Writing in Africa — Ńdébé

Using the Latin alphabet to write some languages brings a lot of challenges, since 26 letters may not always be enough to capture all the sounds in a language. Tones, nasal vowels, some consonants may be omitted, or have to adopt clunky digraphs like “gb”, “ngg”, and “ndl”. This is true for many languages in Sub-Saharan Africa, where one would encounter languages rich in consonants and vowels unique to their language family. Using the Latin alphabet has brought many controversies in deciding which orthography to adopt, as highlighted in the previous post about Nwagu Aneke.

This forms part of the motivation for people to create their own writing systems for their respective languages, as we have seen in Vai, Adlam and N’ko. And quite recently, in the last 15 years, there is another writing system put forward and promoted to represent the Igbo language. Drawing inspirations from the writing systems past, namely Nsibidi and Nwagu Aneke, a syllabary was created, and named Ńdébé.

The concept of Ńdébé first materialised in 2008-2009 by Lotanna Igwe-Odunze, and has undergone years of refining, testing and improvements to give the system we see today. It has since gained popularity online, being mentioned and written about in several blogs, and African Digital Art. Several publications have also written about Ńdébé, marking its first steps into gaining popularity, traction and possible digital use.

The writing system, while listed as a syllabary, actually functions a tad closer to an alpha-syllabary. With 1174 possible syllable characters, Ńdébé weighs in, as a syllabary, way heavier than Vai, with slightly over 200 characters, and substantially more than Japanese hiragana and katakana combined. However, this number is derived from the number of combinations one can get with the components of each Ńdébé character — stems, radicals and diacritics. Ńdébé also comes packed with their own set of numerical notations, complete with number stems and markers. On their site, the learner just needs to be familiar with 97 of these stems, radicals, diacritics and markers to be literate in Igbo using the Ńdébé system.

The characters of Ńdébé. Note the two separate characters for “10” and “20”, reflecting the language’s two counting systems.

Remarkably, unlike many alphasyllabaries where a vowel all by itself would adopt a different character instead of a diacritic, Ńdébé vowel diacritics can be a standalone character. The three versions of vowel markers differ by the tone involved, with the one on the left having a high tone, the middle having a middle tone and the one on the right having a low tone. It is interesting that this does not involve the use of additional diacritics to mark tones, but use the position of unique markings on the existing diacritics instead.

The consonant bodies are visualised by a grid system, showing which stem and radical to be used to form a given consonant like /s ~ sh/. There are several consonant bodies that adopt different consonants like /s ~ t/ and /f ~ p/. This is to account for consonants which are used interchangeably in the Igbo language, allowing the writing system to encompass the full range of Igbo sounds. Several scripts do in fact, have a similar feature, such as Tamil, where the character க் can represent /k/, /ɡ/, /x/, /ɣ/, /h/ or /ɦ/. Perhaps this inclusion could account for variations in pronunciations in Igbo dialects, where more than 20 exist.

Igbo has two counting systems, one in base-10 like the ones we use in English, and base-20, also used in languages like Yoruba and Mayan languages. This is worth noting in the Ńdébé script, as unique characters for 10 and 20 are represented. Number markers are like vowel diacritics, written on top of the base numeral to reflect values like “50”, “2000” etc.

The number “2020” in Ńdébé, using the base-20 character for 20.

As of today (5 August 2020 at time of writing), Ńdébé has yet to be properly digitised, existing as .png files or handwritten characters on paper. In order to break into the digital world, Ńdébé would have to be accepted and encoded into the Unicode standard, from which Igbo can be typed using the script in plain text. Books, news articles and other content in the Igbo language can then be written and published using this writing system, further proliferating Ńdébé’s presence in both print and digital media. While it was shortlisted as a Unicode script candidate in 2014, it was deemed “not strong enough” to be encoded, following that of Luo. Now six years on, perhaps we would see the official encoding in Unicode in the near future, when more users learn this script, and find a way to build a type font for it. This would undoubtedly be another milestone for the writing system, set to represent a language threatened with endangerment. Could this help with literacy and survival of Igbo? This question remains open for debate.

Inspired by tradition, history and previous success stories, in its 11-year period of development and refining, Ńdébé has shown to be a practical, simple yet functional writing system capable of handling the full range of sounds Igbo has to offer. Like Vai, Bamum and Adlam, writing systems created before the current century, and has since been largely successful, Ńdébé continues to aim to be among the most recent indigenous writing system to be used widely in the continent, and hopefully in the near future, the first successful indigenous script to be used to write and document the Igbo language.

Further Reading (Please check them out)

Ńdébé project site — https://ndebe.org/

Lotanna Igwe-Odunze’s post series on the making of Ńdébé — https://sugabellyrocks.com/category/ndebe-project


This post is the third on the series of Igbo writing systems (Nsibidi, Nwagu Aneke, Ńdébé and Nsibiri), and next in line of my continuation of the Writing in Africa post series. It is amazing to learn how there is still motivation and innovation to create writing systems and scripts representative of not only the sounds or features of a language, but also the traditions. This writing system is deserving of a dedicated Wikipedia article, and more coverage to attract more learners and users of Ńdébé. I do hope Ńdébé will join the ranks of Vai and Adlam, to be digitised and widely used by speakers and learners alike.

This is, however, not the only project that has taken off in recent years. There is an ongoing project to modernise Nsibidi, and complementing the system with a special set of characters. Stay tuned, for Ode Nsibiri, The Nsibiri Project.

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