The script has a few similarities to the Arabic script, notably its direction (right-to-left) and the letters which are connected at the base. Unlike Arabic, it obligatorily marks both tone and vowels. N'Ko tones are marked as diacritics, in a similar manner to the marking of some vowels in Arabic.
Grave of Kanté Souleymane. The French at the bottom reads "Inventor of the N'Ko alphabet.
Kante created N'Ko in response to what he felt were beliefs that Africans were a culture-less people, because before then, no indigenous African writing system for his language existed. N'Ko was invented in Bingerville, Côte d'Ivoire and then brought to Kante's natal region of Kankan, Guinea before being disseminated into other Manding-speaking parts of West Africa. N'Ko Alphabet Day is April 14, relating to the date in 1949 when the script is believed to have been finalized.
The introduction of the script led to a movement promoting literacy in the N'Ko script among Manding speakers in both Anglophone and Francophone West Africa. N'Ko 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.
As of 2005, it is 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. It has been classed as the most successful of the West African scripts.
N'Ko literature generally uses a literary language register, termed kangbe (literally, 'clear language'), that is seen as a potential compromise dialect across Manding languages. For example, the word for 'name' in Bamanan is tɔgɔ and in Maninka it is tɔɔ. In written communication each person will write it one single way in N'Ko, and yet read and pronounce it as in their own language. This literary register is thus intended as a koiné blending elements of the principal Manding languages (which are mutually intelligible), but has a very strong Maninka flavour.
There has also been documented use of N'Ko, with additional diacritics, for traditional religious publications in the Yoruba and Fon languages of Benin and southwest Nigeria.
The N'Ko script is written from right to left, with letters being connected to one another.
N'Ko uses diacritical marks to denote tonality and vowel length. Together with plain vowels, N'Ko distinguishes four tones: high, low, ascending, and descending; and two vowel lengths: long and short. However no mark exists for a short, descending tone.
Non-native sounds and letters
N'Ko also provides a way of representing non-native sounds through the modification of its letters with diacritics. These letters are used in transliterated names and loanwords.
Two dots above a vowel, resembling a diaeresis mark, represent a foreign tone: 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 Manding, such as gb-dot for /g/; gb-line for /ɣ/; gb-two-dots for /k͡p/; f-dot for /v/; rr-dot for /ʁ/; etc.
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 N'Ko 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. However the lack of intercompatibility inherent in such solutions was a block to further development.
Pango 1.18 and GNOME 2.20 have native support for the N'Ko languages. An iOS calculator in N'Ko, N'Ko:Calc, is available on the Apple App Store. An iOS app for sending email in N'Ko is also available, called Triage-N'Ko. There is a virtual keyboard named virtual-keyboard-nko to type N'Ko characters on the Windows operating system.
N'Ko script was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0.
UNESCO's Programme Initiative [email protected] supported preparing a proposal to encode N'Ko in Unicode. In 2004, the proposal, presented by three professors of N'Ko (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, N'Ko was approved for Unicode 5.0. The Unicode block for N'Ko is U+07C0–U+07FF:
^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. ISBN978-0-9653308-7-9.
^Oyler, Dianne White (1994) Mande identity through literacy, the N'ko writing system as an agent of cultural nationalism. Toronto: African Studies Association.
^Unseth, Peter. 2011. Invention of Scripts in West Africa for Ethnic Revitalization. In The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts, ed. by Joshua A. Fishman and Ofelia García, pp. 23–32. New York: Oxford University Press.
Oyler, Dianne White (1994) Mande identity through literacy, the N'ko writing system as an agent of cultural nationalism. Toronto : African Studies Association.
Oyler, Dianne (1995). For "All Those Who Say N'ko": N'ko Literacy and Mande Cultural Nationalism in the Republic of Guinea. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Florida.
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