Back in 2005, I welcomed Lameen Souag’s blog Jabal al-Lughat (still going strong!) to the internet, and I singled out for praise his first post, N’Ko, about the alphabet invented by Soulemayne Kante in 1949 for the Manding languages Malinke, Bambara, Dyula, and their dialects. Now there’s a New York Times Magazine article by Tina Rosenberg describing how the digital revolution has affected it:

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …
Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.
“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

The article gives the URLs of a number of sites in N’Ko, and mentions other languages, like Tok Pisin and Pipil, being similarly aided by modern technology. A good read. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. michael farris says

    “This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program”
    I wish I weren’t so cynical sometimes. But everything I know about language policy in post colonial countries tells me:
    1. if the program is a messy failure* it will be allowed to continue for a while
    2. if it is a success then it will be quickly and quietly closed down with no particular reason being given.
    *I’m sure the idea behind it is valid, but there are a lot of traps in execution that could scupper things.

  2. Have there been studies on why some languages are written left to right and others right to left – and of course others vertically ?

  3. When you carve inscriptions in wood, stone, or clay, you want to go right to left so that the stuff you carve out doesn’t get in your way. When you write on paper with ink, you want to go left to right so that your arm doesn’t smear the ink. Both of these rules assume right-handedness, of course. Writing systems invented in modern times tend to use the directionality their inventors are most familiar with.

  4. Thank you John. Interesting that the creator of N’Ko tried both Arabic and Latin scripts first, so either direction.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Whether or not a language will survive is a decision made by six-year-olds.
    (Or something close to that. My free articles expired, so I cant go back to check the quote.)
    And the image of truckdrivers and women at the marketplace devicing spellings for their own languages. I love it. But I’m not convinced that it’s real. Or, it’s probably real — we see spell-as-you-go texts in all languages, and the usual suspects see that as a treat too — but I’m not convinced that it’s strong enough to sustain.

  6. N’Ko is now represented in Unicode, so given the correct fonts anyone can see it as ߒߞߏ‎.

  7. When you carve inscriptions in wood, stone, or clay, you want to go right to left so that the stuff you carve out doesn’t get in your way.

    I am finding this difficult to picture. When I carve things in wood or clay (and I assume stone) the stuff I carve out is in very small pieces and doesn’t get in my way at all.

  8. It’s more about carving in stone, where what’s left over basically turns to dust, which you have to keep wiping off the surface. I understand that tombstone-carving even in English is done right to left for this reason.

  9. With stone carving I don’t understand why the dust would go more to the right of the letter you’re carving than to the left. Wouldn’t that depend on the shape of the particular letter?

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