Language, script and symbol in West Africa
West Africa is home to well over 1,000 languages. On a daily basis, one person may communicate in many languages: their mother tongue; other African languages; languages introduced from outside West Africa such as English, French and Arabic; and pidgins or creoles, which developed from the mixing of external (usually European) languages with local languages.
Map of West Africa
This map shows the countries and rivers of West Africa in 2015.View images from this item (1)
The most important for the region is the Niger-Congo family. This includes the Mande languages of Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – some 10-12 million speakers – as well as the languages of the Atlantic Coast such as Fulfulde and Wolof, which have several million speakers. Yoruba and Igbo, two of the major languages of Nigeria, also belong to the Niger-Congo grouping.
This book is an early dictionary, giving words in about 160 West African languages. It illustrates the linguistic diversity of the region.View images from this item (2)
To this brief summary should be added Arabic, which was introduced to West Africa with Islam in the 8th and 9th centuries and is also an Afroasiatic language. French, English and Portuguese were all introduced by European colonising powers and are widely used today, and a variety of Pidgin and Creole languages also flourish. Nigerian Pidgin was the language the Nigerian Afrobeat star Fela Kuti used in his songs, in order to communicate with ordinary people.
The importance and antiquity of writing in Africa is not well known. As one scholar puts it, ‘Africa’s contribution to the art and science of writing has gone largely unrecognised in the annals of history.’2 Yet writing – in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphs – emerged in Africa from the 4th century BCE. In Ethiopia, the Ethiopic script was developed in the 4th century CE, and in Sudan the Meroïtic script was created about 180 BCE.
The Tifinagh script is of particular importance for West Africa. It was created by speakers of Berber languages, living in and around the Sahara Desert, at least 2,000 years ago, and is known to have been in use south of the Sahara at least 1,500 years ago. Large collections of rock inscriptions in this script survive in countries including Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and Libya. A modern version of this writing system is still widely in use today.
Mask with 'nsibidi' symbols
Mask from south-eastern Nigeria showing nsibidi symbolsView images from this item (1)
Usage terms © British Museum. Donated by Percy Amaury Talbot
Held by© The British Museum
There are other visual methods of communication which may go back hundreds of years, although it is usually impossible to date their origins. Pictographic systems developed in various places in West Africa, for example in the regions that are now Mali and Liberia. The àrokò messaging system was used among Yoruba-speakers in Nigeria to send letters over long distances (often confidentially). These letters were made from materials such as cowrie-shells and seeds and their meaning was deduced from factors such as the position of each item in a message string, or even, as Karin Barber writes, puns in the Yoruba language. Sending a comb to someone meant a separation or break-up, because the Yoruba word for a comb is òòyà, and the verb yà means to part.4
Letter of peace and goodwill
This letter, made of cowrie shells and seeds, is a message of peace and goodwill in the àrokò messaging system of Nigeria.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms © Pitt Rivers Museum; University of Oxford
Held by© Pitt Rivers Museum and University of Oxford
Symbols such as adinkra were of vital importance to the exercise of royal power in the Kingdom of Asante, Ghana.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms Copyright held by Government of Ghana.
Crocodile gold weight
This tiny weight, made for weighing gold dust, can indicate either conflict or cooperation.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms © British Museum. Donated by T R O Mangin
Held by© The British Museum
From the 19th century, West African writers, linguists and translators made use of the printing press and the roman script brought by Europeans to translate the Bible and to call for political change. For more on these developments, see the Spirit and Speaking Out articles.
The ‘Ājūrrūmiyya’, a work on Arabic grammar
This is a copy of a major work on Arabic grammar. It was made by scribes in West Africa, who added learned notes to the original text.View images from this item (1)
In Liberia and Sierra Leone, five scripts were invented, mainly for Mande languages, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The oldest is Vai, created by Mọmọlu Duwalu Bukẹlẹ in the early 19th century, possibly using an earlier pictographic system as inspiration. Of these five, the Vai and Mende scripts are still in wide use today. In the 20th century, among the most successful new scripts is N’ko, created in Guinea around 1947.6
Documents showing the Vai script
This document is written in the Vai script of Liberia, invented in the early 19th century.View images from this item (3)
It is not just through visual signs and scripts that West Africans communicate over long distances or express complex meanings. Symbols and coded messages are heard as well as seen. Many of the languages of West Africa are tonal, and pitch and inflection are used to create different meanings or grammatical distinctions. The use of musical instruments - such as whistles, trumpets and drums - in place of speech is a major part of West Africa’s literary history.
Variable tension drums – such as the dùndún (Yoruba, Nigeria), tama (Wolof, Senegal) and dondo (Akan, Ghana) – are particularly well designed for maximum intelligibility. They are commonly used as ‘speech surrogates’ in a wide variety of contexts, including popular music. The drum is placed under the armpit and struck with a hooked stick. The player alters the tension of the drum’s head by regulating the pressure on the laces to raise or lower the pitch as the drum is struck.
Yoruba sentences spoken on the dùndún drum from Nigeria
Recorded by Amanda Villepastour. In Amanda Villepastour Ancient text messages of the Yoruba bata drum: cracking the code (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)
Copyright © Amanda Villepastour and SOAS; item held by the British Library
Drum language – Ghanaian 'atumpan' drums
A pair of atumpan drums loaned to the British Library by Obed Abbey-Mensah of Abladei (UK) for display in the 2015-16 West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition.View images from this item (1)
In West Africa today, visual and verbal cultures – written and oral – are entwined at every turn. Many of the symbolic systems described above, such as adinkra, continue in use. Bogolan mud-dyed cloth from Mali, which is decorated with highly symbolic patterns in a tradition probably several centuries old, has conquered the fashion market. Modern printed cloths imported into Ghana are named by market women to indicate states of mind or make witty comments on human affairs. Literary and academic books sit side-by-side on the bookshop shelves with cheap and easily accessible pamphlets providing instruction in many subjects. Artists such as Nike Davies-Okundaye use older symbolic systems, such as adire cloth patterning, in their paintings.
Another popular form where the verbal and visual meet is that of the slogans and artwork displayed on lorries, buses, taxes. In a talk recorded in October 2015, Wole Soyinka discusses these ‘mobile murals’ as an expression of African democracy.
Symbolic cloth from Ghana
These printed cloths are shown here on display in the British Library’s exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song (2015-16). Each design carries a different message.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms © Tony Antoniou; British Museum; ABC Wax
Held by© ABC Wax and Tony Antoniou
2 Quotation from Konrad Tuchscherer in his article on the history of writing in Africa in Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jnr (eds), Encyclopedia of Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 550. See this article for more on the history of scripts in West Africa
3 C. Slogar, ‘Early ceramics from Calabar, Nigeria: Towards a history of Nsibidi’, African arts, 40, 1 (2007), pp. 18-29
4 Karin Barber and Stephanie Newell, ‘Speaking out: Dissent and creativity in the colonial era and beyond’ in Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace (eds), West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song (London: British Library, 2015), p. 124
5 On gold weights see Fiona Sheales, African gold-weights in the British Museum
6 For an introduction to these and other scripts see Saki Mafundikiwa, Afrikan alphabets: The story of writing in Africa (New York: Mark Batty, 2004)
7 For more on objects of the Asante official regalia, see Kwasi Ampene and Nana Kwadwo Nyantakyi III, Engaging modernity: Asante in the twenty-first century (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2014)