Writing in Africa — Neo-Nsibidi’s “kana”

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.

Japanese, with a system of three concurrently used writing systems, has attracted great interest from learners and beyond. The hiragana and katakana syllabaries represent pretty much all the syllables that naturally occur in Japanese phonology, although recent introductions of foreign sounds have culminated in some minor tweaks in orthography. Kanji, on the other hand, while so logographical and artistic, has posed as challenges to some learners unfamiliar with the logographic writing system traditionally used in China, which then spread out to Japan in the 6th or 7th century CE. In many publications, articles and books, one would often find kanji which are sometimes attached with reading aids in hiragana or katakana, providing the readers a mini pronunciation guide for the said kanji character, or characters. This reading aid is termed furigana.

Why have we started off this post on an indigenous African writing system with a brief introduction of how Japanese writing systems work? Are there parallels that can be drawn between Neo-Nsibidi and Japanese writing systems? The answer, as it turns out, is yes, to a large extent.

Previously, we have covered the 2519-character large inventory forming the Neo-Nsibidi writing system of Igbo, possibly Ekpe and other languages that traditionally used Nsibidi. The intricate pictographs that compose the writing system has been greatly likened to the cuneiform of antiquity, or Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji we see in the past and today. Along with these characters, the creator of Neo-Nsibidi has also packaged an indigenous writing system meant to complement these characters, and given the name Akagu.

Unlike Japanese hiragana and katakana, Akagu is an alphabet. This distinguishes itself from Nwagu Aneke and Ndebe syllabaries covered previously. With every letter matching one phoneme, it provides a pronunciation guide for the Neo-Nsibidi characters that probably most people use, but it does tend to not allow the projection of phonetic variations between dialects, unless there is transcription of Neo-Nsibidi characters in Akagu for each of the dialects, or possible variants in the dialects.

Almost each letter has two forms, one uppercase and one lowercase, but it is not clear why only some letters differ in form. Ideas include the possibility for some letters to be written in quickhand format, making the “lowercase” letters a sort of the quickhand Akagu. In total, there are 38 letters in the alphabet excluding those distinguished by diacritics, and when counting in quickhand variants, this brings the total number of characters to 61 characters. Diacritics aim to distinguish vowel length, vowel and syllabic “m” and “n” tones, and nasal qualities, like nasal “h”. With a one to one correspondence between letter and sound, Akagu tries to be as phonetically regular as possible, leaving no room for ambiguities, just like what the Ode Nsibiri project tries to achieve with the reformed Nsibidi script.

The Akagu alphabet in its full glory

The Ode Nsibiri project mentioned that the uppercase Akagu letters can be used to write non-Igbo loan words, like Western names and various luxury brands. These words would not have corresponding Nsibidi character representation. This system of writing loanwords is very much similar to Japanese, as loanwords in Japanese and non-Japanese names are commonly written in katakana, such as ユーフォニをム (euphonium, the brass instrument) and ホッチキス (stapler, lit. Hotchkiss, a company manufacturing staplers). These words have no kanji representation, just like how non-Igbo words have no Nsibidi representation.

Remarkably, Akagu is mostly a simplification of some Nsibidi symbols. Likening it to the derivation of Japanese hiragana and katakana from the kanji script, the inspiration of most Akagu letters corresponds to certain Nsibidi characters, ranging from the character for child (nwa) for the letter “nw”, to the character for the verb to go (ga) for the letter “g”. When coupled with the use of Akagu accompaniment as pronunciation guides for Nsibidi characters, we would see a striking parallel between kanji dictionaries and Nsibidi dictionaries.

When learning Nsibidi, Akagu does appear to be a reasonably decent aid to deciphering the characters and how they are pronounced. Drawing the vast similarities between neo-Nsibidi and Japanese kanji, we would predict that the pedagogical approach to teaching and learning neo-Nsibidi to be pretty much similar to kanji. However, until the writing system is refined and officially released, this prediction is just a speculation.

Like the reformed Nsibidi script, the Akagu alphabet has its own type font, granting it ease to input into digital text even without the adoption by the Unicode standard. The Ode Nsibiri project is only about 10 years in, but has introduced us to two writing systems essentially packed into one language. While neo-Nsibidi could be extended to reach other languages spoken in the Cross River region, Akagu would definitely need to undergo further refining to represent the sounds in those languages. In the near future, we might see neo-Nsibidi and Akagu displayed in websites, more publications and writing.

Afterword

This concludes the long running series on the writing systems in the history of Igbo (excluding the current widely used Latin alphabet), and honestly, reading up about the history and features of these writing systems has been an eye-opener.

Which writing system would I have used in learning Igbo? Honestly, I am spoiled for choice. The simplicity offered by Ndebe appeals to an entry-level Igbo learner, given the stems, radicals and diacritics one has to familiarise themself with. However, neo-Nsibidi has a more classical shine as its Akagu letter morphology and Nsibidi simplification still largely resembles some of the traditional Nsibidi aesthetic and meaning. Learning the new Nsibidi script would definitely take the learner on a learning path quite similar to Japanese, as they might want to get used to Akagu first before advancing to the 2519 characters that make up the reformed Nsibidi script.

Overall, it is amazing to see the invention of new writing systems even to this day, as speakers of their respective languages try to come up with innovative writing systems to document their languages. In the near future, we might see more of these writing systems being used to write, and hopefully, type the languages they are meant to represent.

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