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African script offers clues to the evolution of writing

The invention of writing happened more than 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, before it was reinvented in later periods in China and Central America.

Despite its impact on daily life, we actually know very little about how writing evolved in its earliest years. With so few origin sites, the first traces of writing are fragmentary at best or missing altogether.

In the study “The Predictable Evolution of Letter Shapes,” just published in Current Anthropology, a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, showed that writing quickly becomes “compressed” for efficient reading and writing.

The transformation of indigenous symbols into Vai letters. Image courtesy of Momolu Massaquoi (1911).

To arrive at this insight they turned to a rare African writing system that has fascinated outsiders since the early 19th century.

“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 lead author Dr. Piers Kelly, now at the University of New England, Australia.

Before then, the Vai language had never been written down.

According to Vai teacher Bai Leesor Sherman, the script always was taught informally from a literate teacher to a single apprentice student. It remains so successful that today it is even used to communicate pandemic health messages.

How letters evolve

“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. “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 examined Vai manuscripts from archives in Liberia, the U.S., and Europe. By analyzing year-by-year changes in its 200 syllabic letters, they traced the entire evolutionary history of the script from 1834 onwards. Applying computational tools for measuring visual complexity, they found that the letters really did become visually simpler with each passing year.

The first page of Vai manuscript MS17817 from the British Library. Image courtesy of The British Library.

Using established methods for quantifying visual complexity, the researchers found that the Vai script has become increasingly compressed over the first 171 years of its history, complementing earlier claims and partial evidence that similar processes were at work in early writing systems. As predicted, letters simplified to a greater extent when their initial complexity was higher.

“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. 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,” said Kelly.

This pattern of simplification can be observed over much longer time scales for ancient writing systems as well.

Complexity helps new writing systems

“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,” said Kelly.

Elsewhere in West Africa, illiterate inventors reverse-engineered writing for languages spoken in Mali and Cameroon, while new writing systems are still being invented in Nigeria and Senegal.

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

The study’s authors are Kelly, James Winters, Helena Miton, and Olivier Morin.

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