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StartEvolutionWhat the Vai Script Reveals In regards to the Evolution of Writing

What the Vai Script Reveals In regards to the Evolution of Writing

In a small West African village, a person named Momolu Duwalu Bukele had a compelling dream. A stranger approached him with a sacred guide after which taught him methods to write by tracing a stick on the bottom. “Look!” mentioned the spectral customer. “These indicators stand for sounds and meanings in your language.”

Bukele, who had by no means discovered to learn or write, discovered that after waking he might not recall the exact indicators the stranger revealed to him. Even so, he gathered the male members of his household collectively to reverse engineer the idea of writing. Working by the day and into the next evening, the boys devised a system of 200 symbols, every standing for a phrase or a syllable of their native Vai language. For millennia, types of the Vai language had been handed down from mother and father to youngsters—however earlier than this second no speaker had ever recorded a single phrase in writing.

This came about in about 1833 in a area that might quickly turn into the unbiased nation of Liberia. Vai, one among about 30 Indigenous languages of Liberia, has almost 200,000 audio system in the present day within the Cape Mount area that borders Sierra Leone.

Within only a few generations, Bukele’s invention was getting used for penning letters, engraving jewellery, drafting carpentry plans, maintaining private diaries, and managing accounts. Vai individuals manufactured their very own ink from crushed berries and even constructed faculties for educating the brand new system. The script was so profitable that different Indigenous teams within the area have been impressed to create their very own; because the 1830s, at the least 27 new scripts have been invented for West African languages.

Today the Vai writing system is taught on the College of Liberia and is even common amongst college students who aren’t themselves ethnically Vai. The Vai script has been included within the Unicode Normal, which suggests Vai audio system with smartphones can now change textual content messages within the script.


As a linguistic anthropologist, I’m fascinated by the Vai discovery—and particularly how the script has turn into crucial for understanding the evolution of writing itself.

It’s not the primary time in current historical past {that a} new writing system has been invented from scratch. Within the 1820s, the nonliterate polymath Sequoyah created a particular script for his native Cherokee language, and comparable Indigenous innovations have emerged elsewhere on the planet on the margins of increasing colonies. However the evolution of Vai has been particularly well-documented, making it a helpful case research for researchers of writing.

In a lately revealed paper, my colleagues and I present that over the previous two centuries the letter shapes within the Vai script have advanced through “compression”—a course of by which written indicators are steadily reproduced with much less visible element whereas conveying the identical quantity of linguistic data.

The idea that written indicators compress over time has an extended historical past with a number of variations. For example, early Chinese language philosophers imagined that their characters have been modeled on residing issues or elemental forces till legendary rulers decreased the photographs to outlines. European Enlightenment thinkers, in the meantime, linked the presumed trajectory towards simplification with rising theories of societal progress. Of their estimation, the reducing complexity of writing programs gave rise to readability and mental development, an perspective linked to social evolutionist ideologies of racial hierarchy.

Archaeologists, for his or her half, have lengthy understood the letters of the Roman alphabet originated in recognizable footage of actual issues. The ox’s head 𓃾 of Egyptian hieroglyphics was decreased to a geometrical define ∀ and finally rotated to turn into the capital letter A. The detailed picture of a human eye 𓁹 full with lids and a retina could effectively have simplified into the letter O.

A rainbow-colored flow chart titled “Evolution of the Alphabet” shows symbols labeled Proto-Sinaitic c. 1750 BCE at the top of the page, then moves through different eras showing how the symbols evolved—Phoenician c. 1000 BCE, Archaic Greek c. 750 BCE, Archaic Latin c. 500 BCE, Roman c. 1 CE, then finally Modern Latin Script with alphabet letters A through Z.

This chart depicts the evolution of the trendy Latin alphabet from the earliest traces of alphabetic writing courting to the Center Bronze Age in accordance with archaeological findings. Matt Baker/Usefulcharts

But historical past’s first written paperwork are fragmentary, making it laborious for archaeologists to reconstruct the trial-and-error interactions that should have unfolded, maybe on perishable supplies. In China and Central America, the very earliest traces of true writing have been misplaced altogether or are but to be unearthed. Researchers should make imaginative leaps to vault over these gaps within the archaeological report, picturing nameless doodlers amid piles of disintegrating drafts.

In the early twentieth century, British creator Rudyard Kipling did simply this when he imagined the origins of writing in “How the First Letter Was Written,” from his Simply So story assortment for kids. The story recounts how Taffy, an ingenious cave-dwelling lady, discovered to speak with others from afar.

Taffy first begins by drawing advanced illustrations of her meant message. These drawings are comically misinterpreted by a neighboring group and almost provoke a tribal struggle. On her subsequent try, Taffy targets language itself, drawing easier footage on birchbark to gesture on the sound values of phrases reasonably than their meanings. To evoke a hissing sound, as an example, she depicts a snake curled into the type of an S. To seize the roundness of a stunned mouth exclaiming “Oh!,” she sketches an O. Over a brief area of time, Taffy redraws the photographs “scratchier and scratchier” till they’re summary letter shapes with solely a faint reminiscence of the pure issues that first impressed them.

Taffy’s first perception—that graphic symbols can mannequin spoken language—shouldn’t be fairly as apparent as it might appear. In contrast to stone instruments, pottery, or fire-making, the particular know-how of writing has been invented solely 4 instances in human historical past, at the least so far as researchers are conscious. It emerged twice within the Center East about 5,000 years in the past, as soon as in China (1200 B.C.), and most lately in Central America (about 600 B.C.).

Taffy’s second perception is that signal shapes don’t have to resemble something acquainted. Actually, they’re simpler to breed when decreased to reveal bones. Because it occurs, many early written indicators do appear to comply with Taffy’s sequence: They begin out depicting individuals, animals, or objects, then later these iconic footage turn into easier, extra uniform, and extra recognizable as what individuals in the present day name “writing.”


While Kipling’s tales mirror a still-popular consensus on how writing evolves, the idea is tough to check with out entry to a complete-enough report of dated inscriptions.

The Vai script seems to be a superb pure experiment for probing the “Taffy impact” from a distinct angle. Given the substantial archive of Vai paperwork, and the truth that it was usually sampled by guests from the 1830s onward, researchers in the present day have entry to an almost year-by-year report of the writing system’s total evolutionary historical past.

I labored with a staff of researchers to dig deeper into this archive. Our large query was: Did the letter types of the Vai script bear a predictable strategy of change, from comparatively elaborate to comparatively easy? And, extra usually, what can the Vai case inform us concerning the evolutionary dynamics of writing?

We discovered that a lot of early Vai letters are the truth is depictions of actual issues: a pregnant lady, an enslaved man, a human ear, a dying tree, shot pellets, cash, and water. Whereas hanging to look at, nevertheless, these have been remoted examples. Most early Vai letters, it turned out, have been summary compositions of strains with no detectable referents on the planet of issues.

An animated GIF shows three letters in the Vai script slowly changing form. morphing

An animation exhibits how three Vai letters—bhi (ꔫ), tho (ꗌ), and fi (ꔱ)advanced from the 1830s to the 2000s. Julia Bespamyatnykh/Flickr

Our research utilized computational instruments to measure the exact visible complexity of every of the 200 indicators at each stage of the script’s improvement.

We already assumed that picture-based indicators with numerous visible complexity are intuitively helpful to language learners as a result of they function a reminiscence immediate. What’s extra stunning is that it doesn’t appear to matter whether or not these indicators are footage of something in any respect. They only have to be visually advanced.

We suspect that it is because graphic complexity has the impact of accelerating the distinction between indicators and minimizing ambiguity. In spite of everything, when individuals purchase literacy for the primary time, normally as youngsters, they discover it laborious to tell apart between comparable letters, resembling b and d or p and q within the case of the Roman alphabet.

But as quickly as Vai learners mastered their system, the identical complexity bought in the way in which of environment friendly communication. Why labor over the main points of an correct portrait when a tough sketch will suffice?

Sure sufficient, our research discovered over a really brief time Vai letters turn into progressively easier, extra systematic, and extra just like each other. Actually, probably the most advanced letters simplified to the best extent. People who have been already easy barely budged.


Cultural evolutionary theorists research the function of human cognition in shaping tradition. For instance, researchers have proven how limitations on reminiscence and studying can introduce useful “refinements” to cultural merchandise, be they tales, footage, or writing programs. When an merchandise is transmitted, learners retain probably the most salient traits whereas options which are tougher to recall or reproduce are likely to flatten or fade away.

We assume this sample of simplification will be noticed for historical writing programs as effectively however over for much longer time scales than seen with the case of Vai. One cause for the slower tempo of change could come all the way down to the vastly totally different historic contexts the place these writing programs emerged. Within the historical Center East, those that practiced writing have been a part of an informed elite who probably couldn’t but think about the broader purposes of writing that we see in the present day.

Vai individuals within the nineteenth century, alternatively, already knew that writing embodied spoken language, that it could possibly be used for a spread of helpful—or nefarious—duties, and that it had highly effective social penalties. Bukele had witnessed, as an example, how writing had been deployed to handle the transatlantic commerce in enslaved people.

Others outdoors of his group additionally noticed the ability of the Vai script. Missionaries from Europe who lived within the area have been impressed by how effectively it modeled the syllabically organized sound construction of the Vai language, making it simpler to be taught than the Roman alphabet. From its humble origins the script would later be utilized to Vai translations of the Bible, the Quran, and even sections of Homer’s Iliad.

And in the USA, in the meantime, the place the system of slavery was beneath intense scrutiny, abolitionists touted the invention of the Vai system as proof of innate African mind and capability for self-determination. Shortly after Bukele made his discovery, the nation of Liberia was proclaimed as a resettlement venture for newly emancipated African People.

This broader context most likely helped pace alongside the method of compression. In contrast to historical peoples, early Vai script adopters acknowledged the social, cultural, and political significance of writing and utilized the brand new script straightaway to a big selection of sensible issues. From buying lists to excessive literature, their fixed use gave it common alternatives to alter and adapt shortly. Each time Vai writers dashed off a word or wrote out a homework train, they launched tiny private idiosyncrasies, a few of which have been assimilated by readers and reproduced, whereas others didn’t catch on.

The backside line: Written letter shapes evolve over time, however so do the needs and applied sciences of writing itself. The continued endurance of the Vai script of Liberia is a monument to the brilliance of its first creators who retrieved writing from a dream, then let it free to hint its personal profitable path.


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