African languages

“Dear Mama Afrika,

I heard that Africans did have written languages; but I thought that they only used storytelling and didn’t write things down until recently. Could you tell me which it is?

Thank you.
J.”

Dear J,
First of all, thank you in your interest in learning more about African history and culture.

To answer your question, yes some African cultures have had written languages, in one form or another, for a very long time. I’ll mention just two of them; although there are others.

In the Akan culture, one of the ways that stories were told was through the use of symbols. These “pictures” were representations which tell an entire tale, or which can be simplified into one-lined proverbs. The symbols are then printed on fabric which is worn in the form of clothing. The symbols, called Adinkra symbols, are also carved, etched, painted or otherwise put into daily use items like pottery, jewelry, stools, gold weights, etc. At Mama Afrika’s carvings stand, ( http://www.mamaafrika.com/products/carvings3.php ), you will find some items such as stools which include some of these symbols as well as an explaination of what the symbols mean.

In countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia, there are even written languages which are more easily recognizable to someone outside of Africa as they include letters which are connected to make up words. Ge’ez is one of the world’s oldest written languages. Although it is now only used by the Coptic Church, it is the language that many others such as Tigrinia (in Eritrea), Amharic (Ethiopia) and Tigray (Ethiopia) originate from.

You can think of Ge’ez as the Latin equivalent for much of Europe. Just as Spanish, French or Italian find their roots in Latin; Tigrinia, Amharic and Tigray find their roots in Ge’ez. And just as it is only the Catholic Church which still uses Latin; it is only the Coptic Church (a form of Christianity which is closely related to the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches) which uses Ge’ez.

The Ge’ez language uses “sounds” more than it does letters. For example, there is a letter which represents the “b” sound. Then that “letter” is modified to add a vowel sound to it. So, the following sounds would have slightly different ways of being written: “b”, “ba”, “be” “bi” “bo”, etc…

To learn more about Ge’ez, you can visit this site: http://www.ethiopianhistory.com/Ge’ez

I hope this answers your questions. As you can see, Africans have been using written languages in one form or another for thousands of years!

All my best,
Mama

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