Vai Script Invented in the 1800s Sheds Light On the Development of Writing

An isolated African script is revealing secrets about the unknown evolutionary origins of handwriting and the development of writing. The Vai script was created just two centuries ago to solve the problem of communicating for an otherwise illiterate group. Information about how they developed their own unique script is revealing how other written forms evolved.

The Republic of Liberia is a country on the West coast of Africa, and Vai are a Manden ethnic group. Created in 1834 by eight illiterate Vai men, the rare Vai script has now been studied by a team of scientists who have revealed deep insights as to how written languages evolve.

In an article published by University of New England , Australia, the anthropologist Piers Kelly, explained that the text was written in “crushed berry ink.” In a new paper, Dr. Kelly and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute, said the reason this text is so important, archaeologically, is because it was created “in total isolation.” The point is that studying the way the language developed up to modern times has revealed hitherto unlocked secrets pertaining to how humans evolve language over short periods of time.

Map of Liberia, where the Vai script was created, which is now helping scholars understand the development of writing. (Zerophoto / Adobe Stock)

Map of Liberia, where the Vai script was created, which is now helping scholars understand the development of writing. ( Zerophoto / Adobe Stock)

The Development of Writing: Pictures, Then Words

Archaeologists generally agree that people began writing around 5,000 years ago in the Middle East. Of course, the development of writing was not linear and uncountable attempts were lost in the sands of time before the first legible texts emerged. The most efficient languages were developed, and therefore they evolved and survive today.

In the earliest days in Mesopotamia, small groups of isolated people, generally within a single generation, created and developed many writing systems . These are the same circumstances under which the Vai script was created in 1834, which was greatly simplified over the years. As Kelly explained, linguists have traditionally held that letters evolved from simple pictures into abstract signs located with content. This pattern is present in the Vai script.

Understanding the Vai Language: A Whole New Way of Writing

The script for the Vai language was a whole new way of writing, invented in Liberia in the early 19th century. Its creator, Mọmọlu Duwalu Bukẹlẹ, claimed that he conceived the language in a dream. From these imaginary foundations, Bukẹlẹ went on to invent a full syllabic script, meaning every character represents one syllable. The eight illiterate Vai developers designed symbols for each syllable including abstract forms through simple illustrations of water, bullets and pregnant women.

Published in Current Anthropology , the new research paper shows how the Egyptian ox head hieroglyph transformed into the Phoenician [aleph]. This then became the Roman letter A. This means that original pictures, become simpler as they evolve.

With its 200 individual letters, completely illiterate teachers taught Vai to students and over the first 171 years of its legacy the team of scientists discovered that Vai script was refined and compressed. Like with the ox symbol becoming the A, the most complex Vai symbols were those that had been simplified the most, over time. According to the team, “these changes are far from random.”

On the left, early Vai script from 1834. On the right, the same passage written in modern Vai script. (Kelly et. al. / Current Anthropology)

On the left, early Vai script from 1834. On the right, the same passage written in modern Vai script. (Kelly et. al. / Current Anthropology )

The Most Effect, for the Least Effort

Like water always finding the easiest route down a hillside, humans tend to take forward those concepts, ideas and inventions that require the least energy to comprehend, to remember and to teach to others. Thus, the paper concludes that during the development of writing within different writing systems, the language features which are hardest to recall do not survive the test of time.

Kelly explained that visual complexity in symbols is only helpful for illiterate people when creating new writing systems . While greater contrast between different signs is helpful in the beginning, the way humans learn and teach depends on “efficient reading and reproduction.” This is why complexity is worn away over time. Furthermore, Kelly and her team wrote that while the designs of symbols became less complex, they inadvertently also became more uniform.

Optimization for the Future Development of Writing

Notwithstanding, Vai wasn’t a widespread language, and neither was it developed for bureaucratic needs, as was the case of similar structured writing forms in ancient Mesopotamia. Learning that the Vai language was continually compressed over the 19th century, when there were no great changes in writing media, the researchers suggest in the new paper that the compression occurred because its inventors and users “already knew what writing is capable of.”

It is suspected that the eight language designers of the Vai language had been exposed to the writing of other cultures, and that they had experienced the power of words. The paper concludes that this prior knowledge of language perhaps encouraged Vai people to rapidly “optimize their writing system,” leading to its survival.

Top image: Example of Vai script, which researchers believe can provide insight into the development of writing. Source: British Library

By Ashley Cowie


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