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N'Ko script

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Script type
CreatorSolomana Kanté
Time period
DirectionRight-to-left script Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesNKo, Manding languages (Mandingo, Maninka,
Bambara, Dyula)
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Nkoo (165), ​N’Ko
Unicode alias
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

NKo (ߒߞߏ), also spelled N'Ko, is an alphabetic script devised by Solomana Kanté in 1949, as a modern writing system for the Manding languages of West Africa.[1][2] The term NKo, which means I say in all Manding languages, is also used for the Manding literary standard written in the NKo script.

The script has a few similarities to the Arabic script, notably its direction (right-to-left) and the letters that are connected at the base. Unlike Arabic, it is obligatory to mark both tone and vowels. NKo tones are marked as diacritics.


Grave of Solomana Kanté. The French at the bottom reads "Inventor of the N'Ko alphabet".

Kanté created NKo in response to erroneous beliefs that no indigenous African writing system existed, as well as to provide a better way to write Manding languages, which had for centuries been written predominantly in Ajami script, which was not perfectly suited to the tones unique to Mandé and common to many West African languages. A widely told story among NKo proponents is that Kanté was particularly challenged to create a distinct system when he, in Bouake, stumbled upon a book by a Lebanese author who dismissively equated African languages "like those of the birds, impossible to transcribe"[3] despite said Ajami history.[4] Kanté devised NKo as he was in Bingerville, Côte d'Ivoire and later brought to Kanté's natal region of Kankan, Guinea.[5]

NKo began to be used in many educational books when the script is believed to have been finalized[6] on April 14, 1949 (now NKo Alphabet Day);[7] Kanté had transcribed from religious to scientific and philosophical literature, even a dictionary.[8] These materials were given as gifts into other Manding-speaking parts of West Africa. The script received its first specially made typewriter from Eastern Europe back when Guinea had ties with the Soviet Union in the 1950s.[9]

The introduction of the script led to a movement promoting literacy in NKo among Mandé speakers in both Anglophone and Francophone West Africa. NKo literacy was instrumental in shaping the Maninka cultural identity in Guinea, and it has also strengthened the Manding identity in other parts of West Africa.[10]

Current use[edit]

Smartphone with a N'Ko class via WhatsApp

As of 2005, it was used mainly in Guinea and the Ivory Coast (respectively by Maninka and Dyula speakers), with an active user community in Mali (by Bambara speakers). Publications include a translation of the Quran, a variety of textbooks on subjects such as physics and geography, poetic and philosophical works, descriptions of traditional medicine, a dictionary, and several local newspapers. Though taught mostly informally through NKo literacy promotion associations, NKo has also been introduced more recently into formal education through private primary schools in Upper Guinea.[11] It has been classed as the most successful of the West African scripts.[12]

NKo literature generally uses a literary language register, termed kangbe (literally, 'clear language'), that is seen as a potential compromise dialect across Mandé languages.[13] For example, the word for 'name' in Bamanan is tɔgɔ and in Maninka it is tɔɔ. NKo has only one written word for 'name', but individuals read and pronounce the word in their own language. This literary register is thus intended as a koiné language blending elements of the principal Manding languages, which are mutually intelligible, but has a very strong Maninka influence.

There has also been documented use of NKo, with additional diacritics, for traditional religious publications in the Yoruba and Fon languages of Benin and southwestern Nigeria.[14]


The NKo script is written from right to left, with letters being connected to one another.


ɔ o u ɛ i e a
ߐ ߏ ߎ ߍ ߌ ߋ ߊ


r t d t͡ʃ d͡ʒ p b
ߙ ߕ ߘ ߗ ߖ ߔ ߓ
m g͡b l k f s rr
ߡ ߜ ߟ ߞ ߝ ߛ ߚ
ŋ h j w n ɲ
ߒ ߤ ߦ ߥ ߣ ߢ


NKo uses 7 diacritical marks to denote tonality and vowel length. Together with plain vowels, NKo distinguishes four tones: high, low, ascending, and descending; and two vowel lengths: long and short. Unmarked signs designate short, descending vowels.

high low rising falling
short ߫ ߬ ߭
long ߯ ߰ ߱ ߮

Non-native sounds and letters[edit]

NKo also provides a way of representing non-native sounds through the modification of its letters with diacritics.[15][16] These letters are used in transliterated names and loanwords.

Two dots above a vowel, resembling a diaeresis or umlaut mark, represent a foreign vowel: u-two-dots for the French /y/ sound, or e-two-dots for the French /ə/.

Diacritics are also placed above some consonant letters to cover sounds not found in Mandé, such as gb-dot for /g/; gb-line for /ɣ/; gb-two-dots for /k͡p/; f-dot for /v/; rr-dot for /ʁ/; etc.


NKo numerals use positional notation. Unlike both Western and Eastern Arabic numerals, digits decrease in significance from right to left.[17]

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
߀ ߁ ߂ ߃ ߄ ߅ ߆ ߇ ߈ ߉


With the increasing use of computers and the subsequent desire to provide universal access to information technology, the challenge arose of developing ways to use the NKo script on computers. From the 1990s onwards, there were efforts to develop fonts and even web content by adapting other software and fonts. A DOS word processor named Koma Kuda was developed by Prof. Baba Mamadi Diané from Cairo University.[18] However the lack of intercompatibility inherent in such solutions was a block to further development.


There is also a NKo version of Wikipedia in existence since 26 November 2019, it contains 1,504 articles, with 11,615 edits and 4,295 users.[19]


The NKo script was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0. Additional characters were added in 2018.

UNESCO's Programme Initiative B@bel supported preparing a proposal to encode NKo in Unicode. In 2004, the proposal, presented by three professors of NKo (Baba Mamadi Diané, Mamady Doumbouya, and Karamo Kaba Jammeh) working with Michael Everson, was approved for balloting by the ISO working group WG2. In 2006, NKo was approved for Unicode 5.0. The Unicode block for NKo is U+07C0–U+07FF:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+07Cx ߀ ߁ ߂ ߃ ߄ ߅ ߆ ߇ ߈ ߉ ߊ ߋ ߌ ߍ ߎ ߏ
U+07Dx ߐ ߑ ߒ ߓ ߔ ߕ ߖ ߗ ߘ ߙ ߚ ߛ ߜ ߝ ߞ ߟ
U+07Ex ߠ ߡ ߢ ߣ ߤ ߥ ߦ ߧ ߨ ߩ ߪ ߫ ߬ ߭ ߮ ߯
U+07Fx ߰ ߱ ߲ ߳ ߴ ߵ ߶ ߷ ߸ ߹ ߺ ߽ ߾ ߿
1.^ As of Unicode version 15.1
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points


  1. ^ Eberhard, David; Simons, Gary; Fennig, Charles, eds. (2019). "N'ko". Ethnoloque. Retrieved June 12, 2019.
  2. ^ Oyler, Dianne (Spring 2002). "Re-Inventing Oral Tradition: The Modern Epic of Souleymane Kanté". Research in African Literatures. 33 (1): 75–93. doi:10.1353/ral.2002.0034. JSTOR 3820930. OCLC 57936283. S2CID 162339606.
  3. ^ Oyler, Dianne White (2001). "A Cultural Revolution in Africa: Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 34 (3): 585–600. doi:10.2307/3097555. ISSN 0361-7882. JSTOR 3097555.
  4. ^ Donaldson, Coleman (2020). "The Role of Islam, Ajami writings, and educational reform in Sulemaana Kantè's N'ko". African Studies Review. 63 (3): 462–486. doi:10.1017/asr.2019.59. ISSN 0002-0206.
  5. ^ Oyler, Dianne White (January 1997). "The N'ko Alphabet as a Vehicle of Indigenist Historiography". History in Africa. 24: 239–256. doi:10.2307/3172028.
  6. ^ Oyler, Dianne White (November 2005). The History of N'ko and its Role in Mande Transnational Identity: Words as Weapons. Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-9653308-7-9.
  7. ^ • "N'Ko Alphabet Day". Any Day Guide. N'Ko Alphabet Day is celebrated on April 14 in some West African countries, where the Manding languages are spoken. It marks the anniversary of the date the alphabet is believed to have been finalized.
    • Garikayi, Tapiwanashe S. "Afrikan Fonts: The N'Ko Alphabet". nan.xyz. N'Ko started to be utilized in numerous instructive books when the script is believed to have been finalized on April 14, 1949 (presently N'Ko Alphabet Day)....
  8. ^ Oyler, Dianne White (2001). "A Cultural Revolution in Africa: Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence". The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 34 (3): 585–600. doi:10.2307/3097555. ISSN 0361-7882. JSTOR 3097555.
  9. ^ Rosenberg, Tina (9 December 2011). "Everyone Speaks Text Message". The New York Times Magazine. p. 20.
  10. ^ Oyler, Dianne White (1994) Mande identity through literacy, the N'ko writing system as an agent of cultural nationalism. Toronto: African Studies Association.
  11. ^ Wyrod, Christopher (January 2008). "A social orthography of identity: the NKo literacy movement in West Africa". International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 2008 (192). doi:10.1515/ijsl.2008.033. ISSN 0165-2516. S2CID 143142019.
  12. ^ Unseth, Peter. 2011. Invention of Scripts in West Africa for Ethnic Revitalization. In Fishman, Joshua; Garcia, Ofelia (2011). Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts (Volume 2). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-983799-1.
  13. ^ N'Ko Language Tutorial: Introduction
  14. ^ Agelogbagan Agbovi. "Gànhúmehàn Vodún - Living Sacred Text (completely in Fongbe and N'ko)". Kilombo Restoration & Healing. Kilombo Restoration and Healing.
  15. ^ Doumbouya, Mamady (2012). Illustrated English/N'Ko Alphabet: An introduction to N'Ko for English Speakers (PDF). Philadelphia, PA, USA: N'Ko Institute of America. p. 29.
  16. ^ Sogoba, Mia (June 1, 2018). "N'Ko Alphabet: a West African Script". Cultures of West Africa. Retrieved June 2, 2019.
  17. ^ https://www.afrikanistik-aegyptologie-online.de/archiv/2012/3553
  18. ^ Personal note from the LISA/Cairo conference, in Dec. 2005, Don Osborn
  19. ^ nqo:ߞߙߍߞߙߍߣߍ߲:Statistics

General sources[edit]

External links[edit]