacy in African languages. Africana Studies Faculty Publication Series, Paper 13.

https://scholarworks.umb.edu/africana_faculty_pubs/13

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