Adlam – the story of a new alphabet

April 21, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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Adlam, the story of a new alphabet

Most of the world’s alphabets are at least a thousand years old and we often take them for granted. The first alphabet is thought to be the Proto-Sinaitic script, which is the ancestor of most modern alphabets including Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin. An article published in 2016 in The Atlantic describes the unusual story of how Adlam, a new alphabet, was born in the late 20th century and may have played a key role in the flourishing of the Fulani language.

Different sources suggest the language of the Fulani people of West Africa (also referred to as Pulaar) is spoken by 25 million or even 40 million people. At any rate, the language has a healthy future in terms of being widely spoken, what it lacked for much of its history was an alphabet. Devising a new alphabet is a significant linguistic challenge in itself but getting it to catch on and become widely used is another matter entirely. So the story of Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry — two brothers from Guinea — and the success of the alphabet they devised for Fulani has a certain romantic appeal.

As children, the Barry brothers were taught to read and write Fulani using the Arabic alphabet. But this system was imprecise due to the lack of symbols for certain sounds specific to Fulani. The result was an inconsistent spelling system that frequently caused confusion. It also meant a large proportion of the population was functionally illiterate, and the boys were regularly put to work reading or writing correspondence for adults who could not master the Arabic script. At the ages of just 10 and 14, Abdoulaye and Ibrahima decided they could do better and began crafting shapes that would make up a new alphabet, custom-designed for the Fulani sound system.

The method by which the brothers sought to propagate their alphabet is simple and ingenious. They began by teaching their friends and family, then asked each student to teach three others. They transcribed schoolbooks and managed to spread word of their writing system via a popular radio show. Having devised the alphabet Adlam in 1990, just 5 years later they describe walking into a market in a new part of Guinea and seeing people using their alphabet. They credit nomadic farmers and traders with helping pass on the new system.

Fast forward to the 2000s, and the brothers were now in America and realised that the era of smartphones and the dominance of the internet meant their alphabet would have to evolve to survive. They worked to save enough money to develop a keyboard and font for their alphabet, by now known as Adlam. But the big breakthrough came with the alphabet’s inclusion in the Unicode 9.0 release in 2016, and in 2019 it was implemented in the Windows update. This is a key breakthrough, as it is making it possible for Adlam to be used for international communication. Thus, it can be included in online translation services, and in turn, this will encourage the use of Adlam in legal translation or technical translation.

The brothers admit they could never have imagined the success their alphabet has achieved. The impact has been international and has facilitated connections between Fulani speakers from different countries. A 2018 convention for the alphabet system attracted guests from 34 countries. As Ibrahima Barry concludes “The writing has connected people”.


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