On West African scripts and the real-world origin of the Yammaninke Alphabet.
With 2019 coming to a close, I realized that I’ve actually written far more Theonite-related content for other people’s blogs than my own. This isn’t something I regret; I don’t believe I’ve ever mistaken myself for a blogger or led anyone else to do so.
However, I do want all of these posts to be easy to find, here on this site where people are most likely to be searching for them. So, what I’m going to do over the remainder of 2019 is post introductory samples of all my guest posts, one at a time. These samples should be just long enough to give you an idea of whether you’re interested in clicking through to the full post on the host’s blog.
The content is easy to find, the hosts still get the traffic, everybody wins!
This first guest post was published on Every Day Should be Tuesday shortly before The Sword of Kaigen launched. Ironically, it’s only tangentially related to The Sword of Kaigen, focusing on the real-world origins of the Yammaninke alphabet that features most prominently in Theonite. Scholarly sources cited at the end.
Letters from the Past
The Vai syllabary is the oldest of several writing systems created by the Mande of West Africa, an ethnic group I only know about through my adventures in world-building.
I was in high school when I decided that I wanted to set my first series of books (now published under the title Theonite) in a parallel dimension that reversed the racial hierarchies of Earth. This naturally necessitated a modern African superpower to dominate the planet. Now, as much as I enjoy a colorful amalgam of African cultures (see Black Panther, which will gleefully squash a Zulu headdress, Mande mudcloth, and Omo body paint into a single character design) I wanted to take a more grounded approach by picking a single African culture to serve as the inspiration for my fictional conquerors.
This meant that I had to find an African society that was 1) demonstrably capable of empire, slavery, and rapid innovation, 2) neglected enough by Western scholarship that it might seem alien to our Earthling protagonist (basically, not Egypt), and 3) based in a religion other than Christianity or Islam – again, so that it could be removed from the Western textbook perception of empire. The Mande fulfilled all these criteria with flying colors (okay, their later empires of Mali and Songhai were Muslim but their early forays into conquest predated their wholesale conversion to Islam. It still works).
When I decided to base an expansive world on an African ethnic group, I had no idea what I was getting into. Any field of study has its holes but Western scholarship is swiss cheese when it comes to Africa. This was a hard-learned lesson for me, as I spent the latter years of high school and all of college grasping for any resources I could find on the Mande people, their language, and their history.
I wasn’t intimately familiar with the Vai syllabary until late college, when I started work on a West African alphabet to go with my Mande-based conlang of Yammaninke. By this point in my world-building career, having done years of research and studied abroad with a Mande griot, I was wise to the blindness and biases of my English-language sources. Most of our information on Africa is clouded by the colonial mindsets of the Europeans who documented it and Vai is no exception.
The Vai syllabary was conceived when Mamolu Duwalu Bukele of Bandakoro, Sierra Leone, was visited by a dream messenger who showed him the symbols to be used in the new, purely-Mande writing system. The Western world came to know of the syllabary through S.W. Koelle, a German missionary, who befriended Bukele and recorded his story. Despite admitting a lacking understanding of Bukele’s wording, Koelle extrapolates that the dream messenger was a Christian missionary (like himself, big surprise) and that the symbols must either be purely made-up or based on Arabic, Hebrew, or Roman letters…
Not exactly what you’re looking for? See also:
- Guide to the Yammaninke Alphabet
- Indigenous Mande Alphabets and Ethnic Identity
- Theonite Source Bibliography
- Finding a Fantasy World (by turning ours upside down): an uncomfortably personal look back on the creation of Planet Duna
- Africa from the Air: scrawlings from my 2014 flight from Belgium to Cameroon