a king among linguists

May 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the history of language and linguistics, perhaps two kings are widely credited. These are King Sejong who was responsible for Hangul, the elegant and descriptive writing system designed for Korean, and King James, who got a Bible named after himself. However a forgotten King, Ibrahim Njoya, ruler of the Bamum of West Africa, made a contribution to the language and culture of his subjects in a way that reflects the goals of contemporary linguists in the documentation field.

Coming to power in 1889 as the 17th King of the Bamum he set about modernising his people. This included conversion to Islam and allowing the Christian missionaries to influence the court, resulting in a ban of polygamy. After experimenting with a pictographic system, Njoya and a coterie of intellectuals opted to develop a syllabary for Bamum. According to the great site affrocentriccultrebydesign, in a supremely democratic move, the king demanded his subjects contribute graphemes to the project. Eventually, the system stabilised as a 73-symbol set known as Aka Uku after the first four symbols.

In written Bamum he designed calendars, created volumes on ethnopharmacology and dynastic histories that promoted his line and his people’s customs and law. Moreover, to spread literacy among his subjects he built schools, and printing presses which could have been the seeds of a flourishing autochthonous literate culture had colonial intervention not arrived in the form of the Germans and French. When the French seized control of Western Cameroon, the visionary King was exiled, much of his written work destroyed or carted off to Europe into British and French collections. The suppression of written Bamum was clearly the goal of the French who destroyed the printing press, and this goal was achieved. Only now, are the descendents of this visionary monarch making attempts to revive the script for use in education, in according to affrocentricbyydesign, the Palace Ibriham Noya built.

As far as I can tell this photographs were taken by Bryan White, but sourced from Blackethics.


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