Writing in Africa — Modernising Nsibidi

Disclaimer: This post describes an ongoing project to modernise the Nsibidi script, which as of writing, is not the finalised form. The accuracy of information is true as of 29 July 2020, so several things would have changed in the project by the time of this post. We will update this post when more information about the project arrives, to give a more accurate introduction to the project and its progress.

Previously, we have covered the various writing systems used to write Igbo, from traditional, artistic Nsibidi, to a writing system which never quite took off, and a syllabary poised to simplify the learning process of associating Igbo sounds to printed characters. Here, there is a lesser-known movement, Ode Nsibiri, which aims to give a modern meaning to the Nsibidi logograms and ideograms, but preserving much of the motifs and patterns underlying the writing system. With 2519 characters developed (as of 2017), neo-Nsibidi tried to re-introduce the traditional writing system, but with debatable success thus far.

Ode Nsibiri, a project started in 2010, tried to make sense of the traditional Nsibidi writing system, and to modernise it for use in today’s Igbo discourse. While preserving many elements of the logographic and ideographic writing system of the past, the new Nsibidi script tries to function pretty much like Chinese characters. With characters representing entities, to radicals denoting scars, branches and obstacles, the new Nsibidi script bears many hallmarks of a logographic and partially rebus-like system. Like Chinese, Igbo has many homonyms, that is, words of the same pronunciation but different in meaning and usage. Scripts like Latin alphabet, Nwagu Aneke and Ndebe, all covered previously, still has a tinge of ambiguity even when diacritics are included. For instance, /nΓ / in Igbo can mean “and” or “in”. In written documents, this presents an ambiguity, opening up to various interpretations which are possible. This is despite in speech and conversations, speaker are able to distinguish them by context.

The motivation for Ode Nsibiri appears to be adapting the use of traditional artistic forms of Nsibidi into Igbo use, where new Igbo words can be created, and save words from fading into disuse due to ambiguities. Igbo dialects of all kinds can look at an Ode Nsibiri character and still be able to make out the readings in their own respective dialects. This system, also found in Chinese, hopes to be tested in the future, when an official release is made. This release would then detail all the inner workings of Ode Nsibiri, how radicals, or characters are formed and pronounced in this script. Until then, this is anything but complete and final. Developing 2519 characters for use is no simple task, especially when one has to consider what the character looks like, the radicals they comprise of, the pronunciations and attached meanings. While some are taken directly from Nsibidi, others are a combination of such features. This distinguishes itself from Ndebe, where the development of the 1174 possible characters made use of combinatorics of the possible stems, radicals and diacritics available. Developing a writing system from older forms of writing has taken decades or centuries, as we have seen in the evolution of Chinese, Cuneiform and Maya glyphs. Ode Nsibiri, in comparison, appears relatively quickly developed in its decade-long development.

The reformed Nsibidi script has a system of rebus, pictographic representations and other radicals meant to produce unique meanings in each character. The character “to have”, for instance, translates literally to “a person holding a stick”. One would find the reading of each character in Akagu in the dictionary of Nsibidi characters, although the dictionary seems to have been removed. Particles denoting tense or other grammatical features are built using a combination of radicals, sometimes forming a rebus, where one radical guides the sound, while the other guides the meaning. Others include the future tense “will”, which features a radical symbolising unification and a radical symbolising the verb to go. There is not quite a fixed pattern over which characters use the former system or the latter, but it still seems to serve the purpose of removing possible ambiguities in text.

A person has legs, in the reformed Nsibidi script.

Complex words can require multiple characters, and it seems that the team at Ode Nsibiri is trying to make steps to determine which characters should make up what words. The word for photosynthesis, when written in the reformed Nsibidi script, could comprise of the characters for a noun particle, “to absorb”, “to mix” and “light”, in a left-to-right order. This shows the capability to mold even scientific concepts to suit the context of Nsibidi texts and writing, a feat not quite done in the writing systems before. However, finalising a comprehensive dictionary which maps every word, simple to complex, to a series of relevant neo-Nsibidi characters will take an arduous effort, discussion, and undoubtedly a substantial amount of time.

To date, the Ode Nsibiri project has had some social media influence, with an Instagram page showing simple introductions to how characters are formed and pronounced in Igbo, and a Youtube channel with a video explaining some of the logic behind the development. They have since published a children’s book, all in reformed Nsibidi script and Akagu, testament to the strong motivations they have to keep an old indigenous writing system alive in modern contexts. Unlike Ndebe, the reformed Nsibidi script and Akagu has their respective type fonts, easing the typing of characters even without the proper encoding by Unicode.

There has been a Nsibidi workbook released through their main website, although that has since been removed. To learn some bits of Nsibidi and Akagu, there are flashcard courses on Tinycards available, but this is soon short-lived, as Duolingo had done the cessation of Tinycards on 1 September, from then no one would be able to access flashcard decks. Perhaps these signs are foreshadowing a new phase of the project, where a version closer to official release will be developed, and shown to the intended audiences. Until then, we are not sure about what is happening with the project, as no updates have been posted through any of their social media sites as of writing (7 August 2020).

While still largely experimented in the context of Igbo, Ode Nsibiri hopes to expand the reach of a new Nsibidi script towards the languages of the Cross River, the region where traditional Nsibidi has been widely used. Learning 2519 characters by heart from scratch is by no means simple and easy. The story of ideographs and pictograms in each character, largely preserved from the original Nsibidi in aesthetic and function, has to be learnt and memorised. It is only through experience will familiarity and ability to associate character with sound begin to develop. Among the writing systems we have come across for Igbo, this one appears to be the most faithful to preserving a tradition passed down for generations. Perhaps, Nsibidi will be reintroduced as a shiny new reformed version thanks to the ongoing development by the team at Ode Nsibiri.

Further Reading

The main blog of Ode Nsibiri, https://blog.nsibiri.org/

Afterword

It is interesting to see how tradition of Nsibidi is respected in two different methods, one through modernising, and the other through inventing a new writing system using Nsibidi as an inspiration. The likening of the reformed Nsibiri script to Chinese characters shows possible adaptability of traditional Nsibidi characters to possibly modern usage. As of writing, several posts on the Ode Nsibiri project have been removed or made private, including the Nsibidi workbook on Scribd. Perhaps this is indicative of future developments and editions, but we do not quite get the full picture. Hopefully we would see an official release in the near future.

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