As the Mandika proverb goes, “the roof of a hut from one village will never fit a hut in a different village.” The same is true of language: the script of one will never perfectly fit the language of another. Thus, Souleymane Kanté created the N’Ko () alphabet in 1949 to suit the sounds of the Mande languages — including Mandika, Dyula, Bambara and related languages.
N’Ko, a native African Alphabet
Neither the Latin nor the Arabic characters have enough breadth to encompass the nuances of African speech. Both writing systems lack symbols for some of the phonology, in particular the subtle but distinct tonalities. When transcribed with the foreign scripts, which have no adequate way of marking precise vowel tones, the meanings of words can become confused:
- Da could mean “mouth”, or “door”, or a type of leaf
- Su can be either “night” or “corpse”
- Bala is a “xylophone”, but also a “porcupine”
- Moso kodo is both an “old woman” and an “older brother(or sister)-in-law”
While there were a few other attempts at creating an African script in the past — Kpelle (1930s), Loma (1930s), Masaba (1930s), Mende Kikakui (1920s), Vai (1830s) —, most have since been abandoned in favor of the ill-fitting Latin characters. The success of the N’Ko alphabet compared to these other writing systems is precisely that it is an alphabet and not a syllabary, which gives it a flexibility, notably in transcribing words borrowed from European or Arabic languages, that the others don’t have.
N’Ko is written from right to left, with letters strung along a base line to form words, much in the manner of Arabic. This is because Souleymane Kanté surveyed illiterate villagers, asking them to draw characters on the ground in whatever order seemed natural to them. This exercise showed him the script would be easier to distribute if written from right to left.
The name of the alphabet, N’Ko, is a word common to all Mande languages, meaning “I say”. Quranic students often start their recitations with the word N’Ko. This was also a reference to a historic speech that Sundiata Keita, Mali’s Emperor, delivered to his army in 1236, when he said: “I am speaking to you, valiant men, to all those who say N’Ko, and those who don’t.”
N’Ko has seven letters to represent each of the distinct vowel sounds.
Vowel tones are a key feature of the N’Ko alphabet. There are four primary tones, describing the pitch of the short vowel, and four more secondary tones, to be used when the vowel is long and stressed. The last marker indicates the nasalization of the vowel, for instance in the alphabet’s creator’s name: Kanté.
|Tone||Tone marked vowels||Pronunciation|
Regular, no particular tone
|Short High Tone||
|Short Low Tone||
|Short Rising Tone||
Low pitch that rises to neutral
|Long High Tone||Double length of vowel; High pitch|
|Long Low Tone||Double length of vowel; Low pitch|
|Long Rising Tone||Double length of vowel; Low-to-neutral pitch|
|Long Descending Tone||Double length of vowel; Neutral-to-low pitch|
|Nasalization||Add nasalization to vowel: an, ayn, in, en, oon, on, own|
19 consonants make up the rest of the letters, plus one sound that is not quite a consonant or a vowel, the nasal syllabic /n/ sound. There are also two “abstract consonants”, described below.
|ߙ||/ɾa/: Ramadan (rolled r)||U+07D9||2009|
|ߚ||/ra/: (long rolled r)||U+07DA||2010|
The two “abstract” consonants, (Nya Woloso) and (Na Woloso) represent a mutation by a preceding nasal tone. becomes and becomes .
For example: The word nay (me) is a combination of the words N’ (I) and lay (it is). Since the /la/ sound in lay is preceded by the nasalized /n/ sound, the now silent consonant /la/ turns into the na woloso letter.
Most punctuation marks are identical to Latin, some are mirrored as in Arabic, and a few are unique to the N’Ko script.
|Quotation Marks||” “||« »||U+00AB & 00BB||171 & 187|
|Parentheses||( )||( )||U+0028 & 0029||40 & 41|
As in the Latin and Arabic systems, numbers above 9 are marked as a combination of numbers 0 to 9.
|Latin number||N’Ko number||Typed||Unicode||Decimal|
Like the rest of the script, numerals are also written from right to left. A N’Ko writer would note the number 5,934 as , for instance.
Diacritic marks indicate numbers in a series: is 1st, is 2nd, is 3rd, etc.
Writing in N’Ko
In N’Ko, as in most scripts, a space separated two words. Upper and lowercase letters are identical, so the first letter in a sentence, proper names, etc, are not capitalized. In order to point out abbreviations, like the names of organizations (the U.N.) or common words (P.O. box), the letters are simply separated by a space, as if each letter was its own word — this is the closest to a capital letter N’Ko ever comes to.
Since Manding languages do not natively have any consonant clusters (syllables always include a vowel), it is safe in N’Ko syntax to drop a repeated vowel when transcribing a word.
- If two different consonants are followed by the same vowel with the same tone in the same word, the first vowel is omitted.
I.e.: The Maninka word for arm is bolo, which is written “blo”, dropping the first o:
- But if two identical vowels with identical tones come after two identical consonants in a word, both vowels must be written.
I.e.: Mama would be spelled with both vowels:
- When a polysyllabic word contains the same vowel with the same tone more than twice, the vowels are combined in pairs. In a word with three syllables for example, the first two are combined (which means dropping the first vowel as shown in the first case), and the last one is written.
I.e.: The word for hyena, suluku is transcribed with the first u dropped, and the following two written:
The vowel at the end of a word is almost always replaced with an apostrophe, provided the next word starts with a vowel. The /a/ sound is the most commonly eliminated.
I.e.: (Ka à) becomes (K’à)
Since vowels are so often omitted as described above, the apostrophe is also used to indicate the absence of a vowel in foreign words that contain several consonants in a row. The punctuation ensures that vowel sounds are not inserted into consonant clusters.
I.e.: The name Christophe would be written and read K’ris’tof. Without the markings, it would read kirisotof.
Transcribing Foreign Sounds
Any alphabet that does not take into account the ability to transcribe foreign words will be at a disadvantage. In order to avoid creating language barriers, N’Ko includes ways to modify its letters to produce the missing sounds with its diacritic marks. As such, N’Ko can be used to transcribe many more languages than the Manding tongues it was intended for: other African languages, of course, but also European languages like French, English, Dutch, etc, and even Asian languages like Chinese or Vietnamese.
Two dots above a letter denote a foreign tone, such as the French “u” ( ) and “e” ( ) sounds.
For example, the “fa” sound with an added dot creates a “v” sound. “Ja” turns into a “z” or “zh” sound. The hard French “r” is marked: . The “gba” sound can become “g” , “gh” , or “kp” ; “sh” and “sch” are a modified version of “sa” . The English “th” is made from the “ta” sound, and a soft “j” comes from the hard “cha” .
The N’Ko Script Today
Though never officially adopted by any West African state, N’Ko nevertheless gained and continues to gain popularity among the people. During his lifetime, Souleymane Kanté wrote, translated and transcribed hundreds of books with his new alphabet, including works as diverse as the Quran, the Periodic Table of Elements, books on history (West African history in particular), philosophy, science and technology. He then copied these hand-written volumes and gave copies to teachers who made them available to students who in turn reproduced the texts, encouraging N’Ko literacy in Mande communities.
Through this informal network, the script has spread from its birth place in Guinea to the Ivory Coast and Mali, becoming the single most successful West African script. N’Ko is taught in local West African schools, and universities across the world — including in the US, Russia, Egypt and Spain. Local newspapers, textbooks and pamphlets are published using the script. Charitable organizations such as the Red Cross and National Aids Control Committees use N’Ko to spread awareness.
Because of its success, the alphabet was accepted into the Unicode Standard in 2006, and it is slowly being incorporated into technology with the development of fonts, keyboards and iOS apps.
N’Ko is steadily leaving its mark, by not only validating, but promoting, the rich cultural and linguistic identities of West Africa.
Sources and Further Reading
- Diakité, B. (2012). N’Ko Tone ߒߞߏ ߞߊ߲ߡߊߛߙߋ ߟߎ߬ & consonants lesson (2) ߥߟߊ߬ߘߊ (߂) ߒߞߏ ߛߌ߰ߙߊ߬ߕߊ ߟߎ߬. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from Youtube.
- Introduction to N’Ko. (2007). Retrieved June 1, 2018, from Web archive.
- N’Ko Script. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from ScriptSource.
- [French] Dans le monde. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from N’Ko Pour Tous.
- Unicode block character notes. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from r12a.
Books and articles:
- Doumbouya, M. (2012). An Introduction for English Speakers. N’Ko Institute of America.
- White Oyler, D. (2001). A Cultural Revolution in Africa: Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 34(3).