Think One Person Can’t Do Much?


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Stroke order for capital letters in Adlam, photo from The Atlantic

How about two? This is the story of a childhood dream and lifelong passion and perseverance.

We start our story when two Guinean brothers—Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry—are 10 and 14 years old. They loved school, and were frustrated that their native language, Fulani, didn’t have its own writing system.

Fulani is a traditionally oral language spoken by about 40 million Fula people across western and central Africa. Like so many oral languages worldwide, people end up transcribing them using an existing script—they superimpose a foreign alphabet onto an existing oral language. This type of practice is rather imperialistic and it usually doesn’t work very well. Such was the case with Japanese, an oral language written in Chinese characters until Prince Shohtoku invented two indigenous syllabaries for the language—hiragana and katakana—in the tenth century. Today Japanese remains a complicated written system of four different scripts, if we include the Chinese kanji, the two kana syllabaries, and the Latin romaji to which it’s often transliterated.

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Distribution map of major populations of the Fula people, Wikipedia

In the case of Fulani, it was usually written using Arabic script. But, just like romaji, or Latin characters in Japanese, there were no consistent rules, so reading was difficult. It meant that every Fulani reader had to learn Arabic in order to read and, to make matters worse, the Arabic letters didn’t capture the Fulani sounds. The Latin alphabet is even worse with Fulani pronunciation. According to Kaveh Waddell, author of the wonderfully written Adlam: The Alphabet that will Save a People from Disappearing, “Neither the Arabic nor the Latin alphabets could accurately spell Fulani words that require producing a ‘b’ or a ‘d’ sound while gulping in air, for example, so Fulani speakers had modified both alphabets with new symbols—often in inconsistent ways.”

The Barry brothers loved to draw, so they took it upon themselves to create a script for Fulani—and it only took the school boys six months! Their new alphabet spread quickly and came to be called “Adlam”—its first four letters. The script’s name is also an acronym for a phrase meaning, “the alphabet that will save a people from disappearing.”

Adlam is written right to left, and Fulani’s five vowels each have their own letters. “One of the things that’s really hindering progress in Africa and Guinea in particular,” Ibrahima told Waddell, “is we spend so many resources learning new languages even though we already have languages that we can use to develop our countries.”

The boys taught Adlam to friends and family, and had the inspired idea to ask each student to teach three others. They transcribed school books using the new script, and in junior high started teaching larger groups of people in markets and neighborhoods. Their father’s relative, an official in the local government, came to the house for a demonstration. He was impressed when he found that the boys could consistently, independently, and accurately transcribe one another’s speech from separate rooms.

In 1993, as a high school student, Abdoulaye, traveled to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, and wrangled his way onto a popular radio show to promote the new script. “That’s how the whole country learned about Adlam,” Adboulaye said.

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A group of students learn Adlam in Sierra Leone. Photo from The Atlantic

Many Fula people are nomadic, so the script spread quickly among traders and farmers—from Guinea to Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. More and more books were converted to Adlam, but they were written by hand and copied by machine, a very cumbersome process. The process of propagating a new script wasn’t always easy; Ibrahima was imprisoned for a time after police officers raided his Adlam study group at university. Upon graduating, Ibrahima started a Fulani-language newspaper, also written by hand and photocopied.

New writing systems aren’t created all that often. The most widely used scripts in the world today—Latin, Chinese, Arabic, Devanagari, and Cyrillic—are all thousands of years old. In 1959, Hmong spiritual leader Shong Lue Yang created the 81-symbol Pahawh script, though RPA romanized characters are still very popular. The Cherokee syllabary is a success story: Sequoya created the script in 1821 and seven years later a Cherokee-language printing press published the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper. Cherokee was added to the Unicode standard in 1999; in 2003 Apple created a Cherokee keyboard; and Google has recently helped implement Android support for the alphabet.

To take Adlam to the next level, the Barry brothers figured they could skip the printing press and go directly to computers. They both ended up emigrating from the west coast of Africa to the west coast of the USA—to Portland, Oregon—pursuing their educations and working. They paid for the development of an Adlam keyboard and font. In 2008, they were thrilled to finally be able to type Adlam for the first time. However, because Adlam wasn’t yet supported by Unicode, readers had to have the font installed on their system.

Several years later, after Ibrahima presented at a type design conference in Colorado Springs, the brothers were introduced to Deborah Anderson, a linguistics researcher, who leads a program called the Script Encoding Initiative, at UC Berkeley. Along with Michael Everson, one of the co-authors of the Unicode Standard, the SEI has added more than 70 scripts to the Unicode standard since 2002! Kudos to these incredible Cultural Detectives!

SEI’s site tells us that over 100 scripts remain to be encoded, and asks for donations to support the effort. UNESCO, the USA National Endowment for the Humanities, and Google all support the Initiative. The effort includes historic scripts, such as expanding the set of supported Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as focusing on scripts used by religious and linguistic minorities—to promote literacy and education in native languages.

Waddell tells us, “I asked Everson if any of the alphabet’s quirks presented challenges—the fact that it’s written right to left, for example, or the fact that the letters are connected to one another—but he said it was nothing new. What was new was that the script wasn’t yet set in stone. Mr. Barry had learnt calligraphy and was working really hard on optimizing stroke order. I was saying, ‘You have to stop tinkering with this.’ If he wanted this to be stable he needed to stop altering it.”

In 2014, at a meeting of the Unicode Technical Committee in Sunnyvale, California, yet another milestone was achieved—Adlam was approved. It was included in Unicode 9.0 which was published this past summer. However, you won’t yet find it on your cell phone; technology companies haven’t leapt on the Adlam bandwagon.

One hope is “Noto,” an enormous font family that aims to support 100% of the scripts in Unicode 9.0. Finding Adlam on your operating system won’t happen overnight, but hopefully it won’t be much longer. A second hope is that Fulani speakers have started creating their own apps: one to text in Adlam and the other to learn it.

Twenty years on, the Barry brothers are now 36 and 40 years old, and Adlam is taught in over ten countries. Ibrahima recently finished writing a book on Fulani grammar, and he plans to create a dictionary as well. Both brothers want to open more schools in Guinea and nearby countries that teach children in their native languages.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had passion, a dream, and perseverance. Gandhi had those three qualities as well. Fortunately for speakers of Fulani, so do Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry.

The original article in The Atlantic is much longer than my summary here; be sure to read it if this has piqued your interest. And be sure to log into your subscription to Cultural Detective Online now, to help define and preserve your culture!

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