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Experts Study Rare African Parchment In Search Of Clues About The Evolution Of Writing

Vai script of Liberia, created from scratch around 1834, said to offer important insight.

Experts have studied a rare African parchment in their search for clues about the evolution of writing, which they say has evolved “to become simpler and more efficient.”

“To arrive at this insight, they turned to a rare African writing system that has fascinated outsiders since the early 19th century,” the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany said in a statement, adding that the world’s first writing occurred more 5,000 years ago in the Middle East before it was reinvented in China and Central America.

“Today, almost all human activities — from education to political systems and computer code — rely on this technology,” the statement said.

“The Vai script of Liberia was created from scratch in about 1834 by eight completely illiterate men who wrote in ink made from crushed berries,” said Piers Kelly, lead author of the study published in the journal Current Anthropology.

The Vai language had never been written down before, and according to Vai teacher Bai Leesor Sherman, the script “was always taught informally from a literate teacher to a single apprentice student. It remains so successful that today it is even used to communicate [COVID-19] pandemic health messages.”

The transformation of indigenous symbols into Vai letters. (Momolu Massaquoi (1911)/Zenger)

“Because of its isolation and the way it has continued to develop up until the present day, we thought it might tell us something important about how writing evolves over short spaces of time,” said Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of New England, Australia.

“There’s a famous hypothesis that letters evolve from pictures to abstract signs. But there are also plenty of abstract letter-shapes in early writing. We predicted, instead, that signs will start off as relatively complex and then become simpler across new generations of writers and readers.”

The team of experts analyzed manuscripts in the Vai language from archives in Liberia, Europe and the United States.

By analyzing year-by-year changes in the 200 syllabic letters of the Vai language, the research team traced the entire evolutionary history of the script from 1834 onward. Measuring visual complexity with digital tools, they found that the letters became visually simpler over time.

“The original inventors were inspired by dreams to design individual signs for each syllable of their language. One represents a pregnant woman, another is a chained slave, others are taken from traditional emblems,” Kelly said.

“When these signs were applied to writing spoken syllables, then taught to new people, they became simpler, more systematic and more similar to one another.”

Kelly explained that “visual complexity is helpful if you’re creating a new writing system. You generate more clues and greater contrasts between signs, which helps illiterate learners. This complexity later gets in the way of efficient reading and reproduction, so it fades away.”

Illiterate inventors have reverse engineered writing down spoken languages in Mali and Cameroon, while “new writing systems are still being invented in Nigeria and Senegal,” the Max Planck Institute statement said.

“African indigenous scripts remain a vast, untapped repository of semiotic and symbolic information. Many questions remain to be asked,” Nigerian philosopher Henry Ibekwe said in response to the study.

Edited by Richard Pretorius and Kristen Butler

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