N’Ko Alphabet, a West African Script

Abstract graphic of N'Ko letters
ߒߞߏ ߛߓߍߛߎ߲ / N’Ko alphabet by Cultures of West Africa

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 (ߒߞߏ - N'Ko) alphabet in 1949 to suit the sounds of the Manding languages — including Maninka, 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 Manding 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.”

Vowels

N’Ko has seven letters to represent each of the distinct vowel sounds.

N’Ko letter Typed Audio Pronunciation Unicode Decimal
ߊ - N'Ko letter a ߊ
/a/: Africa U+07CA 1994
ߋ - N'Ko letter ee ߋ
/e/: Lomé U+07CB 1995
ߌ - N'Ko letter i ߌ
/i/: Mali U+07CC 1996
ߍ - N'Ko letter e ߍ
/ɛ/: Senegal U+07CD 1997
ߎ - N'Ko letter u ߎ
/u/: Timbuktu U+07CE 1998
ߏ - N'Ko letter oo ߏ
/o/: Togo U+07CF 1999
ߐ - N'Ko letter o ߐ
/ɔ/: Mosque U+07D0 2000

Tonality

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
Neutral Tone ߊ ߋ ߌ ߍ ߎ ߏ ߐ - Short neutral tone N'Ko vowels
Regular, no particular tone
Short High Tone ߊ߫ ߋ߫ ߌ߫ ߍ߫ ߎ߫ ߏ߫ ߐ߫ - Short high tone N'Ko vowels
High pitch
Short Low Tone ߊ߬ ߋ߬ ߌ߬ ߍ߬ ߎ߬ ߏ߬ ߐ߬ - Short low tone N'Ko vowels
Low pitch
Short Rising Tone ߊ߭ ߋ߭ ߌ߭ ߍ߭ ߎ߭ ߏ߭ ߐ߭ - Short rising tone N'Ko vowels
Low pitch that rises to neutral
Long High Tone ߊ߯ ߋ߯ ߌ߯ ߍ߯ ߎ߯ ߏ߯ ߐ߯ - Long high tone N'Ko vowels
Double length of vowel; High pitch
Long Low Tone ߊ߰ ߋ߰ ߌ߰ ߍ߰ ߎ߰ ߏ߰ ߐ߰ - Long low tone N'Ko vowels
Double length of vowel; Low pitch
Long Rising Tone ߊ߱ ߋ߱ ߌ߱ ߍ߱ ߎ߱ ߏ߱ ߐ߱ - Long rising tone N'Ko vowels
Double length of vowel; Low-to-neutral pitch
Long Descending Tone ߊ߮ ߋ߮ ߌ߮ ߍ߮ ߎ߮ ߏ߮ ߐ߮ - Long descending tone N'Ko vowels
Double length of vowel; Neutral-to-low pitch
Nasalization ߊ߲ ߋ߲ ߌ߲ ߍ߲ ߎ߲ ߏ߲ ߐ߲ - Nasalized tone N'Ko vowels
Add nasalization to vowel: an, ayn, in, en, oon, on, own

Consonants

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.

N’Ko letter Typed Audio Pronunciation Unicode Decimal
ߒ - N'Ko nasal syllabic n ߒ
//: N’
(Nasal syllabic)
U+07D2 2002
ߓ - N'Ko consonant ba ߓ
/ba/: Baobab U+07D3 2003
ߔ - N'Ko consonant pa ߔ
/pa/: Praia U+07D4 2004
ߕ - N'Ko consonant ta ߕ
/ta/: Tama U+07D5 2005
ߖ - N'Ko consonant ja ߖ
/d͡ʒa/: Djenné U+07D6 2006
ߗ - N'Ko consonant cha ߗ
/t͡ʃa/: Chiwara U+07D7 2007
ߘ - N'Ko consonant da ߘ
/da/: Dakar U+07D8 2008
ߙ - N'Ko consonant ra ߙ
/ɾa/: Ramadan (rolled r) U+07D9 2009
ߚ - N'Ko consonant rra ߚ /ra/: (long rolled r) U+07DA 2010
ߛ - N'Ko consonant sa ߛ
/sa/: Senoufo U+07DB 2011
ߜ - N'Ko consonant ga ߜ
/ɡ͡ba/: Igbo U+07DC 2012
ߝ - N'Ko consonant fa ߝ
/fa/: Fula U+07DD 2013
ߞ - N'Ko consonant ka ߞ
/ka/: Kumasi U+07DE 2014
ߟ - N'Ko consonant la ߟ
/la/: Liberia U+07DF 2015
ߠ - N'Ko abstract consonant na woloso ߠ Abstract consonant U+07E0 2016
ߡ - N'Ko consonant ma ߡ
/ma/: Mandé U+07E1 2017
ߢ - N'Ko consonant nya ߢ
/ɲa/: Niamey U+07E2 2018
ߣ - N'Ko consonant na ߣ
/na/: Niger U+07E3 2019
ߤ - N'Ko consonant ha ߤ
/ha/: Sahara U+07E4 2020
ߥ - N'Ko consonant wa ߥ
/wa/: Wolof U+07E5 2021
ߦ - N'Ko consonant ya ߦ
/ja/: Yoruba U+07E6 2022
ߧ - N'Ko abstract consonant nya woloso ߧ Abstract consonant U+07E7 2023

The two “abstract” consonants, ߧ - N'Ko abstract consonant nya woloso (Nya Woloso) and ߠ - N'Ko abstract consonant na woloso (Na Woloso) represent a mutation by a preceding nasal tone. ߟ - N'Ko consonant la becomes ߠ - N'Ko abstract consonant na woloso and ߦ - N'Ko consonant ya becomes ߧ - N'Ko abstract consonant nya woloso.
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.
ߒ + ߟߋ = ߒߠߋ (N' + Lay = Nay; or I + it is = me) showing abstract consonants in N'Ko

Punctuation

Most punctuation marks are identical to Latin, some are mirrored as in Arabic, and a few are unique to the N’Ko script.

Punctuation Latin N’Ko N’Ko Typed Unicode Decimal
Period . . . U+002E 8228
Question Mark ? ⸮ - N'Ko punctuation question mark U+2E2E 11822
Exclamation Point ! ߹ - N'Ko punctuation exclamation point ߹ U+07F9 2041
Comma , ߸ - N'Ko punctuation comma ߸ U+07F8 2040
Colon : : - N'Ko punctuation colon : U+003A 58
Semicolon ; ؛ - N'Ko punctuation semicolon ؛ U+061B 1563
Quotation Marks ” “ « » - N'Ko punctuation quotation marks « » U+00AB & 00BB 171 & 187
Parentheses ( ) ( ) - N'Ko punctuation parentheses ( ) U+0028 & 0029 40 & 41
Dash - - N'Ko punctuation dash U+2013 8211
Ellipsis … - N'Ko punctuation ellipsis U+2026 8230
Asterism ߷ - N'Ko punctuation gbakurunen asterism ߷ U+07F7 2039

Numbers

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
0 ߀ - N'Ko number 0 ߀ U+07C0 1984
1 ߁ - N'Ko number 1 ߁ U+07C1 1985
2 ߂ - N'Ko number 2 ߂ U+07C2 1986
3 ߃ - N'Ko number 3 ߃ U+07C3 1987
4 ߄ - N'Ko number 4 ߄ U+07C4 1988
5 ߅ - N'Ko number 5 ߅ U+07C5 1989
6 ߆ - N'Ko number 6 ߆ U+07C6 1990
7 ߇ - N'Ko number 7 ߇ U+07C7 1991
8 ߈ - N'Ko number 8 ߈ U+07C8 1992
9 ߉ - N'Ko number 9 ߉ U+07C9 1993

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 ߅߉߃߄ - The number 5934 in N'Ko., for instance.

Diacritic marks indicate numbers in a series: ߁߭ - N'ko number 1st is 1st, ߂߲ - N'Ko number 2nd is 2nd, ߃߲ - N'Ko marking for "3rd". 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.

Dropping Vowels

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: ߓߟߏ - "Bolo" in N'Ko, illustrating the dropping of the first identical vowel in a word.

  • 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: ߡߊߡߊ - "Mama" in N'Ko

  • 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: ߛߟߎߞߎ - "Suluku" in N'Ko, illustrating the first vowel being dropped, but not the second or third.

Apostrophes

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.: ߞߊ ߊ߬ - "ka a" N'Ko no contraction example (Ka à) becomes ߞߴߊ߬ - "K'a" Example of an apostrophe showing a dropped vowel at the end of a word in N'Ko (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 ߞߑߙߌߛߑߕߐߝ - "Christophe". Example of apostrophes indicating the absence of a vowel in N'Ko. 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” ( ߎ߳ - N'Ko vowel u, modified to make the French u ) and “e” ( ߋ߳ - N'Ko vowel e, modified to make the French e ) sounds.

For example, the “fa” sound ߝ - N'Ko consonant fa with an added dot ߝ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant fa to make a v sound creates a “v” sound. “Ja” ߖ - N'Ko consonant ja turns into a “z” ߖ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant ja to make a z sound or “zh” ߖ߳ - N'Ko modified consonant ja to make a zh sound sound. The hard French “r” is marked: ߙ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant ra to make a French r sound. The “gba” sound ߜ - N'Ko consonant ga can become “g” ߜ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant gba to make a g sound, “gh” ߜ߫ - N'Ko modified consonant gba to make a gh sound, or “kp” ߜ߳ - N'Ko modified consonant gba to make a kp sound; “sh” ߛ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant sa to make a sh sound and “sch” ߛ߫ - N'Ko modified consonant sa to make a sch sound are a modified version of “sa” ߛ - N'Ko consonant sa. The English “th” ߕ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant ta to make an English th sound is made from the “ta” ߕ - N'Ko consonant ta sound, and a soft “j” ߗ߭ - N'Ko modified consonant cha to make a soft j sound comes from the hard “cha” ߗ - N'Ko consonant cha.

The N’Ko Script Today

Photograph of a blackboard in a modest schoolhouse in Mali, Africa. On it is a text in N'Ko, used to teach students to read.
Photograph by Alexandre Magot

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

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