Twenty-six years ago, two brothers decided their native language needed a new alphabet. The scripts they’d been using to read and write their native Fulani, an African language spoken by at least 40 million people, weren’t working well.
Fulani’s sounds were rendered imprecisely by the Arabic alphabet, the script most often used to write it; the Latin alphabet presented similar problems. Neither the Arabic nor the Latin alphabets could accurately spell Fulani words that require producing a “b” or a “d” sound while gulping in air, for example, so Fulani speakers had modified both alphabets with new symbols—often in inconsistent ways.
“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.
Read more: The Atlantic