Did you know that the fascinating tapestry of African history includes ancient written languages? Africa boasts a rich legacy of written communication and oral storytelling, dating back thousands of years. It's home to some of the world's oldest and most extensive written languages ever known to humanity.
Africa is home to roughly a third of the world's languages. Experts speculate that between 1000 to 2000 distinct languages are spoken in Africa. Some of these languages are in written form.
Before we start our post today, here's a quick challenge: Can you name at least two written African languages without consulting any reference? If you can, that's fantastic! But if not, don't worry. We're here to embark on an exploration of these remarkable written languages together. Are you ready? Let's begin!
1. Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs - source: Wkimedia Commons
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, known as "Medu Neter" in the language itself, were a complex logosyllabic writing system. These symbols represented words (concepts) and consonant phonetic sounds, adapting to their context. The earliest traces of hieroglyphs have been found on pre-dynastic pottery at Gerzeh (c. 4000 – 3500 BC)and inscriptions at Gebel Sheikh Suleiman (Wadi Halfa; 4000 – 3500 BC) in the region referred to as "Nubia."
Nsibidi is an adaptable and indigenous Nigerian writing system, consisting of two-dimensional signs, three-dimensional pictographs, ideographs, and pantomimed gestures. Developed by the Uguakima, Ebe, or Uyanga ethnic groups, Nsibidi dates back between 4000 and 5000 BC. Its symbols were understood by a select group, often linked to secret societies, within communities like the Ejagham, Efik, Igbo, Ibibio, Efut, Annang, and Banyang-speaking areas. These symbols were used artistically, socially, and politically to communicate power, skills, and cultural stories.
Adinkra Alphabet - source: Wkimedia Commons
The Akan people of Ghana developed the Adinkra symbols, representing concepts and sayings. These symbols were a means of conveying complex beliefs and practices. The Adinkra script highlights Africa's rich linguistic history and cultural sophistication.
Adinkra's influence extends even further with the introduction of the Adinkra Alphabet by Charles Korankye in 2015. Over subsequent years, this alphabet underwent growth and refinement to encompass various languages spoken in Ghana and Ivory Coast, such as Akan, Dagbani, Ewe, and Ga. This progressive journey culminated in the creation of a standardized font in 2020, marking a significant milestone in Adinkra's evolution.
The Ge'ez script - source: Wkimedia Commons
The Ge'ez script, consisting of 231 characters, is used for communication in various Ethiopic languages. Originating in the Horn of Africa around the 8th-9th century BC, it remains one of the world's oldest continuously used writing systems. Ge'ez is primarily used in Ethiopian and Eritrean Tawahedo Orthodox and Beta Israel churches. The Hawulti stela, dating back to the pre-Aksumite era around 800 BC, provides early evidence of Ge'ez writing.
Stop sign in Tifinagh language - source: Wkimedia Commons
Tifinagh is a rock painting-based script originating around 3000 BC in southern Algeria, as seen in the rock paintings at Oued Mertoutek. This script has been continuously employed by the Amajegh (Tuareg) people of West Africa (Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Southern Algeria, and Southern Libya). The Tuareg are among the few Tamazight speakers who have used the Tifinagh script since antiquity, signifying its enduring significance.
In the heart of what we now call Sudan, the Meroitic language and its distinctive writing system came to life. This unique script was used during the time of Meroë and the broader Kingdom of Kush. As a silent witness to a bygone era, the Meroitic script thrived from around 300 BCE to 400 CE, allowing us a peek into the thoughts and stories of this ancient civilization.
And there you have it—a brief but captivating glimpse through the window of ancient African written languages. We must challenge the notion that suggests Africa lacked written languages, for the reality is far more intricate and fascinating. The legacy of these scripts speaks volumes about the creativity, wisdom, and sophistication of African civilizations.
We encourage you to explore, learn, and celebrate the diverse linguistic tapestry that Africa has woven over the centuries. Feel free to share your thoughts and reflections on these ancient writing systems—did you find them as intriguing as we did? Did we miss an ancient African system? Let us know in the comments! And if you're hungry for more knowledge, remember to check out our previous blog posts. If you're curious about learning new words in various African languages or discovering bilingual African children's books, we've got you covered.