Kaveh Waddell at The Atlantic writes about the development of an indigenous alphabet for the Fulani language by Abdoulaye Barry and his brother Ibrahima. The title, “The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing,” is idiotic — there are at least 20 million Fula, and they’re not going anywhere — but the story is fascinating:
“Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?” Abdoulaye Barry remembers asking his father one day in elementary school. The variety of writing styles made it difficult for families and friends who lived in different countries to communicate easily. Abdoulaye’s father, who learned Arabic in Koranic schools, often helped friends and family in Nzérékoré—Guinea’s second-largest city—decipher letters they received, reading aloud the idiosyncratically modified Arabic scripts. As they grew older, Abdoulaye and his brother Ibrahima began to translate letters, too.
“Those letters were very difficult to read even if you were educated in Arabic,” Abdoulaye said. “You could hardly make out what was written.”
So, in 1990, the brothers started coming up with an alternative. Abdoulaye was 10 years old; Ibrahima was 14.
After school, they’d shut themselves in their rooms to draw, filling blank composition books they brought home from the classroom with the shapes that would make up their new alphabet. They’d take turns drawing letters, and together, assigned sounds to the shapes they came up with.
Six months later, they had a working script. Like Arabic, its 28 letters were written right to left. But unlike Arabic, whose short vowels are written as diacritical marks above and below letters, the script assigned its five vowels proper letters. It looked something like a cursive version of Ethiopic. Ibrahima and Abdoulaye’s parents started taking their project seriously, and invited one of their father’s relatives, who had an influential post in the local government, for a demonstration.
The visitor tested them: With Abdoulaye in the other room, Ibrahima would take dictation. When Abdoulaye returned, he read aloud what his brother had written. They switched and repeated the test. Over and over, the brothers consistently read out the right sounds, even those unique to Fulani. Crucially, they spelled the same complicated words in the same ways, independently of one another.
The visitor turned to their father. “Oh, yes, these kids are being serious,” he said. […]
During the decade after that first big test in the brothers’ house, their new alphabet—yet unnamed—spread at an astounding rate. Eventually, it would come to be called Adlam, after its first four letters: the equivalents of a, d, l, and m.
The brothers encountered a lot of obstacles in their efforts to gain official recognition for their alphabet, but it seems to be doing well, and people are spontaneously adopting it and achieving literacy with it (always a good sign, since invented writing systems are many and successes few). You can read more about it at The Randall M. Hasson Blog (first installment of a three part series).