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When someone mentions “invented writing systems,” you might first think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish and Dwarven, Star Trek’s Klingon, or—if you have more of a literary bent—George Bernard Shaw’s Shavian phonetic alphabet. Even established writing systems for real-world languages (or “scripts,” to use the technical term) were once an invention and evolved afterward. But we often don’t know the story of these ancient systems the way we know about Klingon.

This is the tale of two such recently constructed scripts—Amma of Sri Lanka, invented just two years ago, and West Africa’s Adlam, on the verge of becoming mainstream after 26 years. Both scripts have served as cultural ambassadors, by creating mutual understanding among ethnic groups or inspiring linguistic pride.

Sri Lanka, the birthplace of Amma, needed a common language. The country was riven by civil war for more than 25 years, ending in 2009 with the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers by Sinhalese-majority government forces. Some have labeled both the civil war and previous government policies as genocidal against the Tamil minority, but allegations of massive war crimes have been made against both sides. 

Against this backdrop, Pathum Egodawatta unveiled Amma—not just a new font, but actually an entirely new writing system. It ambitiously attempts to be midway bet­ween the Sinhala and Tamil writing systems, mutu­ally intelligible to the readers from these two formerly feuding families while not being the same as either. To the people of Sri Lanka it is a surprising idea, about as likely as a genetically engineered crossbreed between a cat and a dog—yet it seems to be gaining traction. Not for general use, perhaps, but it’s under consideration for select Sri Lankan signage.

It’s all in the family. The Sinhala and Tamil letterforms share similarities because they both descended from the Brahmi script of ancient India. The newborn Amma forms a hybrid between the two letterforms.

As you can see in the chart above, the Sinhala and Tamil letter­forms always have some slight, distant relationship, which enabled Egodawatta to create Amma. This is because, like all the major languages of India except English, they are both descendants of the same ancestral writing system: the Brahmi script of ancient India (as are Thai, Tibetan and Old Javanese, among others). However, they reached their divergent present forms many centuries ago.

Egodawatta created Amma under the name “Other Letter,” for his final-year professional collaboration module in Northumbria University’s bachelor’s of graphic design at the Academy of Design, Colombo, Sri Lanka. He first presented it in the United Kingdom in July 2013 and then in March 2014 at India’s Typography Day confer­ence. His was the only Typo Day talk that received a standing ovation from the audience.

They adored his message, that a script has the power to unite former enemies. “After 30 years of bitter war, hearts are broken and distrust is everywhere,” Egodawatta said. “This project is a simple message about harmony.” Too often, Sinhala alone is used even in Tamil-majority areas. Amma could be used instead, in places where language creates a feeling of “otherness.” To that end, he has made mockups of signage and labeling in Amma instead of Sinhala or bilingual signs. He hopes to give speakers of both languages a sense of belonging.  

Despite the enthusiastic reception of the idea from some in the region, it’s unlikely that Sinhala and Tamil would merge into a single Amma writing system that would completely replace its forebears. Yet it may have a future as a symbol of unity, reconciliation and progress.

While Amma is only two years old, another new writing system, Adlam, has been around for 26 years and continues to gain traction—despite initial government opposition. Created as a more accurate written representation of the dialects variously known as Fulfulde, Fulani, Fula and Pulaar, its intended readers and writers include some 40 million people in West and Central Africa, about a third of whom are nomadic.

Guinea is the only country where the Fulfulde-speaking Fulani people are the largest single group (albeit still not a majority). However, even in Guinea, the Fulani are a politically marginalized group, primarily aligned with an opposition party, and President Condé is from the second-largest ethnic group, the Malinké.

Enter Adlam, which was invented in 1989 by two brothers, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry, in the town of N’Zérékoré, Guinea, West Africa. Before that, Fulfulde had been written primarily in Arabic and sometimes in Latin (the writing system you’re reading now, used for English, French, Turkish, etc.). But the language requires some obscure hooked letters not found in many Latin fonts. 

When the Fula people converted to Islam centuries ago, they adopted Arabic writing. However, many sounds in Fulfulde have no direct representation in Arabic. Worse, each country or region tended to have its own approach to writing the Fula language in Arabic, as they also did with Latin.

An averaging of other letterforms, Amma is a more universal script for Sri Lankans. Here, Amma replaces a label for food aid to reach a broader population (left). Ibrahima Barry’s recent drawing of Adlam (right) reveals the influence of his United States calligraphy classes with a Western-style pen angle, at 30- to 45-degrees, rather than the varying Arabic angle.

Thus no standard approach for representing Fulfulde in Arabic has ever been developed, and spelling varies as well. The Barry brothers were so talented at reading Fulfulde-Arabic that their father asked them to read incoming letters aloud—when before, he had been the go-to reader for everyone in their town. Yet they describe reading Fulfulde in Arabic as “a guessing game,” and from this frustration, Abdoulaye realized they should develop their own alphabet. The brothers promised their father that they would create such an alphabet for the Fulani people, to make reading and com­muni­cation easier. Two weeks later, they had a working first draft of what would become Adlam.

The formal name “Adlam” not only is based on the first four letters of its alphabet (ADLM), but also is an acronym for the Fula phrase Alkule Dandaydhe Leñol am Mulugol—“The Alphabet that Protects My People from Vanishing.” The system devised by the Barry brothers has 28 letters and combines elements of Latin and Arabic. 

“We chose to write from right to left because of how important this is in the Fulbhe culture, which is heavily influenced by the Islamic and Arabic culture,” write the Barrys on windenjangen.org. However, instead of consonants plus diacritical marks as in Arabic, the system includes consonants and vowels as in French or English. Like Arabic, letters can take positional forms at the beginning, middle or end of a word or by themselves—though unlike Arabic, the positional forms are optional. Like Latin, letters have uppercase and lowercase forms—although these are also optional.

The brothers and their father started translating books into Adlam, and they created a nonprofit organization to teach people how to read and write the new script: Winden Jangen Adlam (Write and Read Adlam). “I started working with people, teaching them how to read and write in Fulani,” Ibrahima said at a speech at the International Lettering Arts Conference, “and as this written aspect of familiar sounds dawned on them, they often started crying. … And they were so happy I decided I would continue to do this because I was making a change in their lives.” 

Abdoulaye moved to the United States in 2003 to pursue a master’s degree and to make money to promote their new writing system. With Adlam-based schools in five African countries and support from the New York Fulani community, Adlam began to gain momentum. Fonts were created, and a keyboard driver to work with them.

But Adlam adoption has been by no means smooth or without controversy. Even within the Fula community, some people opposed the idea. In the Barrys’ native Guinea, the official language is French, with Arabic as a secondary language. But in a country torn apart by ethnic and linguistic tribal tensions—subject to coups and lacking in political freedoms—publishing newspapers and books that govern­ment officials couldn’t read has caused legal problems. Ibrahima was jailed for three months in Guinea allegedly for organizing a student protest, though he suspects he was arrested for distributing Fulani literature. He left the country after he was released.

But that hasn’t stopped the brothers or the Adlam story. They continue to finance Adlam development and education, albeit now in the United States, where they are working and attending college. A calligraphy class helped Ibrahima further refine the design of Adlam, followed by a type design work­shop. The classes inspired him to ask me if I would be willing to create new Adlam fonts (yes, in principle: I hope to do a tiered proposal and budget with my colleagues at Tiro Typeworks). The writing system is even slated to get its own codepoints in Unicode 9.0 next year, which will allow Adlam fonts to flourish without having to “pretend” the text is Arabic. With hundreds of teachers and learning centers, Adlam is helping reverse a previously increasing trend of the people not knowing their own ethnic language, let alone how to write it.

It’s not all that simple, of course. Adlam support needs to be built into computer operating systems. All this will take time. But from Amma and Adlam, it’s readily apparent that even in our shrinking world, there are still worthwhile reasons to invent new writing systems, whether it’s to encourage peace and reconciliation or to keep a dying language alive. ca

You can support Adlam with donations via PayPal to windenjangen@windenjangen.org. 

Recently somebody asked me, “Why are there are so many writing systems, anyway?” Actually, I said, the surprise is more that there are so few! Many languages have adopted preexisting writing systems, but these are not always adequate to represent the sounds of the language—which is why we see so many diacritical marks, or accents, in non-English languages written with the Latin alphabet. 

Adopting a writing system usually has political implications as well as the more obvious social and cultural ones. For example, numerous former Soviet satellite countries switched (or reverted) to Latin from Cyrillic after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kazakh was written in Arabic until 1929, then Latin until 1940 and Cyrillic ever since. But Kazakhstan is now debating a switch back to Latin. 

If a language has no written form, the writing system that is first promoted, whether newly constructed or preexisting, is likely to take hold. It beats not writing at all. We’ve seen this in the West with Cherokee and Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics, for example. But when some kind of writing is already in place, most newly constructed scripts never achieve wide adoption without a strong central law—or it may happen remarkably slowly. 

For example, Korean Hangul was invented at the behest of Sejong the Great in early 1444. But the literate elite resisted switching away from the Chinese characters previously used to write Korean. After many ups and downs, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that Hangul became dominant in Korea, along with general literacy.

Thomas Phinney is a type designer who has made fonts for Google and Adobe, and is proprietor of Font Detective LLC, where he investigates forged documents involving fonts that did not yet exist, and other actual crimes against typography. He has been cited on font forensics in media from The Washington Post to the BBC; consulted by organizations ranging from PBS to the US Treasury; and given sworn affidavits in at least six countries. Phinney was on the board of ATypI from 2004–2020. Previously, he was chief executive officer of FontLab and a product manager at Extensis and Adobe. Phinney has an MS in printing from the Rochester Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley.


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