Writing in Africa — Mwangwego

Our next writing system takes us to Southern Africa, particularly in a landlocked country called Malawi. Home to several Bantu languages, like Chichewa, Malawian Lomwe and Lambya, Malawi sure boasts a variety of languages in the Bantu language group.

The origins of Mwangwego trace back to linguist Mr Nolence Moses Mwangwego, born in Zambia to Malawian parents. In 1977, on a trip to Paris, France, he realised how various non-Latin writing systems were used around the world. Reflecting on his knowledge that the languages of Malawi, particularly, Chichewa and Kyandonde, have words that mean “to write”, he postulated that the languages of Malawi could have had writing systems of their own languages. Indigenous writing systems which had been long gone since.

What we probably know now is that, both Chichewa and Kyandonde are Bantu languages, which could have adopted similar writing systems as languages like Swahili, which could very likely be the Arabic script, but that is just a speculation.

The project for the Mwangwego alphabet started soon after, in 1979, and the first edition was finalised on 7 April 1997. With further revisions, the writing system was completed in 2003. Modifications, simplifications, and further refinements were made during this period, most likely to make it easier to teach, learn, or perhaps reading and writing, or discerning between similar-looking characters.

The end product was a writing system presenting as an alphasyllabary, written left to right, with vowel marks attached to the bottom right of each base character. With 32 possible consonant blocks with its inherent vowel, this makes a total of 160 possible syllable glyphs. However, looking closer at Chichewa, we see a problem with this set of glyphs.

The base alphasyllabary of Mwangwego (Omniglot)

Chichewa syllables, like many other Bantu languages, and languages spoken in Malawi, have several modifications to consonant sounds. They can be plain, with no modifications, at all, labialised (followed by a -w sound), or palatalised (followed by a -y sound). Additionally, consonants can also be pre-nasalised, such as the syllable ndi., All of these sound modifications are not represented in the alphasyllabary, and so several additions have to be made to make sure Mwangwego represented all of these sounds. These came in the form of additional diacritics placed before the syllable character, which can range from a horizontal line to represent labialisation, to two dots indication aspiration.

Additional diacritics of Mwangwego, and examples of the modifications to the consonant sounds they are attached to. (Omniglot)

The writing system started off with significant publicity, even gaining attention by the then Malawian Minister of Youth, Sports, and Culture, who said:

“Mwangwego script is in itself history in the making. Irrespective of how it is going to be received by the public nationwide, the script is bound to go in the annals of our history as a remarkable invention.”

Mr. Kamangadazi Chambalo, Malawian Minister of Youth, Sports, and Culture, 2003

But at almost 26 years since its creation, what sort of progress has this writing system made? The results do not look particularly optimistic. While it recorded around 400 learners at the start of the 2010s, with goals to teach it to thousands, precise numbers since this statistic have yet to materialise. Only one book has ever been published entirely written in Mwangwego, and the writing system has not yet been recognised by the ISO 15924 standard as of 2018. In fact, searching up references on many of these writing system websites have returned a result that the domain for Mwangwego’s main website was now on sale. While the creator is still active on Twitter, he does seem to still be resolved in promoting his writing system into Malawian schools.

While Mwangwego faces an uphill battle to achieve widespread adoption in Malawi, it does not stand alone in an isolated case study. Throughout the continent, various movements and projects have been started by people to represent their own people and language. This spurred the numerous case studies and examples we have had on our post series, where there is a drive in the African people to have writing systems represent their own languages, and to challenge the incumbent writing systems so widely adopted today. Perhaps the main challenges now is to encourage widespread adoption, education, and cementing such writing systems as part of their respective cultural identities.


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