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African Writing Systems

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African Writing Systems
Ayele Bekerie, PhD
Cornell University

What are Writing Systems?

Writing Systems are components of knowledge systems. By definition, they are philosophical because they assist in synthesizing ideas, thoughts, and deeds through the use of signs, symbols or other pictorial renderings. Specifically, writing is a means by which people record, objectify, and organize their activities and thoughts through images and graphs . Writing is a means to inscribe meanings that are expressed through sounds. Further, writing provides an aspect of historicality. This means that writing facilitates the proper recording and transmissions of events and deeds from one generation to another.


More about Writing Systems

Writing could also be simply defined as a representation of speech and thoughts through various forms of sound images or graphs. A Writing System then is a conventional and principled way of actualizing activities and thoughts, such as languages, natural science, theology, commerce, and aesthetics.

It is our contention that writing systems are more than a technological tool to languages. Most of our understandings of writing systems are generally confined to linguistics and languages. Close and careful examination of writing systems, from Ethiopic to Vai, from Cretan to Meroitic, from Han'gul to Latin, reveals layers of knowledge beyond language and linguistics. It could be argued that the study of writing systems may provide a new approach to knowledge creations, organizations, and disseminations. Writing Systems are, indeed, rich sources of human intellectual activities, such as history, philosophy, social order, psychology, and aesthetics.

The Quipus knots of the native people in South America, for instance, show parallel features with some of the thought patterns, organizations, and utilizations with the Ancient Egyptian Writing System. Further, the Dravidian Writing System of southern India also appears to share parallelism in shapes or sign structures with the Easter Island Rongo-Rongo Writing System, perhaps suggesting historical continuity between South Asia and the Americas much earlier than the Columbus era.

The Meroitic Writing System of the Kushites in the Sudan uses two or three dots as word separators, just like the extant Ethiopic Writing System, thereby suggesting a link between the two writing systems in the Abbay-Atbara river complex.The Institute for the study of African Writing Systems is established in order to systematically compile, categorize, analyze, and interpret the various forms of writings in Africa. Writing systems are not only facilitators of speech and communication, they are also tools in the creation and utilization of knowledge systems, such as philosophy, astronomy, and numbers.


Writing is rooted in the cultural tradition of the region, particularly in the agricultural tradition represented by the bull. In the Ethiopic language it is called, "Ha", which is the first syllograph in the Ethiopic syllabet system. In the Egyptian temple, you will find the symbol of the bull. The horns of the bull in the Egyptian language are called, "Ka", which means soul. "Ha" in the Egyptian language means the beginning which correlates with the syllograpy "Ha", being the beginning of the Ethiopic Writing System.


he Myth...

Historically, the continent of Africa was looked at as the "Dark Continent". It was assumed that Africa was "uncivilized" and "barbaric" and in no way could have developed such complex languages. There were many different writing systems in Africa. The writing systems were and still are, a reflection of various philosophies [thought processes] found in African cultures and civilizations. Language, to an African mind is part of your spirituality. The word spirituality is a way of life based on a society's belief systems and moral values as they relate to a higher being. A spirituality is all of what you define yourself to be and is intertwined with your everyday actions. Your spirituality cannot be separated from your being. Egyptians believed that God is everything and everything is God as did many other Africans, not the idea that God is just in everything. Spirituality is also the relationship between you and your ancestors. When a person dies, the "spirit" returns to a higher being. Your ancestors then become, your link with that higher being. Symbolism is a way of expressing that spirituality through individual aspects of your culture. Therefore spiritual symbolism means your relationship with a higher being and your ancestors who are parts of the higher being through the individual aspects of your culture in everyday life. Much of the text written by Egyptian scribes were attached to a Egyptian spiritual belief.


Ethiopic Writing System
Ethiopic is an African Writing System designed as a meaningful and graphic representation of knowledge. It is a component of the African Knowledge Systems and one of the signal contributions made by Africans to the world history and cultures. It is created to holistically symbolize and locate the cultural and historical parameters of the Ethiopian people. The System, in its classic state, has a total of 182 syllographs, which are arranged in seven columns, each column containing 26 syllographs. Ethiopic is a knowledge system because it is brilliantly organized to represent philosophical features, such as ideography, mnumonics, syllography, astronomy, and grammatology.




"The Egyptian language"
The language consists of approximately 121 bi-literals, 75 tri-literals, and various determinants and phonetic complements. The bi-literals were individual symbols which expressed two sounds and the tri-literals were individual symbols which express three sounds. Phonetic complements are monoliterals found in front of and/or behind multi-consonantal signs in order to provide clarity and also to complete the meaning of the word. They normally repeat sounds already found in the word, but have no separate sound value.

Special attention was given to the Aesthetics of the language. The sentences were not written with one individual symbol after another. All words took a quadrangular form which some scholar call the square principle; the symbols are placed in an imaginary square and the upper ones take precedence over the lower. The majority of the language was written from right to left except for occasional specific purposes. The determinants were symbols which had no sound value and were used at the end of the word to decipher the meaning between two words with the same symbols. The determinant normally came at the end of the word and demonstrated the meaning of the entire word. Many of the determinants which were added to the words (sometimes more than one per word) did not seem to be relevant to the word's meaning to most European scholars, but I will show that there is a connection with the language to the spiritual beliefs of the people who spoke the language.

These symbols, "Medu Netcher" [Mdw Ntr], cannot be understood without understanding African spirituality and African spirituality cannot be understand without understanding Medu Netcher. The language had to be deciphered in two ways; first it had to be transliterated from symbols to orthographic text and then translated into English.


Meroitic Writing System

The Meroitic script is very similar to the Egyptian Writing System. It was used by the Meroe people, a civilization of the Sudan. The system is written from right to left, unlike the Egyptian system which can be written right to left, left to right, and vertically.


Vai Syllabry System
The Vai Syllabry is a writing system used by the Vai people of West Africa, 20th century. It is one of many indigenous secret writing systems in Africa.

(Source: charts for Nsibidi and the Vai syllabary are from Maude Wahlman's book Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts.)


Mende Script

This script was used by the Mende people of Sierra Leone. It is not only considered a writing system, it is a work of art.


Nsibidi Script
Nsibidi is a writing system of the Ejagham people of Nigeria. It is seen on tombstones, secret society buildings, costumes, ritual fans, headdresses, textiles, and in gestures, body and ground painting.

(Source: charts for Nsibidi and the Vai syllabary are from Maude Wahlman's book Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts.)


African Writing Systems: Rock Arts

Among the earliest writing systems of Africa are the engravings and paintings on rocks throughout the continent of Africa. There are over one million such sites in Africa, some as old as 10,000 years. Ancient engravings and paintings on rocks are regarded as Africa's earliest historical documents. The engravings and paintings are meaningful symbols to represent the deeds and imaginations of our ancestors. They are also pointers to aspects of the lives of African peoples during the hunting and gathering age.

Rock art is found in the high plateaus and uplands of Africa, located in caves or cliffs on the edges of the uplands. Deserts such as the Sahara contain much art due to the past wet and green conditions of the desert and the preservation effects of dry air.

Among the most important sites of rock art in Africa are:
1. The Sahara: Tassili N'Ajjer of Algeria, Southern Morocco, Fezzan, Libya; Nir and Te'ne're' of Niger; Tibesti of Chad; and Dhar Tichitt of Mauritania.
2. Eastern Africa: Tanzania and Highlands of Ethiopia.
3. Southern Africa: Orange Free State, the Vaal river, Transvaal, and the Cango caves of the Cape region.

African rock art can be categorized into five periods:
Giraffe: 30,000 to 9,000 years ago
Bubalus (Buffalo, Elephants, Rhinoceros): 9,000 to 6,000 years ago
Ox: 6,000years ago
Horse: 6,000 years ago
Camel: 2,500 years ago

Rock engravings are usually performed in softer sandstone by striking with hammer made of stone in order to generate grooves and depths of incisions. The rock pictures suggest a wide range of meanings and interpretations. Some are distinctively spiritual and others are depictions of athletic prowess or hunting skills. It is important to take into consideration the social and cultural context of the arts when interpretations are being made.

Paintings are done in either single color or multiple colors. Red and brown colors are produced from Iron oxide, white is produced from kaolin, animal droppings, and Zinc oxide, whereas the color black is produced from charcoal, ground bones, smokes and burnt fat. Brushes are made of animal hairs.

Figure I shows exquisite carvings of a giraffe carved into the desert sandstone 9,000 years ago in the Sahara desert in Niger. Researchers report the giraffe carvings of Niger from the Trust for African Rock Art. Special edition appeared in the National Geographic Magazine of June 1999.


Akan Golden Weights

The Akan Gold Weights can be seen as classic representations of the depth and dimensions of African material culture. The weights are symbols of conventionalized reflections, each weight signifying specific meanings. The weights are also used in conjunction with a monetary system, mathematics, numbers, and ideograms. In a way they symbolize the empirical minds of the practitioners. The people in the Gulf of Guniea and its surroundings, long before the colonial period, had designed and operated a weight and monetary system. The great museums of Europe and the United States "own" a sizable amount of the weights. They are also found in African museums such as The Ifan Museum at Dakar, The Human Science Museum at Abidijan, and museums in Mali and Ghana.

To be precise, the weights were the creative works of the people of Cote d' Ivore, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Mali - all in West Africa. The weights are figures that represent proverbs, maxims, riddles, and hints to historic events. In essence, the weights are the sum total representations of the people's knowledge - a three dimensional thought and word rendering images and meanings.

In Akan's tradition, a decree is implemented through the apportionment of gold measured by a figurine designed or minted in conjunction with the decree.

Human Representations of Akan Golden Weights
1.Abofra ne gyata
2.Obi nkyere abofra nyame
3.Nsono nye mee
4.Oponko kafo
5.Nipakro tinta


2.Akokora wakoa kura poma
3.Nea oda ayanya nea oda whe fam
4.Oso atudru nom taawa
5.Obaakofo a owere aduru


1.Aben hyenfo
2.Oware atofo

Plant symbols: Akan Golden Weights

3.Nyame dua
4.Brode saw


2.Dua aba
3.Adobe aba
4.Abrow ahaban a wakyekyere
5.Dua nhin a etoa mu


1.Abe dua

Akan Symbols: Ojects

4.Akofena Nta
5.Ohene adwa


1.Ohene kera konmuade
2.Ohene kera konmuade

Akan Symbols in Animal Form

5.Onanka akyere nwam


1.Dwenini mmen