In the early 19th century, a small group of Liberians invented a way to write the Vai language. Instead of copying Roman or Arabic letters, as has happened with most languages written for the first time in recent times, they invented their own script. This created a rare instance where linguists can trace the entire history of a written script. Evolution could settle a debate between theories about how Egyptian hieroglyphs evolved into the letters we use today.
The ancestry of our modern letters goes back to the walls of ancient Egypt. Even more famously, our letter A would come from the head of an ox drawn by the Egyptians via a Phoenician symbol and the Greek alpha. However, there are at least two theories as to how this happens. “There is a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from images into abstract signs. But there are also a lot of abstract letterforms in the early scripts,” said Dr Piers Kelly from the University of New England (Australia) in a declaration.
Kelly thought it would be useful to compare the evolution of a scenario whose entire history is documented. In Current anthropology, Kelly and his co-authors trace the development of Vai language writing from the 1830s to the present day.
The Vai language is spoken by approximately 100,000 people in Liberia, as well as smaller numbers in neighboring Sierra Leone and emigrant communities around the world. Until at least 1800 it appears to have been entirely oral, with no written script.
As former American slaves established their presence in what became Liberia, Vai speakers became more exposed to the usefulness of writing. However, where speakers of most other African languages took the letters from European or Semitic scripts to record their speech, the Vai created their own. Some attribute the invention to a single genius Momolu Duwalu Bukele, others to a small group, but in all cases the letters spread among Vai speakers and remain in widespread use today.
The Vai symbols in modern use are not the same as those in our oldest records in 1834 (although some believe the language to be decades older).
“Because of its isolation and the way it has continued to develop to the present day, we thought it might tell us something important about how writing evolves over short spans of time. time,” Kelly said. “We predicted…that the panels will start out relatively complex and then become simpler for new generations of writers and readers.”
This is indeed what Kelly and her co-authors found. The early letters Vai were inspired, supposedly in dreams, by traditional emblems or intended to represent people such as a pregnant woman and a chained slave. As generations learned to draw them, they became simpler and simpler, in an accelerated version of what we see with ancient languages.
“Visual complexity is useful if you’re creating a new writing system. You generate more clues and greater contrasts between signs, which helps illiterate learners,” Kelly said. “This complexity later hinders effective reading and reproduction, so it fades.”
Kelly is now studying how the Australian Indigenous message sticks challenge the idea that the extended continent had no written language before colonization.