THE RED LIST

Closing the Gap

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

I have a New Yorker cartoon from the early years of the 21st century, set in a fairly formal elementary school classroom, with the kids neatly dressed and the desks in rows.

The kids are looking up at the front of the classroom, where a teacher is standing next to a boy about 9 years old or so. The boy is holding a sheaf of paper, and the teacher is looking down at him with a certain degree of bewilderment.

“Before I read you my book report, I would like to discuss my font choice,” the boy says.

Humor operates at the cusp of change, and that cartoon flags a slow, vast change, like a supertanker turning massively to starboard — a change in the relationship between computing and writing.

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A quarter-century earlier, the idea that everyone would own a computer was absurd: Before PCs, a computer was at least the size of a room and sometimes the size of a building. Less obviously, it wasn’t clear what someone would do with a computer even if they had one. The buzzwords were “data,” “information,” and above all, “work”: If we had our own personal computers (a phrase that still emphasized the first word), we could get more work done.

What was not at all apparent, especially to those buying beige IBM business machines, with their squared-off, no-nonsense screen type, was that data and information could be converted into color and design.

When I first started typing on a PC in 1985, I had no idea that in two decades the New Yorker would be satirizing the upper-class kid whose homework machine came with 256 colors and a font bundle he could play with to suit his mood, and his topic, and thus begin to narrow the gap between writing and art.

Move forward another 15 years or so, and, as MultiLingual readers know, that gap has narrowed even further, along with the gap between languages, the gap between computing and writing, and, as you’ll soon see, the gap between the United States and Burkina Faso.

Wenitte Apiou, a student of electrical engineering and mathematics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, was born in Burkina Faso but moved to America when he was 5.

Growing up, Apiou’s family only spoke French — Burkina Faso’s official language — and some English in the household. His parents are from two different ethnic groups: His mother speaks Mooré, the most widely-spoken indigenous language in Burkina Faso, and his father speaks Kasem, a minority language spoken by about 100,000 people in southern Burkina Faso and northern Ghana.

“The only language I’m fluent in besides English is French, which makes it difficult to communicate with some of my older family members who never went to school and were not able to learn French fluently,” Apiou recently said in an interview. He decided to try to build a language app that would connect speakers of minority West African languages.

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(Let’s just pause here to note another moment of change. Ten years ago, a language app would automatically make use of existing fonts in mainstream writing systems, even if those writing systems were colonial relics that had been imposed a century earlier and were only approximate representations of the spoken languages in question. As we’re about to see, that’s no longer good enough.)

Apiou shared the app idea with Boluwaji Odufuwa, who was studying computer science at Harvard. Odufuwa was born in Nigeria but also moved to America in his early childhood, and understood the problem Apiou was trying to solve. The two began work on a learning-by-gaming app they called Mandla, a Zulu and Xhosa word that means power.

In the summer of 2021 Apiou was in Burkina Faso, searching for someone who could help him make reliable Kassena translations and audio recordings for the app, when he met Babaguioue Micareme Akouabou.

“So we have worked together since then to create Kassena translations and audio recordings to teach the language on the Mandla App, and then had the idea to create a modern script.”

Now, the phrase “modern script” is a bit of a loaded term. Here, it means “modern” in the sense of “newly-made,” and it is modern in the sense that someone creating an app isn’t willing to fall back on a colonial script. But in other ways, this script was as old as, well, houses.

They decided to base the script on the logographic writing system of the Kassena people of western Africa, in use since at least the 16th century.

“The Kassena are well known for the logograms on their houses,” Apiou explained, “[which are] symbols representing concepts such as wealth, love, peace, devotion to God, and prosperity.”

The result was a highly geometrical-looking alphabet with 30 letters called Gʋlse (anglicized as Goulsse), meaning “writing” in Mooré. Gʋlse is written from left to right, has no uppercase or lowercase, and uses the standard international Hindu-Arabic numerals.

The script is being taught to write the Kasem language in Po, Burkina Faso, Apiou reports. There are also plans to teach it in Ouagadougou to write the Mooré language.

In case you think this act of script creation is an outlier, it has excellent precedents, most strikingly the creation of the Ditema tsa Dinoko script roughly 10 years ago, using designs that echo another house-painting tradition.

Pule kaJanolintshi, one of the designers involved in the development of the script, explains: “The script is based on the traditional symbologies of southern Africa, which are still used today in certain contexts, such as in Sesotho litema or IsiNdebele amagwalo murals, the knowledge of which is traditionally kept by women.”

Litema, based on the Sesotho word that means, fascinatingly, both “text” and “ploughed land,” is an art form based on decorative and symbolic patterns engraved, painted, or moulded in the walls of homes. For centuries, women have combed the patterns (to imitate a ploughed field) or scratched them into the wet top layer of fresh clay and dung plaster of the wall and then painted them with naturally occurring pigments or, more recently, paint. Litema are not intended to be permanent, and usually dry or are washed off by the next rain.

So there you have it, my multilingual friends: What we’re seeing is a global convergence, not only between neighboring languages but between writing and art, between spoken and written languages, and between the modern and the ancient.

To start writing in Gʋlse, download the font at https://goulsse.org. It can also be typed using the Mandla keyboard input tool at https://keyboards.mandla.ai/Convert/Gʋlse

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