The invention, transmission and evolution of writing: Insights from the new scripts of West Africa

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West Africa is a fertile zone for the invention of new scripts. As many as 20 have been devised since the 1830s (Dalby 1967, 1968, 1969, inter alia) including one created as recently as 2002 (Mbaye 2011). Talented individuals with no formal literacy are likely to have invented at least three of these scripts, suggesting that they had reverse-engineered the ‘idea of writing’ on the same pattern as the Cherokee script, i.e. with minimal external input. Influential scholars like Edward Tylor, A. L. Kroeber and I. J. Gelb were to approach West African scripts as naturalistic experiments in which the variable of explicit literacy instruction was eliminated. Thus, writing systems such as Vai and Bamum were invoked as productive models for theorising the dynamics of cultural evolution (Tylor [1865] 1878, Gelb [1952] 1963), the diffusion of novel technologies (Kroeber 1940), the acquisition of literacy (Forbes 1850, Migeod 1911, Scribner and Cole 1981) the cognitive processing of language (Kroeber 1940, Gelb [1952] 1963), and the evolution of writing itself (Gelb [1952] 1963; Dalby 1967, 2). This paper revisits the three West African scripts that are known to have been devised by non-literates. By comparing the linguistic, semiotic and sociohistorical contexts of each known case I suggest various circumstances that may have favoured their invention, transmission and diffusion. I argue that while the originators of scripts drew inspiration from known systems such as Roman and Arabic, they are likely to have drawn on indigenous pictorial culture and annotation systems to develop their own scripts. Once established, their creations were used to circumscribe an alternative politico-religious discourse in direct opposition to the discourses of colonial administrations. The appeal of these scripts were thus tied more to their relative indexical power than their apparent technological or cognitive advantages. Just as earlier theorists imagined, I contend that West African scripts do have the potential to illuminate historical processes of creativity, transmission and evolution, but only when local particularities are given due consideration.

Kelly, P. (2017, March 10). The invention, transmission and evolution of writing: Insights from the new scripts of West Africa.

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