Preliminary notes on N’Ko and language communities

A Language Hat post last December linked to a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges faced by West Africa’s N’Ko alphabet. The N’Ko script isn’t an alphabet of long vintage, like the Latin or the Arabic, but rather was invented in 1949 by a man who wanted the Manding languages spoken by millions of people in southwestern West Africa–in Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, once in the sphere of the Mali Empire–to have a script of their own. These days, the promoters of N’Ko are trying to push the script into the electronic age.

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …

Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.
“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …

Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.

“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

N’Ko and the Manding languages face an uphill struggle. In the zone of the Manding languages, where millions of native speakers outnumber native speakers of English and French hugely, the Latin script and the English and French languages brought to West Africa enjoy huge benefits: very large numbers of speakers worldwide in wealthier countries, a superabundance of literature, even a technology geared to the reproduction of these languages in their native scripts. How many N’Ko computer keyboards are there? Even languages with established traditions of literacy–Romanian in the 19th century, Turkish in the 20th century–shifted from their original scripts (Cyrillic and Arabic, respectively) to Latin thanks to modernizers who thought that the adoption of Western norms in written language would help the languages’ associated nations. It’s probably not a coincidence that N’Ko is, at least according to the Internet, a script strongest in Guinea, a country that under its first president Ahmed Sékou Touré engaged in a particularly fierce disengagement from the French post-colonial sphere of influence.

A few languages and even fewer writing systems dominate the world, whether because of a language community’s wealth, its cultural influence, and/or the sheer numbers of users. What costs are imposed on people who belong to radically disadvantaged and relatively marginal language communities, like the ones associated with the Manding languages and the N’Ko script? To what extent will the knowledge and cultural capital of these people be marginalized, even wasted, because it’s not available?

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5 Responses to Preliminary notes on N’Ko and language communities

  1. Pingback: [H&F] “Preliminary notes on N’Ko and language communities” « A Bit More Detail

  2. Hm. It seems that N’Ko is also forcing the development of a compromise dialect also called N’Ko or Kangbe. At first blush it strikes me that if so, this is an even poorer solution for the individual languages than wholesale adoption of Latin script.

    A quick look at Bambara (the most-spoken Manding language) shows that its characteristics are not different enough from the ones Latin script encodes — the only divergent ones are two tones, which are handled easily with the acute accents on a French keyboard, and four IPA symbols for two extra vowels (formerly handled with grave accents) and two digraphs (formerly handled by “ny” and “ng”).

    So I’m a little skeptical that N’Ko script is a good idea. What’s the advantage to it that pays for the extra overhead you note, as well as the extra effort N’Ko readers are going to have to make to plug themselves into the wider world of other languages when confronted with new alphabets?

  3. Sophia says:

    I can see why the script would have trouble, new scripts or even letters (considers Claudius’ new letters, of the vanishment of the surviving AS runes and the yogh – looks like 3 sounds ‘y’ or soft ‘g’ – from English in the 16th century) always have trouble when there are dominant script forms to compete with, but the languages themselves should survive; they have, after all, continued against the competition of languages of government (then) and trade including French, English, Dutch, German and Spanish which had the advantage of being neutral amongst the national rivalries of the region.

    Personally, I tend to think that making an alphabet for a family of languages in the 1940s is a bit quixotic, it makes those languages less accessible rather than more, and disadvantages native speakers if the alphabet is widely adopted amongst them as they must learn a new alphabet when reading foreign texts.

    It’s certainly possible to adapt the Latin alphabet to languages with different kinds of sounds from those made by the Romance and Germanic speakers who historically used it: the Turks, for instance, did a very good job of coverting their written language to the Latin alphabet from the Arabic script used before the fall of the Ottoman Empire with only an additional seven letters, most of which (the i without the dot is the exception) are easily readable by non-Turkish speakers.

  4. Lameen Souag says:

    The trouble with the Latin orthography is that, unlike N’Ko, it doesn’t have much ideological motivation to give it energy. French is the language of administration and education in these countries, and a sizable proportion of the population, especially in the big cities, speak it adequately as a second language. It’s also the language of most available secular books. This means any native literacy movement has to provide not just an orthography but also an answer to the question: why read and write in Manding at all, when the obvious route to knowledge and prestige runs through French literacy? The N’Ko movement’s answer is partly to insist on the value of knowledge that cannot be found in French books – hence their strong focus on herbal medicine and religion – and partly to insist on the glories of Manding culture specifically and African culture more generally, for which a distinct alphabet serves as a much better symbol than a Latin orthography visually indistinguishable from many other languages. Creating neologisms instead of accepting widely used French loanwords serves much the same purpose.

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