The N'ko Language of Souleymane Kante

N'ko language of Souleymane Kande aligned with Unicode standardizations
Unicode chart for N'ko. This standard enables computes to display and recognize N'ko numbers, alphabet, and punctuation. By Author: User Antonsusi from the German Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

N’ko is a West African written language created by Souleymane Kanté in 1949 for the Maninka language group.  At the time, the Mande languages of West Africa were written using a Romanicized (or Latin) alphabet or a variant of Arabic.  Neither script was perfect, as the Mande languages are tonal – meaning that the tone of a word affects its meaning – and there were several sounds that could not be transcribed easily.

What inspired Kanté to create a new, indigenous script, though, was the racist belief at the time that the absence of an indigenous alphabet was proof of West Africans’ primitivism and lack of civilization.  Kanté created N’ko to prove such beliefs wrong and to give the Mande speakers a written form that would protect and enliven their cultural identity and literary heritage.

What is perhaps so remarkable about N'ko is that Souleymane Kanté succeeded in creating a new written form.  Invented languages are usually the work of eccentrics, but Kanté's desire for a new, indigenous alphabet struck a chord. N’ko is used today in Guinea and the Côte​ d'Ivoire and among some Mande speakers in Mali, and the popularity of this writing system only continues to grow. 

Souleymane Kanté

Who was this man that managed to invent a new writing system? Souleymane Kanté, also known as Solamane Kanté, (1922-1987) was born near the city of Kankan in Guinea, which was then part of colonial French West Africa.

 His father, Amara Kanté, led a Muslim school, and Souleymane Kanté was educated there until his father's death in 1941, at which point the school closed. Kanté, then only 19 years old, left home and moved to Bouake, in Côte​ d'Ivoire, which was also part of French West Africa, and set himself up as a merchant.

Colonial Racism

While in Bouake, Kanté reportedly read a comment by a Lebanese writer, who claimed that West African languages were like the language of birds and were impossible to transcribe into written forms.​  Angered, Kanté set out to prove this claim wrong.

 He did not leave an account of this process, but Dianne Oyler interviewed several people who knew him, and they said he spent several years trying to work first with Arabic script and then with the Latin alphabet to try and create a writing form for Maninka, one of the Mande language sub-groups. Finally, he decided that it simply wasn't possible to find a systematic way to transcribe Maninka using foreign writing systems, and so he developed N'ko. 

Kanté was not the first to try and produce a writing system for Mande languages. Over the centuries, Adjami, a variant of Arabic writing, was used as a writing system across West Africa. But as Kanté  would find, representing Mande sounds with the Arabic script was difficult and most works continued to be written in Arabic or relayed orally.

A few others had also tried to create a written language using Latin alphabets, but the French colonial government banned teaching in the vernacular.

Thus, there was never a true standard established for how to transcribe Mande languages into the Latin alphabet, and the vast majority of Mande speakers were illiterate in their own language, which only fed the racist presumption that the absence of a widespread written form was due to a failure of the culture or even intellect. 

Kanté believed that by giving Maninka speakers a writing system specifically created for their language, he could promote literacy and Mande knowledge and counter the racist claims about West African's lack of a written language.

N'ko Alphabet and Writing System

Kanté made the N'ko script on April 14, 1949. The alphabet has seven vowels, nineteen consonants, and one nasal character - the "N'" of N'ko.  Kante also created symbols for numbers and punctuation marks.  The alphabet also has eight diacritic marks - accents or signs - that are placed above the vowels to indicate the length and tone of the vowel.

There is also one diacritic mark that goes beneath vowels to indicate nasalization - a nasal pronunciation.  The diacritic marks can also be used above the consonants to create sounds or words brought in from other languages, such as Arabic, other African languages, or European languages. 

N'ko is written right to left, because Kanté saw that more Mande villagers made numeric notations that way than left to right. The name "N'ko" means "I say" in Mande languages.  

N'ko Translations

Perhaps inspired by his father, Kanté wanted to encourage learning, and he spent much of the rest of his life translating useful works into N'ko, so that Mande people could learn and record knowledge in their own languages.

One of the first, and most important texts he translated was the Quran. This in itself was a bold move, as many Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of god, or Allah, and cannot and should not be translated. Kanté obviously disagreed, and N'ko translations of the Quran continue to be produced today.

Kanté also produced translations of texts on science and a dictionary of N'ko. In all, he translated some 70 books and wrote many new ones.  

The Spread of N'ko

Kanté returned to Guinea after independence, but his hopes that N'ko would be adopted by the new nation went unrealized. The new government, led by Sekou Toure, promoted efforts to transcribe indigenous languages using the French alphabet and used French as one of the national languages.

Despite the official bypassing of N'ko, the alphabet and script continued to spread through informal channels.

 Kanté continued to teach the language, and people continued to embrace the alphabet. Today it is primarily used by Maninka, Dioula, and Bambara speakers. (All three languages are part of the Mande family of languages).  There are newspapers and books in N'ko, and the language has been incorporated into the Unicode system that enables computers to use and display N'ko script. It is still not an officially recognized language, but N'ko seems unlikely to fade away anytime soon.

SOURCES:

Mamady Doumbouya,  “Solomana Kante,” N’Ko Institute of America.

Oyler, Dianne White. “Re-inventing Oral Tradition: The Modern Epic of Souleymane Kante,” Research in African Literatures, 33.1 (Spring 2002): 75-93

Wyrod, Christopher, “A Social Orthography of Identity: the N’ko literacy movement in West Africa,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 192 (2008), pp. 27–44, DOI 10.1515/IJSL.2008.033