Ńdébé : A Modern Ìgbò Script
July 14, 2020 8:28 AM   Subscribe

r/linguistics discussion with the author
posted by lalochezia at 9:05 AM on July 14 [5 favorites]

This is amazing and indeed very beautiful to look at. (And I think syllabaries are fantastic.) I hope she's really successful in this.

I'm super curious about how she built the consonants -- the chart doesn't seem sorted on anything I can see offhand. I am sure it was well-founded, I'm curious about what the foundation was (it is likely clear to Igbo speakers). Also why she decided to add numerals instead of using Arabic. The vowel system is so gorgeous.
posted by jeather at 9:27 AM on July 14

Oh, this is super interesting!

jeather, it looks like there's some articulation mapping going on, where you've got clusters of similar sounds across the rows (labials in the first, velars in the second, etc.), but I'm guessing some of that was complicated by wanting to capture the dialectal variation (if you've got a "nasals" class, do you put the n/l/y character with the nasals or not?).

In the reddit AMA she mentions changing the numbers as part of decolonizing the script and also getting back to a base 20 system.
posted by damayanti at 9:58 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]

Very cool. I wish her all the best getting it adopted. I wonder what the newest writing system currently in use is? I think probably Cherokee but unfortunately the Cherokee language itself is almost extinct with only a few thousand speakers left and many of them not literate in Cherokee.
posted by atrazine at 10:10 AM on July 14

It doesn't look very base 20 -- she's got 10/100/1000/10,000/etc.

So I saw the first is mostly labial, but even if we call W velar, labial shows up all over. And then you'd think columns would be sort of manner, and they don't seem to be. (This is wanting to know how things work, not an argument against how she did it.)

atrazine, Kanienke:ha (Mohawk) recently standardised their writing system (using Latin characters), and the Inuktitut syllabic (based on Objibwe and Cree) is quite recent.
posted by jeather at 10:22 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]

I don't know what the newest writing system currently in use is, but one contender might be the Inuktitut syllabics which were created in the 1870s. They are in active use, as are Cree Syllabics, which were created in the 1840s and were inspired by the Cherokee syllabary (created in the 1810s-20s).
posted by jb at 10:23 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]

I think syllabaries are beautiful too. I love trying to write english sentences in Hangul - I should try with Ńdébé! [edit - I should also try with Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics]

Inventing a new number system is a mistake though IMO. Lots of societies have abandoned their own number system in favour of arabic numerals because they work well, have an established math system, and the whole world already speaks the "language".
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:24 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]

One needn't look so far afield for (relatively) recent writing systems: among West African tonal languages, Momolu Duwalu Bukele invented the Vai syllabary in the 1830s and Solomana Kante finalized the N'Ko script in 1949.

This is very cool, and there is some very interesting discussion in the Reddit thread about the creator's reasons for restricting commercial use of the script at this stage.
posted by Not A Thing at 10:25 AM on July 14

I was also surprised to see the commercial restrictions, because it seems like nobody should own a writing system, but the creator's reasoning makes sense and it doesn't seem like the goal is to extract economic rents or anything like that. Just prevent weird scams, and also control the timing for presenting this to Unicode and other organizations.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:28 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]

The concept reminds me a lot of Hangul, with the assembly of syllables from parts which individually describe (to some extent) the underlying phoneme. I like the economy of design in Hangul; this is more complicated but a lot of it seems to be born of necessity in expressing the variety of significant sounds in Igbo.

The numbering system seems like a solution in search of a problem though. Consistent and meaningful orthography is a big deal for writing words, but not so much for numbers---Indo-Arabic numbers are pretty unambiguously comprehensible wherever you go.
posted by jackbishop at 10:36 AM on July 14 [2 favorites]

Ah, she does mention the stem groupings in the reddit AMA--they are broadly phone based.

"Each type of stem is a loose grouping of phonologically similar sounds. It's not 100% guaranteed they must be similar, but it's generally guaranteed.

So the Double cross stem has B, P, Gb, etc all similar bilabial plosives"

It looks like one is a bilabial stops; row two, velar stops, row three looks like mostly sonorant/voiced alveolars, rows four and five looks like fricatices/affricates assuming that J is a voiced affricate, and row six, some remaining sonorants. A lot of the exceptions are the consonants that show dialectal variation (so B/V, P/F, B/W aren't in the top row).
posted by damayanti at 10:37 AM on July 14

Inventing a new number system is a mistake though IMO. Lots of societies have abandoned their own number system in favour of arabic numerals because they work well, have an established math system, and the whole world already speaks the "language".

Well, the failure case is just that people adopt the writing but not the number system, right? So no harm in making it complete even if you know that probably it won't be adopted widely.

I agree that they're less like to be adopted, given that in the countries of the Arabian peninsula, Iran, and Afghanistan the Western Arabic numerals (which is the ones used almost everywhere and which derive from the numbers used in North Africa) are displacing the Eastern Arabic numerals. In my experience, even people for whom preservation of Arabic language culture is super important and who have strong views even about their children's Arabic being too Egyptian or Lebanese flavoured don't really care about the Eastern Arabic numbers.

I would guess that a slightly larger set of symbols which unambiguously match 1:1 to phonology is much easier to learn than a smaller set which don't.

I mean, Latin letters and traditional orthography isn't well suited to English and we know it makes it much more difficult to learn. If you study adult literacy, you do find that adult Spanish speakers become literate faster than adult English speakers. As a result, you "learn" the letters of English very quickly but take much longer to really be able to sight read it.
posted by atrazine at 10:46 AM on July 14 [3 favorites]

Right, she talks about how because the Latin alphabet doesn't easily code tone, people leave off tone marks all the time, and then start to get confused about which tones to use. So a writing system that necessarily encodes tone would help in both directions. There aren't really that many symbols to memorise -- you've got 10 vowels, 3 tone patterns to overlay on the vowels, and 42 consonants. English has 26 letters, but two forms of each, essentially the same number of symbols to memorise.
posted by jeather at 10:53 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]

This writing system reminded me a bit of the Amharic writing system which similarly has these kinds of consonant root and vowel modifier graphemes. This is also where I learned of the word abugida, which I had never heard of before today.
posted by mhum at 12:29 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]

Adlam was invented in the late 1980s and recently earned its own Unicode block. I think the bigger hurdle to getting it into Unicode is showing that people really do use it. I remember the Adlam proposal having photos of signs in Adlam, schoolrooms with charts of the letters, written primers, stuff like that. It took a good 20-odd years from the writing system's invention until it had spread wide enough to get the proposal accepted. I think Ńdébé is capable of getting there, but it won't happen overnight.
posted by wanderingmind at 1:46 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]

Really interesting. Also very much appreciated Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún's explainer on Popula, and their text-to-speech Yoruba tool. As they explained, since the tones are the most precise and reproducible aspect of a words pronunciation the computer converts tone indicators into sound very well indeed. Better than it handles other aspects of how humans articulate words, but we more or less know what vowels and syllables sound like already and info about tones is essential for learning these languages.
posted by glasseyes at 1:49 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]

this is super cool!
posted by supermedusa at 3:22 PM on July 14

How do users of syllabic scripts cope with introduced words that are outside the scope of the script, and, in the long term, with changes in pronunciation? Users of alphabetic scripts memorise a whole lot of conventions, and I imagine syllabic script users might do the same, but with alphabetic scripts the assumption that a word's spelling accurately reflects its pronunciation isn't so strong.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:30 PM on July 14

Most languages will just change the pronunciation of a borrowed word to fit the local phonology (see, and I know there are some issues with this just bear in mind, Mele Kalikimaka, for Hawaiian which has very restrictive phonolgy -- it's a well known example, but one of many), English is a weird outlier on this front, other alphabets (or other languages which use the Latin alphabet) are much more sane.

I'm not sure how syllabics deal with long term pronunciation change -- it seems they just sort of verge off over time (based on some google research), but I also wonder if mass literacy would affect that in the other direction.
posted by jeather at 6:54 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]

Another recent alphabet is Lushotseed, created in the 1960's.
posted by bashing rocks together at 7:24 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]

What great work! The regularity of the whole construction is immensely pleasing.
posted by Jpfed at 7:39 PM on July 14

Most languages will just change the pronunciation of a borrowed word to fit the local phonology

My mother has written out speeches for herself to be given in the English language using Devanagari script - she found it easier to set up the correct pronunciation with the variety of matras for various vowel sounds and the wider range of consonants. My cousin's wife used Devanagari to capture the accurate pronounciation of various Finnish and Norwegian words for their road trip last year. I find being fluent in English gets in the way of learning how to pronounce Finnish words as my brain seeks to interpret the roman letters in the way I was taught for the english language. Sadly I have the skill level of a 7 year old in Devanagari and can't use it as flexibly and robustly as my family is able to do to capture a wider range of intonations and sounds.
posted by infini at 2:16 AM on July 15 [5 favorites]

English is a weird outlier on this front

I always found it fascinating, historically it seemed to be coming from a place of low self-esteem (eg when English wasn't even considered a respectable science or literary language in Europe) and then as it became more of a colonising language it's transitioned to an expression of confidence but at all times it's served as a class signifier ie what it says about a person that you know such and such foreign word.

Mind you, I come to this conclusion having to experience the whole project of cultivating a post-colonial national identity through language. Malay used to be a syllabary back when it was written in Arabic script (and I believe our indigenous and Sanskrit-adapted scripts as well) then alphabetical now we're in romanised script, but in all cases the civilising urge is to adjust the loan word to fit the phonology. only lately I'm seeing a pushback and I reckon it must be because for most of us, the only other language we know well collectively in the same script is English, and we seem to be culturally moving into, 'either find a translation or take the word wholesale' because we find adaptation to local phonology bizarre.

OTOH this absolutely generates no controversy in our other languages with non-roman scripts, most if not all are syllabaries or logographic systems ie the Chinese languages. Ppl do go on and adapt foreign words into local phonological spellings. We already think it's different so it's just a matter of course. I only know basic Japanese, and I notice the same as well.
posted by cendawanita at 3:15 AM on July 15 [4 favorites]

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