|1830s - present|
The Vai syllabary is a syllabic writing system devised for the Vai language by Momolu Duwalu Bukele of Jondu, in what is now Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia. He is regarded within the Vai community, as well as by most scholars, as the syllabary's inventor and chief promoter when it was first documented in the 1830s. It is one of the two most successful scripts in West Africa.
In 1967 two scholars, working independently, suggested that the Cherokee syllabary of 1819 provided a model for the design of the Vai syllabary (Tuchscherer 2002). One of them, P.E.H. Hair, suggested that the link was missionary groups working with both peoples. A different link was suggested by Svend Holsoe, who discovered a Cherokee (possibly half-Cherokee) man named Augustus or Austin Curtis who had settled in the Vai region at least four years before the invention of the script. He married into a prominent Vai family and became an important Vai chief himself. The "inscription on a house" that drew the world's attention to existence of the Vai syllabary was in fact on the home of Curtis. Both ideas have been mentioned by various authors since. In 2002 Tuchscherer and Hair, in a detailed analysis of the evidence (and noting that the evidence is only circumstantial), wrote:
What we can be reasonably sure about is that Curtis was not only a well-connected and influential man within the Vai community, but
one who spoke the Vai language and adopted Vai customs, who settled in Vai country some four years before the invention of the Vai script, and who later appears to have welcomed the use of the script on his house. If Curtis was informed about the Cherokee script, if he was already resident at Cape Mount by 1827/28, and if he made contact with any of the mission party at Big Town - Revey or even his Vai-speaking assistants - it is conceivable that the notion of a syllabary reached the Vai by this route - but perhaps not very likely. Finally, whether the argument from coincidence should have any weight is difficult to say, but that two new scripts sharing the same basic structure, invented a continent apart within little more than a decade of each other, can each be linked, however tenuously (given the limited evidence), to the same individual, may reasonably be regarded as at least singular.(Hair 2002)
Structure of the script
Vai is a simple syllabic script written from left to right that represents CV syllables; a final nasal is written with the same glyph as the Vai syllabic nasal. Originally there were separate glyphs for syllables ending in a nasal, such as don, with a long vowel, such as soo, with a diphthong, such as bai, as well as bili and sɛli. However, these have been dropped from the modern script.
The syllabary did not distinguish all the syllables of the Vai language until the 1960s when University of Liberia added distinctions by modifying certain glyphs with dots or extra strokes to cover all CV syllables in use. There are relatively few glyphs for nasal vowels because not only a few occur with each consonant.
Vai in Unicode
The Unicode range for Vai is U+A500 .. U+A63F. Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points.
Unicode.org chart (PDF)
- Coulmas, Florian (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 537–539. ISBN 9780631214816.
- 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.
- Konrad Tuchscherer. 2005. "History of Writing in Africa." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (second edition), ed. by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pp. 476-480. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Konrad Tuchscherer. 2002 (with P.E.H. Hair). "Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script," History in Africa, 29, pp. 427-486.
- Konrad Tuchscherer. 2001. "The Vai Script," in Liberia: Africa's First Republic (Footsteps magazine). Petersborough, NH: Cobblestone Press.
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- "Vai syllabary". Omniglot. Retrieved 16 June 2010.