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African Writing (3200 BC – 1500 AD)

9 African writing systems which predate Latin; and 15 writing systems which predate Modern English.

African Writing Systems

There are fifteen African writing systems that predate English, yet ask around if Africa had writing before colonization and some people are likely to deny that Africa had any writing systems before 1500 AD. Not many people know that there are even African writing systems that predate Latin.

Latin is one of the oldest languages in the world and seen as one of the great inventions of the Romans, and a sign of their cultural progress. However, what most people don’t know is that there are many African writing systems that pre-date Latin. These people often claim that Europe is civilized as it developed writing before the Africans. However, this is blatantly wrong, as there are nine African writing systems that predate the development of Latin itself, which is seen as the oldest writing system currently still in existence in Europe. There are fifteen African writing systems that predate English, showing just how ancient the art of writing is in Africa. Let’s first look at some of the writing systems that sprang up in Europe.

History of English

Modern English only started developing in the 17th century AD. Before that, a variant of English known as Middle English was in vogue. It was quite different from modern English, such that a text written in Middle English would be almost indecipherable to most people today. Middle English came from Old English, but it was more regional, with great differences in writing conventions, depending on geography. The system of inflection was made much easier in Middle English, however, the structure of sentences and many words would today be considered archaic. An old work in Middle English known as Cantebury Tales still survives to this day.

English itself is a mixture of French, Latin and Greek which was brought over by the Anglo Saxons when they invaded the Island.

Before English

Older than Middle English and Old English is Ogham. Ogham is an old Irish language, and greatly resembles Runic, which is a Phoenician script. It has been argued that the earliest inscriptions in Ogham are from around the 4th century AD. However, historian James Carney believed its origin is nearer the 1st century BC. From historical records, it seems that the use of “classical” ogham in stone inscriptions that have been found seem to have been made in the 5th and 6th centuries of the Common Era (CE) around the Irish Sea. However, from the phonological evidence, we can say that the alphabet predates the 5th century, and that it is likely to be near the 1st century BC.

When the writing came into being, it seems that a period of writing on wood or other material that is perishable was also in vogue, meaning that some of the evidence of early Ogham is no longer available. The earliest ones we do have are thus a few hundred years after the language came into common use.

Runic

There was also a Western European script known as Runic. Runic is an old language which was in vogue in many parts of Germany, Denmark and Sweden. It can be dated by the analyzing Runic inscriptions from the 400-year period covering 150 AD to 550 AD. These are usually described as “Period I” of Runic.

What is found is that these Runic inscriptions are generally in Elder Futhark. However, what is interesting is that the set of letter shapes and bind runes that are used in this manuscript are noticeably different and not really standardized.

In the Kylver Stone, which is dated to 400 AD, the j, s, and ŋ runes undergo considerable modifications. However, the letters p and ï remain unattested on the same stone. Artifacts such as spear heads or shield mounts have been found that bear runic marking that may be dated to 200 AD, showing how ancient the language truly is.

French and Latin

Old French is dated back to the 9th century. The Canticle of Saint Eulalie, written in the second half of the 9th century, is generally accepted as the first such text. French itself is based on Latin, as are most European languages. France was conquered by the Gauls, and over time, their language changed to French from Latin.

Latin itself dates back to 600 BCE, and is seen as one of the greatest achievements of the Romans, and a sign of their civilization. However, this language itself is predated by about 9 different African languages. Thus, the Roman Empire, far from being advanced for its time by inventing a standardized language, was instead far behind many ancient African Empires who had developed a writing system, far before those in Europe had any idea of developing one.

Etruscan

The Etruscans are an Italian civilization based in Tuscany. Their language has never truly been deciphered, and their origins are highly disputed. The language dates to around 700 BCE, which makes it one of the oldest languages. However, the Etruscans are not Europeans, as they trace their roots to Turkey, not Italy. As such, their language, which is also predated by many African languages, is not a truly European language.

Indo-European languages

Many historians erroneously lump the Sumerians into Europe. However, the Sumerians would never truly consider themselves European. They were from the Fertile Crescent, and had no relationship with Europe at all, until the Romans themselves would conquer some parts of the Middle East. More specifically, the Sumerians had no contact with the Europeans in the period in which Sumerian came into being. This means that African writing systems far predate any European Writing system.

Other historians try to group Indian and European languages together, citing linguistic similarities. However, this is a ludicrous claim as these languages have no common history, while Europe and Africa in fact, have many common threads in the development of their languages, such as the interaction of the Roman and the Carthage Empires, and the many wars that resulted due to them. This is also done to try to paint a richer history of European languages than was really the case.

Fifteen Ancient African Writing Systems

Now that it has been established that Europe’s oldest language system dates back to between 700 BCE and 750 BCE, if you consider the Etruscans, we now look at the African writing systems that predate it and Latin. There are nine of these and each one of them were very well developed. We will look at the fifteen forms of Ancient African Writing systems that far predate English too, and each of these have a rich history.

Hieroglyphs

Egyptian Hieroglyphs are the formal writing system that was used in Ancient Egypt. The Hieroglyphs were a well-developed language with over 1000 characters that are distinct from each other. The cursive form of these hieroglyphs would be used for sacred texts. From studying the ancient Egyptian Empire, it seems that the language comes from around the 32nd Century BC, which far predates any European Writing system. The earliest manuscript that we still have available which we can decipher comes from around the 28th century BC. Over time, it would mature into a writing system which would include about 900 writing signs. They emerged from the artistic traditions of Egypt, which predated any attempt at writing. Writing developed independently in Egypt, and was used for the writing of sacred texts, and also to carry out governmental tasks. Deciphering Hieroglyphs today remains a challenge. The direction of the language is from right to left.

Hieratic

The Hieroglyphs would evolve into Hieratic, which is another ancient African writing system. It too can be dated back to the 32nd century BCE. It was the principal script that would be used in Ancient Egypt until the 1st century BCE, with most writing found done with a reed pen on a papyrus script. The word derives from the Greek word for priestly writing. It developed as a cursive form of the Hieroglyphic script that had come into existence around that time period.

Thus, Hieratic was mostly used for administrative documents and legal texts, while Hieroglyphic Scripts were mostly used for sacred writing, and in religious texts. Therefore, it was much more important in daily life for the Egyptians and was the first writing system that was taught to students in Egypt. The direction of Hieratic is also from right to left.

Hieratic itself had slight differences in the North and South of the Egyptian Empire.

Demotic

Demotic is a script derived from Hieratic itself, more specifically, the Northern form of Hieratic practiced near the Nile Delta. It has three stages of development, early, middle and late Demotic. It is written from right to left and was used exclusively for document writing.

Early Demotic, which has been often referred to by the German term Frühdemotisch, developed in Lower Egypt around the Nile Delta during the later part of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. It was particularly found on steles from the Serapeum at Saqqara, where it was in practice. The language is generally dated between 650 and 400 BCE, as most texts written in Early Demotic are dated to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty and the subsequent rule as a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire, which was known as the Twenty-seventh Dynasty. It was the official administrative and legal text, while hieroglyphic and Hieratic was used for religious and literary texts.

It was in the Middle Period that Demotic held a higher status and was used increasingly for religious and literary texts as well. This evolving of the language was due to the change in the conditions of the Egyptian Empire.

Sahidic

Sahidic is the dialect in which most Coptic texts are written. It was the leading dialect in Egypt in the pre-Islamic period. It is thought to have originated in Hermopolis, which is between lower and upper Egypt. The historic evidence of Sahidic starts from around 300 AD, when it began to be written in literary form. This includes translations of major portions of the Bible, and many Coptic versions of the Bible are still available.

By the 6th century, the language had been standardized to such an extent that spelling was standardized throughout Egypt. Almost all native authors of Egypt wrote in this dialect of Coptic. Sahidic fell into decline around the 9th century, challenged by Bohairic, but is attested as late as the 14th century.

Meroitic Language

The Meroitic script came into existence around 2000 BCE, and had two forms. It was derived from both Demotic & Hieroglyphs; and was written from right to left. The two forms of Meroitic were the Cursive and the Hieroglyphic forms of the language. The cursive form of the language was used primarily for administrative tasks and especially with regards to keeping records. The Hieroglyphic form of the script was used for religious and royal tasks, especially with regards to writing sacred manuscripts. These were usually carved into stone, and are poorly understood even today.

Attestations of Meroitic in Egyptian texts span across many eras, from the Egyptian Middle period to the Roman periods. The Meroitic toponym are shown to be attested as early as 2000 BCE, making it one of the oldest languages in the world. Names and phrases in the Meroitic script appear in the New Kingdom Books of the Dead, especially in the Nubian chapters which relate to the casting of “spells”.

Coptic

The Coptic alphabet has a varied and interesting history, going back all the way to the Hellenistic period. It was in this period that it used the Greek alphabet to transcribe Demotic texts. The aim of this was to record the correct pronunciation of Demotic.

It was in the starting two centuries of the Common Era that an entire series of supposedly magical texts were written in Old Coptic. Coptic is an Egyptian language which is derived from Demotic. With the spread of Christianity in Egypt, Hieroglyphic and Demotic texts were forgotten, making way for a new style of writing which was closely aligned with the Church. A century later, the Coptic alphabet was “standardized”.

Archaic Hebrew

Archaic Hebrew, which is the Ancient form of Hebrew used in the Holy Bible, is also an African tongue, primarily used in the area known as Israel, in the period immediately after the exodus, after the Israelites had spent between 250 and 400 years in Egypt. Archiac Hebrew is attested to at least around the 10th century BCE, and spoken Hebrew persisted to at least 70 AD. The Hebrews adopted the Phoenician alphabet, and thus Archaic Hebrew was born.

Ge’ez script

The Ge’ez script is an abugida. It was developed in the Horn of Africa around the 8th century BC and was used for writing the Ge’ez language. It is still in existence today and is used widely in Ethiopia and Eritrea for Amharic, Tigrinya, and several other languages. It is also called Ethiopic by some, and is known in Ethiopia as the fidel.

Nsibidi writing

Nsibidi is a system of symbols that is indigenous to southeastern Nigeria. It is an ideographic script. However, it also includes a few logographic elements. The symbols of the language are at least several centuries old, and early forms have appeared on excavated pottery giving us a range of dates from 400 CE to around 1400 CE

Punic

The Punic language is a Mediterranean language that came into being around 800 BCE and went extinct around 200 BCE. Its alphabet system is known as the Phoenician alphabet, and heavily influenced Greek, Arabic and Latin both directly, and through Linear A and Linear B. The Carthaginian dialect of the Phoenician alphabet is called Punic. It was heavily spoken in the Carthaginian Empire, until its destruction.

Ajami scripts

Ajami is the use of Arabic alphabet for writing down some African languages, especially those of Hausa and Swahili. Many other African languages have been written using this script. The term Ajami itself comes from the Arabic root word for stranger or foreigner. It came into existence after 700 AD.

It is considered as an Arabic-derived African writing system. African languages often involve phonetic sounds and systems which are vastly different from those found in Arabic language. Due to this, it has often been the case that adaptions of the Arabic script are needed to transcript these sounds. This is similar to what was done with the Arabic script in the Non-Arab countries where Islam spread.

One example of this is the West African language Hausa. This is a language that has been written using Ajami, especially during the period before colonization where the Qur’an was taught in schools to Muslim children, and by extension, Ajami was also taught. When Westerners adopted Latin for the Hausa system Ajami went into decline.

Wolofal

Wolofal is a derived from the Arabic script and is used exclusively to write the Wolof language. It is another West African form of Ajami and was used first in Senegal around 700 AD for writing the Wolof language. Nowadays, the Latin alphabet is used as the official script for this language in Senegal, however, many people still use it as it considered a symbol of the Islamic culture that is in existence there. This is similar to how Ajami with the Arabic script is still used in other areas where Islam is dominant.

Gicandi symbols

The Gicandi symbols are a script used by the Kikuyu in Kenya and has been used since around 3000 BCE. These symbols were used to write manuscripts, and remain indecipherable.

Proto-writing

Proto-writing refers to the use of visible marks, and can be used to transmit limited information. Some of the oldest known forms of writing are the “Proto Saharan” near the Kharga oasis west of so-called “Nubia” that date to at least 5000 BC. These are divine writings that are under the image of the God Seth.

Medu Neter, which is also known as the tongue of the Gods is another form of Proto-Writing that was found in Africa, and more specifically in Egypt and can be dated to at least 4000 BCE.

The Kingdom of Luba was a powerful Kingdom that held immense power over Central Africa, and is a interesting example of African proto-writing history. Their greatest contribution has to be the Lukasa, a memory device capable of recounting history, while also being dynamic. In contrast to books, this artistic mnemonic device can be read in a variety of ways, and is one of the most novel ways of transmitting history that the world has seen.

Somali Hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs have been found in the Laas Geel complex in Somaliland. These are independent from the form of Hieroglyphic script found in Egypt, and these have yet to be deciphered.

Conclusion

Africa has a rich history of writing, far predating that of Europe. It has had many complex writing systems since before Europeans colonized Africa, and thus African civilization has had a great culture for thousands of years. This has been ignored, despite African languages appearing centuries before Latin. From proto writing to Hieroglyphic writing to writing with characters and a script, Africa has a rich linguistic history that has been often ignored. It is time the world started looking into the history of writing in Africa, rather than remain in ignorance.

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