African Writing Systems (article)

African Writing Systems (article)


USING THE LATIN ALPHABET ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________ From: IN%"AFRICA-L@BRUFPB.BitNet" "FORUM PAN-AFRICA" 29-APR-1991 Subject: African writing with latin letters

Research on African writing systems using the Latin alphabet

============================================================ I'm just working on african writing with latin letters. The aim of this work is to create a fount for TeX (a text processing system) supporting african languages.

This file is organised as follows: First come the method and the preliminary result of the research. At the end, there is a section questions. I hope some people on this list can help answering them.

There are attempts to encode all characters of the whole world in one standard. (Or should I say two, since two groups have devoloped quite incompatible proposals. This two groups are the International Standards Organization (ISO 10646) and the Unicode consortium. Hopefully there can be one standard, and this one will be well done.)

With the help of Prof. N. Cyffer from the Institut f\"ur Ethnologie und Afrikanistik at Mainz University I examined many african languages with latin based writing. I included the so-called critical languages according to the definition given by the US department of education in 1985. Each of these languages has at least one million speakers.

Unfortunately, the process of standardisation has not come to an end yet. So the inventory of zusatz letters is going on. Even worse news: Some writing systems are invented using special letters only to make a difference to other languages.


b: hooktop b b which's stem curls to the right, occurs in many languages including Hausa, Fulful, Kpelle. In Zulu and Xhosa now obsolete. Uppercase: B with curl on the uper left corner (Hausa, Fulful, Kpelle) Cyrillic B (Xhosa, Zulu)

d: d with tail d with descender curling to the right (Ewe) Uppercase: D with stroke (like icelandic Edh or kroatian Dje.

hooktop d d which's stem curls to the right (Fulful, Hausa) Uppercase: D with curl on the upper left corner.

e: open e epsilon-like e very common, e.g. Basa (Kru), Dinka, Ewe, Fulful, G\~a, Kpelle, Mandekan (Bambara), Mende, Ngala (Lingala) Uppercase: Large epsilon

inverted e e rotated 180 degrees (Kanuri) Uppercase: E rotated 180 degrees.

f: long f Ewe uses two different f's, one like the roman f and the other like the italic f with j-like descender. Uppercase: F with J-like stem.

g: ipa gamma Letter looking like v with a drop under it or like old cyrillic uk (Dinka, Ewe, Kpelle). Uppercase: Looking the same, but sitting on the base line.

h: h-bar (Maltese) Uppercase: Double-barred H

k: hooktop k k, which's stem curls to the right (Hausa) Uppercase: K with curl on the upper diagonal.

n: eng n with j-like right stem, very common (Basa(Kru), Bemba, Dinka, Efik, Fulful, Ewe, G\~a, Kpelle, Mende). Uppercase: The same, but sitting on the base line

enj n with j-like left stem (Songhai) (don't know, if there is a standard yet). Uppercase: N with J-like left stem

o: open o looking like mirror-c, very common, see list at "open e". Uppercase: like mirror-C

s: esh looking like an integral sign or italic f without bar (G\~a) Uppercase: looking the same, having descender, with weightier stroke (seen in a catalogue of the librarian: Sigma -- not in G\~a)

v: round v looking like greek upsilon or italic v. (Ewe). Must be distinguished from u,v,y. Uppercase: The same enlarged.

w: raised small w Efik. Occurs only after certain consonants.

y: hooktop y y with curl on the right diagonal (Fulful) (must be distiguished from normal y) Uppercase: Y with curl on the right diagonal.


Acute: m, n: Efik

Grave: e, o: Mandekan, Sotho (South African Orthografie)

Circumflex: e, o: Sotho (Basutoland Orthografie)

Diaresis: e, o: Sotho (B)

Tilde: a, e, open e, i, o, open o, u: Kpelle i, u: Kikuyu n: Efik, Oromo

Hachek: e, o: Sotho (SA) s: Oromo, Sotho (SA)

Breve: w: G\~a

Dot above: e, o: Basa(Kru) n: Bamileke, Basa(Kru)

Macron: e, o: Sotho (SA)

Dot below: e, s: Yoruba o: Igbo, Yoruba i, u: Igbo

Line below: e, o: Basa(Kru), Kikuyu n: Luganda (Kinya Rwanda)


Many african languages are tonal languages like chinese. The marking of tone is often optional (native speakers know how to pronounce a given word correctly). Usually, tones are marked by acute, grave and circumflex. Efik also uses the prime accent and the hachek. Tonal marks can be set over naslised vowels (with tilde) in Kpelle. My opinion is not to include such combinations as seperate letters into a standard. A text processor should be able to ceate them by using floating diacritics.


This point is hard to evaluate. No standard or de-facto standard was available to me for Acholi, Akan, Basa (Kru), Gbaya, Kikuyu, Songhai. The reference on Dinka is quite old and it's not clear, if one should trust it any longer. The situation is complicated by the existence of different orthografies for the same language. Quite typical is the existence of a catholic and a protestant ortografie, both invented by missionaries.


Some questions are open:

I have seen Capital letter Y with right hook, whereas iso has Capital letter Y with left hook. Are these two presentational varaints of the same character, are they representing different characters or is one of them spurious?

Which language(s) use a Sigma as the Capital letter Esh?

Iso shows a capital sized inverted e as the Capital letter Schwa. Where is it used?

Where are the following letters needed: Latin letter alpha Latin letter iota Latin letter h with hook Latin letter p with hook Latin letter r with hook (the picture shows an r with tail) Latin letter t with hook

Further information is needed on the following languages: Acholi, Akan, Basa (Kru), Dinka, Gbaya, Kikuyu, Songhai.


--Fyle and Jones, A Krio-English dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York, 1980.

--Crystal, Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press 1987.

--Dunstan (ed.), 12 Nigerian Languages, Africana Publ. Comp. New York 1969.

--Dictionaire elementaire fulfulde-francais-english, C.R.D.T.O. Niamey 1971

--Innes, A Mende - English Dictionary, Cambridge University Press 1969.

--Brauner, Lehrbuch des Bambara, VEB Verlag Enzyklopaedie Leipzig 1974.

--Thach, A Learner Directed Approach to Kpelle, Michigan 1981.

--Adzomada, Dictionaire Francais - Ewe - Francais, 1983.

--Berry, The pronounciation of Ga, no year.

--Rowlands, Yoruba, Hadder and Stroughton Kent 1969.

--Dzokanga, Dictionaire Lingala-Francais, VEB Verlag Enzyklopaedie Leipzig 1979.

--Barbosa, Dicionario Cokwe-Portuges, Coimbra (Port.) 1989.

--Mabille and Dieterlen, Southern Sotho-English Dictionary, Morija (Lesotho) 1983.

--Kaufmann, Ibibio Dictionary, Leiden (NL) 1985. (Efik)

--Hutchinson, The Kanuri Language, University of Winsconsin, Madison 1981.

--Nebel, Dinka Grammar, Verona 1948.

Contact: J"org Knappen Inst. f"ur Kernphysik Postfach 3980 D-W6500 Mainz Allemagne. e-mail:

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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