Vai Script – Uncommon African Manuscript Affords Clues Into How Writing Advanced



Conny Waters – – The evolution of writing is a posh concern, however the Vai script, a uncommon manuscript might provide clues into this vital query scientists have lengthy tried to unravel.

The world’s very first invention of writing happened over 5000 years in the past within the Center East, earlier than it was reinvented in China and Central America. Right now, virtually all human actions—from schooling to political programs and pc code—depend on this expertise.

Vai Script - Rare African Manuscript Offers Clues Into How Writing Evolved

The primary web page of Vai manuscript MS17817 from the British Library. Credit score: The British Library

However regardless of its impression on each day life, we all know little about how writing advanced in its earliest years. With so few websites of origin, the primary traces of writing are fragmentary or lacking altogether.

In a examine simply revealed in Present Anthropology, a crew of researchers on the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human Historical past in Jena, Germany, confirmed that writing in a short time turns into ‘compressed’ for environment friendly studying and writing.

To reach at this perception they turned to a uncommon African writing system that has fascinated outsiders because the early 19th century.

“The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch in about 1834 by eight fully illiterate males who wrote in ink produced from crushed berries,” says lead writer Dr. Piers Kelly, now on the College of New England, Australia. The Vai language had by no means earlier than been written down.

In keeping with Vai trainer Bai Leesor Sherman, the script was all the time taught informally from a literate trainer to a single apprentice pupil. It stays so profitable that at this time it’s even used to speak pandemic well being messages.

“Due to its isolation, and the way in which it has continued to develop up till the current day, we thought it would inform us one thing vital about how writing evolves over quick areas of time,” says Kelly.

“There is a well-known speculation that letters evolve from photos to summary indicators. However there are additionally loads of summary letter-shapes in early writing. We predicted, as a substitute, that indicators will begin off as comparatively complicated after which grow to be easier throughout new generations of writers and readers.”

The crew scrutinized manuscripts within the Vai language from archives in Liberia, the US, and Europe. By analyzing year-by-year modifications in its 200 syllabic letters, they traced your entire evolutionary historical past of the script from 1834 onwards. Making use of computational instruments for measuring visible complexity, they discovered that the letters actually did grow to be visually easier with every passing yr.

Vai Script - Rare African Manuscript Offers Clues Into How Writing Evolved

The transformation of indigenous symbols into Vai letters. Credit score: Momolu Massaquoi (1911)

“The unique inventors had been impressed by goals to design particular person indicators for every syllable of their language. One represents a pregnant girl, one other is a chained slave, others are taken from conventional emblems. When these indicators had been utilized to writing spoken syllables, then taught to new folks, they grew to become easier, extra systematic and extra just like each other,” says Kelly.

This sample of simplification will be noticed over for much longer time scales for historical writing programs as nicely.

“Visible complexity is useful in the event you’re creating a brand new writing system. You generate extra clues and larger contrasts between indicators, which helps illiterate learners. This complexity later will get in the way in which of environment friendly studying and copy, so it fades away,” says Kelly.

Elsewhere in West Africa, illiterate inventors reverse-engineered writing for languages spoken in Mali and Cameroon, whereas new writing programs are nonetheless being invented in Nigeria and Senegal. In response to the examine, Nigerian thinker Henry Ibekwe commented: “African indigenous scripts stay an enormous, untapped repository of semiotic and symbolic data. Many questions stay to be requested.”


Written by Conny Waters – Employees Author


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