The lingua franca of the country of Mali is Bambara, spoken by perhaps 80 percent of the population as a first or second language. Since 1967, it has mostly been written in a modified version of the Latin alphabet, which has official status, though in some areas Arabic is used, or N’Ko.
There is, or has been, another Bambara script–older than N’Ko, now missing, perhaps lost.
Piers Kelly writes: “One night in 1930, a twenty-year-old Masasi man by the name of Woyo Couloubayi experienced a revelation while lying in a state of deep reflection. By morning he had produced the first draft of a writing system for his native language of Bambara, spoken today as a first language by some 4 million people. Couloubayi’s village of Assatiémala is located at a point where the dry bushland of the south gives way to the Sahara desert, and at the time of his discovery literacy was practically non-existent; today, the adult literacy rate for the whole of Mali is 33.6 per cent though this tally does not specify languages or scripts.
“Couloubayi’s earliest attempts at writing have not been recorded but in subsequent years an assistant by the name of Lamine Konaté helped him revise the system until it reached its final form: a syllabary of 123 characters written from left to right. The script is referred to by its users as ‘Ma-sa-ba’, a name derived from the first three letters of system in its conventional recitation order…
“Like Bukɛlɛ and Njoya before him, Couloubayi was Muslim and aware of writing in the form of the Arabic script. Being a subject of a French colony it is likely that he would also have encountered the Roman script and later in life he was to acquire at least an oral command of both Arabic and French. Despite superficial formal similarities between Masaba and Vai, Couloubayi knew nothing of the inspired invention of other West African writing systems. Another indication that he was not generating his system from a pre-existing and complete model is the fact that numbers in Masaba are written out as words.
“Couloubayi was aware that his system did not accurately represent the phonemes of Bambara since there was no means of indicating vowel contrasts by means of tone, nasality or length. Concerned about the additional learning-load, his collaborator advised against extending the system any further, but Couloubayi would eventually introduce vowel diacritics to specify nasality, vowel-length and a high tone.
“Access to literacy in Masaba is not restricted to any class or gender and it has been taught in evening classes by an organisation devoted to its promotion. In 1978 when apprentices of Couloubayi were interviewed by a Malian and French research team, the script was used in the villages of Assatiémala, Dyabé, Ségala, Sérédji, Koronka and neighbouring areas.
“Numbers of readers and writers have never been estimated, but by the late 1970s there were circumstantial indications that use of the script was in decline, a situation attributed to its difficulty of acquisition, the introduction of state-sponsored literacy, and a population exodus from rural areas. At this time, Masaba was used for recording taxes, registering debts, personal correspondence and the transcription of Muslim prayers.”
Tantalisingly, it is not known (outside a very small area in Mali, presumably) whether the script is still used, by whom, and for what purposes.
Gérard Galtier writes: “Je suis certain que le Masaba est encore connu par certains originaires d’Assa-Tiémala. Néanmoins, à cause de la progression de la connaissance du français et du fait qu’il existe maintenant une école à Assa-Tiémala, il est forcément en régression.”
Nevertheless, like a staticky signal from a distant galaxy, we hear a report that maintains a font is being created and a Unicode proposal is in the works….
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