Rare African Script Hints At How Writing Evolved

In the early 19th Century a small group of Liberians invented a way to write the Vai language down. Instead of copying Roman or Arabic letters, as occurred with most languages first written down in recent times, they invented their own script. This created a rare example where linguists can trace the entire history of a written script. The evolution might settle a debate between theories about how Egyptian hieroglyphics turned into the letters we use today.

The ancestry of our modern letters can be traced back to the walls of ancient Egypt. Most famously, our letter A is thought to be descended from the ox’s head drawn by Egyptians via a Phoenician symbol and the Greek alpha. However, there are at least two theories on how this happens. “There’s a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from pictures to abstract signs. But there are also plenty of abstract letter-shapes in early writing,” said Dr Piers Kelly of the University of New England (Australia) in a statement.

Kelly thought it would be useful to compare the evolution of a script whose entire history is documented. In Current Anthropology, Kelly and co-authors trace the development of the script for the Vai language from the 1830s to today.

The Vai language is spoken by around 100,000 people in Liberia, along with a smaller number in neighboring Sierra Leone, and emigrant communities around the world. Until at least 1800 it appears to have been entirely oral, with no written script.

Read more: IFLScience

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