Frequent commenter Y wrote me as follows:

I happened to see the Wikipedia article on the Kimbanguist church of the DRC (formerly Zaïre), a messianic Christian movement. It’s quite interesting in itself, but what caught my attention is the Mandombe script, said by its inventor to have been revealed to him through Simon Kimbangu himself. The script’s appearance and logic are to me spectacularly strange, like nothing I have seen before except maybe some ciphers. A Unicode encoding is underway (the proposal has various examples of the script in use).

He also sent me a Wayback Machine link to a pdf of Helma Pasch’s 2010 article “Mandombe” for Afrikanistik. It really is a remarkable script; I don’t think I could learn to use it myself, but I’m glad it exists.


  1. David Marjanović says:

    Well, I think we can say that Kimbangu was not dyslexic.

  2. Maybe that’s a way to do spelling reform? Just tell that god ordered you to spell something this or that way and who can tell differently?

  3. @D.O.: Written norms, written language itself, and “high” languages under diglossia have a history of being treated as divine or sacred (whence Jean-Noël Robert’s “hieroglossia” moniker). I find it interesting to speculate on the connection between writing and religion/mystical revelation.

  4. I’ve looked at descriptions of Madombe before and been unable to understand how it works. After looking at the 2016 Unicode proposal I think I get it, and will attempt to summarize very briefly here.

    There are consonantal bases and vowels which attach to them to form a glyph representing a CV syllable. So far a fairly standard abugida, but the twist is that the glyphs for the (first twenty) consonants are formed from only five consonantal bases, which are rotated and reflected so that each can appear in four different forms representing different consonants. This is reminiscent of Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, but here changing the consonant instead of the vowel. And there doesn’t seem to be any systematic phonological relationship between the consonants represented by transformations of the same base; e.g. the first one is b-/d-/g-/f-, the second m-/k-/p-/l-. The whole glyph undergoes this transformation, including the vowel marker; moreover most of the consonantal bases are rotationally symmetrical, so often the position and orientation of the vowel appendage distinguishes pairs of syllables with different consonants, e.g. be vs de or gi vs fi. A fifth, null consonant base allows bare vowel syllables to be expressed; its transformations represent h- and -h (???) syllables.

    Then there are consonants for gb, kp and kt, which are formed by modification of the b, k & t bases respectively.

    Beyond this, there are a set of vowel diacritics which can be added to syllabic glyphs to represent diphthongs; a vowel nasalization diacritic; and elements which can be added to the consonantal base to add prenasalization and form consonant clusters with intervening l and r. A null vowel marker allows glyphs representing bare consonants.

  5. Thanks, that’s very helpful.

  6. Of course, only now do I notice that I mistyped “Mandombe”…

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Written norms, written language itself, and “high” languages under diglossia have a history of being treated as divine or sacred

    Perhaps there’s something of a chicken-and-egg thing going on: I suppose that “high” languages in a diglossic situation are generally (always?) linguistically archaising, and given the sheer intellectual difficulty of maintaining a consistently archaic form of language, you’re going to need a powerful motivation: religion is an obvious one, especially if your religion is one where the ipsissima verba are necessary for your hymn/prayer/spell/whatever to be effective.

    Perhaps secular linguistic peevery is the poor orphaned remnant of this religious motive in an unbelieving age? It might account for some of the disproportionate emotional investment so often associated with it.

    Then there are consonants for gb, kp and kt, which are formed by modification of the b, k & t bases respectively.

    On the face of it, that’s a bit odd: k͡p g͡b are common as single phonemes in Africa (though not so much in this area) whereas kt isn’t. I suppose it just shows that despite its deliberate oddness the system is really parasitic on the Latin alphabet (unlike Cherokee, say.)

  8. David Marjanović says:


    On average, probably, but not in every detail. Standard German has a more conservative grammar than my dialect, has less syn- and apocope, and lacks a pervasive consonant lenition process; but each has kept vowel distinctions the other has lost, and the dialect keeps a few vowels the standard has syncopated.

  9. That’s probably not true for many languages which got their literary standards in 19-20th centuries.

    Cantonese (and most other Sinitic varieties) is more archaic than Mandarin Chinese, all Tibetan dialects are archaic compared to modern literary Tibetan based on Lhasa dialect, etc…

  10. January First-of-May says:

    Supposedly, many Russian dialects (…to the extent that any survive) still have a sound for ѣ separate from е, which is something that the literary language lost centuries ago.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Come to think of it, whether there are archaic tendencies in the “high” language is not relevant to the more general point; the mere fact that it is different imposes a cognitive cost.

    Modern nation-building with its secular ethos of cultural homogeneity has presumably supplanted religion as the driver of diglossia, so that the effort of maintaining diglossia is now imposed on citizens by economic necessity or indeed by straightforward state coercion.

  12. You lost me there.

    Why knowing and using two languages is a bad thing exactly?

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    It isn’t, unless it leads to loss of the “low” language. This isn’t an issue if the motivation for knowing the “high” language is purely religious (I can’t think of any instances where that has ever happened); when the motive is nationalist that is not only common but often a deliberate plan.

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