Saturday, February 8, 2014

All the other ways to write Liberian

The post from earlier this week featuring the Loma Language (also known as the Lorma or Buzzi) reminded me about Liberia's many alphabets, or more technically, its half-dozen scripts and syllabaries.

Liberia is unique among countries of the world, much less African states, for being home to six separate writing systems for the transcription of local languages. Bassa, Vai, Mende, Loma, and Kpelle have all been codified into their own writing systems since at least the mid-19th century, on a continent that has only a handful of other instances where languages adopted writing systems.

This is a big topic for a blog post, as whole books have been written on Liberia's writing systems and the corner of the internet devoted to linguistic anthropology and language history is a dense one. This page from the Christian Education Foundation of Liberia is an excellent summary of the invention of each of these writing systems, many of which can be specifically dated to a particular individual, a historic figure, most of whom report quite similar inspiration from God, usually in a dream.

In the case of Loma, Kpelle, and Mende (which is primarily a language of Sierra Leone), the invention of new syllabaries coincided with European mission efforts to instruct in Latin Scripts of English. These singular efforts by visionary inventors were undoubtedly inspired by one another if not the spread of English writing around them. Unfortunately, none of these fanciful efforts never seemed to get off the ground, as evidenced by Tuesday's post, a newspaper from the 1960s which transcribers Loma in the international phonetic alphabet, rather than its native-born script.

A Bassa Keyboard. Seriously.

In the case of Bassa and Vai, however, there seems to have been more success. Somewhat hilariously, the Bassa script is unhelpfully called Vah, which means, To Throw A Sign, which is such a wonderful way to describe a writing system, if unbelievably coincidental in its easily-confused similarity with its neighboring language.  There are other possible connections to the enigmatic Cherokee script, and the Vai in particular seem to have borrowed some symbols from Ghana's Adrinka Symbols. In later decades, Academics both in Liberia and in the higher educational diaspora took up the perpetuation of these scripts and their academic study.

A Table of Vai Syllable Symbols. 

But in my personal experience, I have to seriously sound a note of caution about these incredible alphabets: I have only once seen an indigenous script in use in Liberia: in a Bible of undated vintage, sitting under a dusty display case in the National Museum in Monrovia as an object of curiosity, not reference.

I have seen no signs, billboards, advertisements, newspapers, or handwriting in a native writing system in any corner of the country, although these have been reported at least as recently as the 1980s—missionaries from the Doe era report Vai and Bassa people using the scripts for communication. In present day Liberia, I really think the main concerns is learning professional English and writing skills to get a job. These scripts are beautiful, but sadly have faded from whatever erstwhile employ they regularly enjoyed. Today, the Bassa language is generally transcribed in the phonetic alphabet also.

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