Presentation of the report of the Niamey 1978 meeting for readers of the Bisharat! web site. Return to Basic Documents. View the French version.

African languages

Proceedings of the meeting of experts on

the transcription and harmonization of

African languages

Niamey (Niger), 17 - 21 July 1978



         Transcription has for long been a problem in the promotion of African languages.

         On the initiative of individual researchers, national or regional research establishments, religious institutions and international organizations, attempts have been made to find an agreed system for the transcription of African languages and also to bring into line the various transcription systems of one and the same language or of languages belonging to the same family.

         Among the meetings organized on this topic by UNESCO or with its help, mention should be made of the one held in Bamako in 1966 on the major languages of West Africa, the 1975 Cotonou meeting on the harmonization and standardization of the alphabets of the sub - region comprising Ghana, Upper Volta, Niger, [sic] Togo and Dahomey (now Benin), and the 1978 Niamey meeting, which tried to put and end to the fumbling, not to say disorder, which is a feature of this area of activity.

         The experts meeting in Niamey considered the scientific work which has been done and examined some practical applications such as transcription equipment, special keyboards and texts produced in African languages, finally proposing an alphabet called the "African Reference Alphabet"(1) for consideration by individual researchers, research institutions and the political authorities who are going to have to make the necessary decisions. They took into account both phonetic criteria and the problems of graphical production, as well as the characters already used by those concerned. All these individuals and institutions are asked to make reference to the alphabet and to suggest improvements where appropriate. An effort such as this will facilitate co-operation in the work of promoting African languages as a means of conveying culture and providing lifelong education.

         To encourage a continued discussion of this subject and the widest possible exchange of views among all those concerned by this aspect of the promotion of African languages, this publication presents the report of the meeting, the working papers and the papers read by the experts. Generally speaking, these papers relate the experience of a particular country or describe the transcription of a language spoken in a number of countries. They are arranged by alphabetical order of authors' names.

         The papers do not, of course, necessarily reflect UNESCO's views and are the sole responsibility of their authors.

[NB- The abovementioned papers are not presented on this Bisharat! website.]


Experts' meeting on "The transcription and harmonization

of African languages" (Niamey, Niger), 17 - 21 July 1978


         This experts' meeting has been convened by the Director-General in pursuance of resolution 4.11 (paragraph 4025 of the Approved Program and Budget) adopted by the General Conference at its nineteenth session, to review the situation in the transcription of African languages. It should assist in the introduction of African languages not only in school systems and literacy programs, but also in the life of national communities.

         To enable the experts to focus their discussion on the subject of the meeting in the light of work already done, the Secretariat has placed at their disposal the basic documents specially prepared for the meeting, together with certain reference documents:

Studies commissioned

Ayo BAMGBOSE            On devising, reforming and harmonizing orthography in African languages

H.M. BOT BA NJOCK      The transcription and harmonization of the transcription of African languages

Pathé DIAGNE                Transcription and harmonization of African languages in Senegal

Gérard GALTIER             Current problems in the transcription of Bambara and Soninké

Mubanga KASHOKI          Harmonization of African languages: Standardization of orthography in Zambia

J. KALEMA                    Transcription and harmonization of African languages.

Documents attached



LANGUES ET POLITIQUES DE LANGUES EN AFRIQUE NOIRE: L'expérience de l'UNESCO (Published by Nubia, Paris 1977)

Extract of the final report on the Regional seminar on the harmonization and standardization of the alphabets of the languages of Ghana, Togo, Upper Volta, Nigeria [sic] and Benin - Cotonou (Benin) 21 - 23 August 1975 (French only).

Final Report of the Yaoundé meeting on Bantu languages, 1970.

I.       Ongoing transcription work in the different African countries

         Each participant will be asked to give a brief account of ongoing transcription work being done in his own country or countries with which he is well acquainted. Where several transcriptions exist for the same language or for related languages, he will also describe the advantages and the possible disadvantages of each of the solutions adopted.

II.      The follow-up in the countries concerned to the recommendations of experts on the standardization and unification of the transcription of African languages

         This meeting comes 12 years after the meeting in Bamako (28 February to 6 March 1966) which was a landmark in the determination of the orthography of African languages. It will in a way measure the progress made since this historic meeting which was followed by other meetings for a particular language, country or group of countries: for example, the Yaoundé meeting on Bantu languages held in 1970, and the regional seminar on the standardization of the alphabets of the languages of Ghana, Togo, Upper Volta, Nigeria and Benin held at Cotonou (Benin) from 21 to 23 August 1975.

         It is hoped that the information thus supplied by the experts will make it possible to draw up a chart of language policies in operation in the whole of black Africa.

III.     Technical difficulties encountered in harmonizing the transcription of a single language or languages common to several countries

         The experts are invited to prepare a survey of divergences in the transcription of the same language or related languages. Each expert will draw particular attention to variations in the recommendations made by specialists in the language (s) or group of languages which he is studying himself. In this way the theoretical work already done in respect of each language or group of languages can be made known and serve as a basic for a discussion involving other specialists.

         It will also be possible to make a summary of the technical difficulties encountered in the whole of black Africa and to suggest suitable solutions for each case, or at least to isolate cases where several solutions would be equally acceptable from the scientific point of view but where one or another is to be preferred for practical reasons.

IV.     A comparative study of factors which have hindered or encouraged harmonization

         Using as a basis practical situations with which they are familiar, the experts could proceed to in-depth analysis of the present state of affairs. They could above all identify factors which have worked one way or the other, depending on the country.

         Particular attention should be paid to the interaction of the various factors. In some cases, for example, the technical factor (choice based on theory) has inhibited the political factor; or specialists have not been able to propose coherent solutions owing to serious divergences within the language commissions set up at national level; or the solutions proposed have been difficult to accept (for example, the creation of many special signs entailing the corresponding modification of the normal keyboard means that typewriters are more expensive, new technical staff must be trained, etc.).

V.      Recommendations

         On the basis of the results of the discussion of items I to IV of the agenda, the experts are invited to make suggestions regarding ways of solving or even of going beyond the theoretical problem of the transcription of African languages. They are also invited, in the light of all the recommendations of previous meetings, to make practical, realistic and coherent suggestions, calculated to help to promote African languages at all levels of the life of every community.

VI.     Agenda

I.       Ongoing transcription work in the different African countries.

II.      Follow - up in the countries concerned to the recommendations of experts on the standardization and unification of the transcription of African languages.

III.     Technical difficulties encountered in harmonizing the transcriptions of a single language or of languages common to several countries.

IV      A comparative study of factors which have hindered or encouraged harmonization.


         The opening ceremony took place in the National Assembly, with Mr. Assane Boubacar, Secretary-General of the Ministry of National Education, in the Chair.

         Mr. Abdou Garba, Secretary-General of the National Commission for UNESCO, welcomed participants and referred briefly to the meetings concerned with the question of the transcription of African languages that had taken place since the historic meeting at Bamako in 1966.

         In his speech, Mr. Augustin Gatera, representing the Director General of UNESCO, thanked the Niger authorities and the Bureau of the Organization of African Unity for having agreed to host the meeting. After explaining the context and the purpose of the meeting, he invited participants to submit to the Director - General, on the conclusion of their discussions, specific proposals calculated to make it possible to go beyond the stage of theoretical research and to move on to the operational stage of the promotion of African languages.

         In his address, Mr. Assane Boubacar, Secretary - General of the Ministry of National Education, welcomed participants on behalf of the Minister and the Government and expressed his gratitude to UNESCO for its choice of Niger as the venue of the present important meeting. After mentioning that Niger expected a great deal from the meeting, in connection with its education and literacy programmes, the speaker added that, besides the Niger experts invited in a personal capacity by UNESCO, he would appoint a number of observers to follow the work of the meeting. He then declared the meeting officially open.

         The following experts, invited in a personal capacity by the Director - General of UNESCO, took part in the work of the meeting:

                  Mr. Agba                       Central African Republic

                  Mr. Atin                        Ivory Coast

                  Mrs Bijeljac-Babic             Yugoslavia

                  Mr. Bot Ba Njock             Cameroun

                  Mr. Cissoko                    Guinea Bissau

                  Mr. Dalby                      United Kingdom

                  Mr. Diagne                      Senegal

                  Mr. Galtier                      France

                  Mr. Hazoume                  Benin

                  Mr. Inne                        Niger

                  Mr. Inoua                       Niger

                  Mr. Kalema                     Uganda

                  Mr. Khamisi                    Tanzania

                  Mrs. Kounta                    Angola

                  Mr. Laya                        Niger

                  Mr. Madougou                 Niger

                  Mr. Meda                       Upper Volta

                  Mr. Nkusi                      Rwanda

                  Mr. Ntahombaye              Burundi

                  Mr. Sow                        France

                  Mr. Touré                      Mali

         Professeur G. ANSRE (Ghana), Ayo BAMGBOSE (Nigeria), Mubanga KASHOKI (Zambia) and Pierre ALEXANDRE (France) were prevented from attending the meeting and sent their apologies. The following experts did not reply to the Director - General's invitation:

                          Mr. KETEHOULI            (Togo)

                          Mr. MBULA - Moko        (Zaire)

         Mr LUMWAMU (Congo) accepted the invitation but was able to attend the meeting.

         Among organizations invited to send observers to the meeting, the following five were represented.






The Secretariat of UNESCO was represented by Mr. Augustin Gatera, Division of Cultural Studies, Paris; Mr. Roland Schreyer, Division of Development of Communication Systems, Paris; Mr. Glifford Fyle, BREDA (Dakar); Mrs. Margaret Baugier, Division of Cultural Studies, where the discussions were to take place.

         The first session opened with the election of the officers, as follows:

         Chairman:               Mr. D. LAYA, Director of CELHTO (Niger)

         Vice - Chairmen       Mrs. M.C. KOUNTA, Director of the National Institute of Languages [Angola]

                                   Mr. A.M. KHAMISI, Director of the National Kiswahili Research (Tanzania)

         Rapporteur:            Professor H.M. BOT BA NJOCK (Cameroun)

         Following the election of the officers, the meeting adopted the provisional agenda proposed by the UNESCO Secretariat.

Item I of the Agenda

Ongoing transcription work in the different African countries

         This topic was introduced by Mr. Bot Ba Njock and Mr. Galtier, who at UNESCO's request, had drawn up the working papers relating to this item (1)

         (a) In his statement, the main points of which are given below, Mr. Bot Ba Njock described briefly the systems of transcription in use in Cameroon and referred to the steps taken by the Cameroon authorities to remedy this state of affairs.

         (b) "Current problems in the transcription of Soninké in Mali and in Senegal."

         The Chairman invited Mr. Galtier to submit his text which, together with his introductory statement, gave rise to a very animated discussion, in the course of which serious divergences came to light in regard to the transcription, the orthography and the process of harmonization of the various dialects and languages concerned.

         Referring to the first part of his document, he explained that the present time official alphabets existed in most of the countries, where Mandingo (or Bambara) was spoken. The degree of utilization of those alphabets differed, however, however, from one country to another.

         Moreover, divergences existed between these alphabets in question, particularly with regard to the following symbols:

tv [ty]  (Guinea, Ivory Coast) / c (Upper Volta, Mali and Senegal)/ ch (Gambia)

dy      (Guinea, Ivory Coast)/ j(Upper Volta, Mali Senegal and Gambia)

n       (Senegal) / ny (Guinea, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta, Mali and Gambia)

ŋ       (Upper Volta, Mali, Senegal)/ ng (Ivory Coast, Gambia)

ɛ       (Upper Volta, Ivory Coast)/ è (Guinea and Mali)

ɔ       (Upper Volta, Ivory Coast)/ ò or ? (Mali, Guinea)

         The speaker proposed the following symbols:        

         c, j, ny, ng, è and ò.

         Concerning the harmonisation of dialectal differences, the speaker considered that this could be brought about at the level of Eastern Mandingo (Eastern Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast and Guinea) and that the spelling of ninety per cent of the words could be standardized. For the remaining ten per cent two optional forms could be established.

         Introducing the second part of his document, Mr. Galtier said that there was practically no difference between the transcription of Soninké in Mali and in Senegal. The only divergences concerned the diacritical signs:

         ŋ (Senegal) / nw (Mali)

         ñ  (Senegal) / ny (Mali)

         Senegal had chosen ŋ and ñ in the interest of harmonization with the other languages of the country. Mali had chosen nw and ny for reasons of practical simplicity, since the two segments could be considered as the phonological sequences /n + w/ and /n + y/.

         After this long introduction to the first item on the agenda, the experts took the floor in succession to describe current transcription trends in their countries.


         For the sake of convenience and notwithstanding the fact that the experts were not representing their countries officially, statements concerning this agenda item will appear in the present report in the alphabetical order of the countries which were represented by an expert or for which a document dealing with the subject was available.



         Angola, like Guinea-Bissau, has recently acceded to independence and is confronted by numerous problems which must be tackled. The decree of 6 April 1978 recognized the status of the national languages of Angola, Portuguese becoming an official vehicular language. It also established the National Institute of Languages, whose principal objective is the scientific study of the national languages, their codification and their development at various levels and branches of learning, the formulation of audio - visual methods and the programming of courses of instruction.


         Texts transcribed in Angola were the work of missionaries, as is the case in other formerly colonized countries of Africa.

         The scientific study of the national languages that is currently being carried out will make it possible to devise alphabets and stabilize orthography with due regard for the criteria of standardization unification and harmonization that need to be applied both within the country and in conjunction with neighbouring countries having related languages or families of languages. The first phase of co-ordination will take into account the following table:

Southern Africa             - Angola )
                                   - Congo  )        Kikongo
                                   - Zaire    )

                                   - Angola )
                                                )        Tchokwe, Lunda
                                   - Zaire    )

                                   - Angola )       
                                                )        Lunda, Tchokwe, Luvale, and Mbunda
                                   - Zambia )

                                   - Angola )
                                                )        Kwanyama
                                   - Namibia)

                                   - Angola )
                                   - Cameroon)
                                   - Zambia   )      Basaá
                                   - Kenya    )


         During this first phase, Angola will acquaint itself with the choices made, the difficulties encountered and the solutions reached in other countries.

         In the second phase, the young republic will seek to adjust its own position, after due reflection, with regard to the solution of specific technical problems.

         The participation of Angola in this meeting of linguistic experts will have had the advantage (as was underlined by Mrs. Kounta, Director of her country's National Institute of Languages) of drawing their "attention to similar problems which will need to be resolved in the near future". The speaker added that she was certain that these comrades and she herself would emerge from this meeting "enriched by the experience gained and by the fruitful discussions which all the participants await".



         Until August 1975, several alphabets were in use in Benin. After the seminar of 21, 22 and 23 August 1975, a single alphabet was established for the sub-region.

Unification Commission

         The work of unification is the responsibility of the National Linguistic Commission, which is also charged with carrying out linguistic research work and compiling a linguistic atlas of the country.

         A sub regional alphabet committee is responsible for supervising the application of the alphabet.

Institutionalization of the alphabet

         Having adopted the conclusions reached by the above - mentioned seminar, the Government of Benin issued a decree making the new alphabet official and its use obligatory for the transcription of all the languages of the country.


         These relate to two questions:

         - the notation of the nasal palatal by n or ny;

         - the representation of nasalization by the tidlde (~) or by the nasal (-n) placed after the relevant vowel.

         A control seminar will be organized at Cotonou in September to endeavour to solve these problems.


Existence of one or more transcription

         There is only a single transcription for Kirundi, the only national language of Burundi, with the status of first official language; French is the second official language.

Commission on the orthography of the language

         A commission, comprising both national and foreign linguistic experts is responsible for defining and establishing the orthography of the first official language.


1.       Notation of tones: There are two tones (high and low); only the high tone is noted, by an acute accent on its vowel.

         A notation problems arises when the vowel length and the tone have to simultaneously represented. This brings in turn to the       problem of vowel length.

2.       Vowel quantity: There are two rival systems :

         (a)      Doubling of the vowel. This avoids the use of diacritics except where required to mark a high tone on one of the vowels.

         (b)     Use of a single vowel, whose length is marked by means of a bar (macron) placed over the letter, combined where necessary with a rising or falling tone mark, depending on whether the high tone coincides with the end or the beginning of the vowel. This notation respects the individuality of the language.

3.       The establishment of a distinction between l (which does not exist in the language) and r as between p and pf.

4.       Frequent confusion between phonetic and phonological notation.

5.       Segmentation and separation of words: should a hyphen or an apostrophe be chosen?

6.       Punctuation, on the one hand and the use of capitals and small letters on the other. These points as yet received little attention from the linguistic experts. Usage conforms to the French practice.


Existence of one or more transcriptions

         For most of the written languages (there are about 40 of these) from one to three transcriptions exist that of the Catholic and/or Protestant missionaries, that used by foreign writers and that recommended by the 1966 and 1970 UNESCO meetings). This is the case, for example, for the following languages:

         Basaá (this language is also spoken in Angola, Zambia and perhaps also in Kenya), for which three systems exist in Cameroon: Catholic, Protestant and the system endorsed for the Bantu languages at the 1970 Yaoundé meeting.

         Bulu (the language of evangelization of the Protestant churches in Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea), which also employs the three systems used for Basaá with some minor differences.

         Duala (whose indigenous speakers in Cameroon have common origins with those in Gabon and the Congo), for which three systems are employed: Christian (Catholics and Protestants using the same system), those of the authors Ittmann and Helmlinger, with such slight differences between them that they can be regarded as forming a single system, and the 1970 system.

         Fulfulde (spoken, as far as Central Africa is concerned, in Cameroon and Chad[)]. While some authors (Lacroix and R.P. Noye) have certain symbols of their own, the system used in Cameroon for this language is the 1966 Bamako system (cf., inter alia, the works of Eldrige Mohammadou).

         Gbaya (spoken in Cameroon and the Central African Republic) uses a system developed by the Gbaya Translation Centre which coincides, apart from one or two exception, with the 1970 system. The Gbaya of the Central African Empire has been described by a research worker (M. Monino), who has evolved a system which has not yet been tested in the field and can therefore be termed "theoretical".

         Hausa (spoken as far as Central Africa is concerned, in Cameroon and Chad). As with Fulfulde, Cameroon uses the 1966 system for this language.

Commission responsible for the unification of transcription

         A scientific commission, operating within the framework of the National Office for Scientific and Technical Research (ONAREST) and composed of linguistic experts from Yaoundé University, and from the International Linguistics Society (SIL), started work in March 1978.

Officialization of the alphabet and the orthography

         This can only be carried out if tests are first undertaken and a consensus reached among those in a position to express an authoritative opinion.

Problems in connection with the harmonization of transcription

         These are as follows:

                  - Scientific;

                  - psycho-sociological;

                  - technical;

                  - economic;

                  - political.

An initial report to be complemented in due course by a practical guide (in the form of independent units each dealing with a specific problem or group of problems) has recently been issued.

         The ministry of National Education has set up a commission to study the problem of introducing the Cameroonian languages in schools. This sensible step was taken in June 1978 at a time when the CE-REL-TRA was putting the final touches to a working document on the same subject at the request of another section of the Institute of Human Sciences, the National Central for Education (CNE).

         The Government will, therefore, be in possession of all the data needed to ensure that the linguistic policy it ultimately adopts is soundly based.



         Before the Institute of Applied Linguistics embarked on the task of unifying the orthography of the national languages, Ivory Coast had various alphabets used by the Catholic and Protestant missions.


         The law on the Reform of Education in Ivory Coast (August 1977), charged the Institute of Applied Linguistics, as the appropriate body for the purpose, with the task of proposing a unified orthography for the national languages.

         The alphabet proposed by the Institute differs from the Bamako alphabet of 1966 only in respect of three graphemes: ɛ, ɔ, and ŋ, instead of those adopted at Bamako.


         These arise from divergences in the notation of the vowels and of the nasal; it would be desirable to reach a concerted solution with the countries that have adopted the Bamako system.

         The notation adopted in Ivory Coast is based on the phonological analyses of some 60 national languages.

         Although this alphabet takes account of those of the most widely spoken African languages it is mainly intended as a national alphabet satisfying the criteria of economy and practicality.

         This alphabet has, moreover, the advantage (or disadvantage) of not yet having been officially adopted. Thus the divergences with Mali could easily be smoothed out, at least on the basis of established correspondences.



         At the present time, Sango is the only official national language; as such, it has only one transcription system.


         In 1966, a national commission was given the task of standardizing the Sango alphabet, with the assistance of the linguistic expert, Luc Bouquiaux.

         At the present time, the Institute of Education is engaged in applying the 1966 alphabet at the adult literacy and primary education levels.


         Two problems arise at present:

         The first is educational. It concerns the advisability or otherwise of teaching primary school pupils who are simultaneously studying French and Sango, the notation of tones for Sango when these do not exist in French.

         The second is technical. In 1966, it was decided that the Sango alphabet would indicate the two open vowel sounds (? and ?) by means of a diaeresis over the vowel to mark its open quality. It is now proposed to use special symbols instead. However, if we now adopt these symbols, who knows whether yet another notation will be suggested tomorrow?

         In spite of all these difficulties, we are very hopeful that satisfactory solutions will be found to the two above-mentioned problems.


         Guinea-Bissau currently faces a number of problems to which solutions are only beginning to be evolved. This applies to linguistic studies in general and the study of the national languages in particular.

         The "reference" sources are the meagre works left behind by the colonial administrators or those of such research workers as W.A.A Wilson (a volta linguistica na Guiné, ECGP, 1959), A. CARREIRA (Alguns aspectos da influencia da lingua mandinga na padjadinca, BCGPC, 1963).

         The transcriptions used are by no means scientific. A seminar held recently under the aegis of the National Council for Culture (CNC) with the assistance of the CLAD of Dakar was attended by about 30 participants, mainly drawn from the staff of the Literacy Department (CEEN) but also including staff from the Teacher Training and Retraining Centre (CO). They were initiated into the study and transcription of the Guinean languages. Because of the complex origins of the country's different communities, it was decided that the languages should be studied simultaneously on both the historical and the linguistic level.

         Before selecting certain languages for priority treatment as regards study and transcription, it was necessary to draw up a scientific document covering the following four essential points:

         (1)     Problem of the origin of Guinean communities (Bissau);

         (2)     historical process of the disintegration of communities and appearance of intermediate groups;

         (3)     situation and classification of the local languages - their transcription and harmonization;

         (4)     problem of the choice and introduction of one or several languages (majority or minority) in education.

         Guinea-Bissau has 30 ethnic groups, each with its own language, which in most cases is also spoken in Senegal, Guinea-Conakry and the Gambia. These comprise Mandingo, Mandjaku, Fula, Nalu, Diola, Koniagi, Balante, Mankanye, Sarakolé, Susu, Creole, etc. Guinea-Bissau is preparing such specific measures as are called for. Coooperation with its neighbours in the subregion (Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali) would make it possible to pool part of the work already accomplished with a view to the ultimate adoption of uniform systems of transcription and orthography.



         This country possesses about 60 languages, divided into three large linguistic groups (Voltaic, Mande, and Fulfulde). Until 1969, there were a number of rival transcription systems, including in particular those used by the various missionaries.


         A presidential decree promulgated in January 1969 set up the National Commission for the Voltaic languages (CNOV) with the object of:

         - fostering the national languages;

         - encouraging, promoting and co-ordination studies on the national languages;

         - ruling on transcription systems.


         When the National Office of Education and Functional and Selective Literacy Training (ONEPAFS) was established in 1974 with responsibility for adult literacy training, divergencies regarding the transcription of the languages arose at the level of the National Literacy Training Programme (PNA) itself.

         A seminar, held in 1976, undertook to harmonize the transcriptions of all the languages of Upper Volta. A harmonized national alphabet has been adopted and a national technical commission, consisting of linguistic experts and practitioners in the field will supervise the quality of publications and ensure compliance with the provisions of the Harmonized National Alphabet decree, which be signed as soon as the new government is formed.


         These are minor. Noteworthy only is the notation of nasalized vowels by Vn for Diula, Bwamu, Gulimancena and Fulfulde, whose structure is CV. For the other languages whose structure is CVn, the nasalized vowel is noted simply V.



         Mali conforms to the alphabet adopted by the 1966 Bamako meeting as regards the four principal languages.

         - Mandi[n]go or Bambara;

         - Fulfulde or Peul;

         - Songhaï;

         - Tamashek.

Research work is being carried out simultaneously on other no less important languages:

         - Soninké (advanced studies with texts, lexicon);

         - Boré;

         - Manianka    )
                             )      survey missions and information in the field
         - Sénufo        )

         - Dogou [sic - Dogon] (advanced studies, lexicon)


         The 1966 alphabet above was made official for the four principal languages mentioned by Decree No. 85/PG of 26 May 1967.

         In 1972 a rural newspaper (Kibaru) using this alphabet began to to issued. Literacy courses, like the newspaper, are helping the alphabet to take root.


         The National Directorate of Functional Literacy Training and Applied Linguistics (DNAFLA) was set up in 1975.

         The Division of Linguistic and Educational Research (DRLP) (1) responsible for all research on the national languages functions within the framework of the DNAFLA.

         Proposals have been made for the standardization of the alphabet and orthography of Bambara.

         Meetings are held periodically (twice a week by the units, once a week by the sections and once a month by the divisions ) for administrative and scientific purposes.


         In comparison with most African countries the linguistic heterogeneity of Niger is not particularly pronounced.

         There are in fact eight languages altogether, the five principal languages being:        

         Hausa; Fulfulde; Songhai; Tamashek; Kanuri.

         Three other languages are spoken by minorities:

          Tubu; Gurmance; Arabic.


         The Niger languages were introduced into the literacy programmes in 1963. The Bamako (1966) transcription is employed.


         These largely concern orthography. It is hoped that the discussions at the present meeting will enable the orthographic problems to be solved.

         It is worth noting that a research and reflection group on the national languages set up a year ago is taking a broad look at the nation's linguistic problems as whole.



         It was the missionaries who at the beginning of this century devised, broadly speaking, the system by which Kinyarwanda continues to be written. Apart from small matters of detail, linguistic experts consider this transcription to be satisfactory.


         Successive reforms in the transcription of this language have tended towards standardizing it, especially as regards the following points:

nasals and their harmonics;

e.g.     mf or nv

         mp or mh

elisions due to morpho-syntactical factors;

e.g. compound words

       locatives, indices

punctuation to improve the rendering of texts as regards the oral aspect (intonation);

regional variations: problem of the norm to adopt;

tonality and quantity whose accuracy and appropriate notation play an important role in the language.


         Spelling reform forms part of the overall effort to improve the educational programme. For this purpose, the Minister of National Education, in March 1971, set up a commission for the reform of the orthography. Research work and reflection are continuing at the Educational Office (Kinyarwanda Section), at the University, at the National Institute for Scientific Research, etc.... For this reform to succeed, it will naturally be necessary for the initiators (linguistic experts and teachers) to be brought together with the practitioners, for the greater benefit of both the Kinyarwanda language and the country as a whole.



         Several transcription systems have been used for the languages of Senegal: those of the missions (Protestant, Catholic), that used by Arabic speakers and the indigenous systems. The last two types are accepted today.


         A commission, presided over by the head of State of Senegal, is carrying out an overall study of the problems relating to the languages of the country.


         Six languages have the status of official languages: Soninke, Pular, Mandingo, Wolof, Serer. [sic - only 5 listed in original]

         The alphabet and transcription of these six languages are regulated by decree, and a draft decree envisages the use of these languages in the schools.


         The major problem from the point of view of the research worker or of the enlightened observer is a tendency to model the writing of the Senegalese languages on that of French (official language).

         This poses awkard problems from the point of view of the development of an autonomous, coherent and educationally viable written language.

         While the Bamako alphabet has been recognized at the external level, the segmentation advocated by that meeting has not been accepted.

         Tonal notation is not yet customary.



         Before the nineteenth century: the Arabic alphabet was used for Swahili.

         In the nineteenth century: use of the Latin alphabet for several Tanzanian languages, including Swahili.

         From 1930 till the present: standardization by the Interritorial Language Commission of the use of the Latin alphabet. (cf. Miss E.O. Ashton's work on Swahili, 1944).


National Council for Swahili (Ministry of National Culture and Youth).        

Institute for Research on Swahili (Dar-es-Salaam University).

Institute of Education (Ministry of National Education).

Department of Swahili (Dar-es-Salaam University).

Officialization of the alphabet

Vowels: a, e, i, o, u.

Consonants: b, ch, d, dh, f, g, gh, h, j, k, kh, l, m, n, ny, ng', p, r, s, sh, t, th, v, w, y, z

Diagraphs have been given preference over special symbols and are still in use.


         Vowel length badly noted (or not noted)except in the final position.

         e.g.: saa "watch", mzee "old", tii "obey", choo "lavatory" juu "above".

         Segmentation of words is still insufficient, owing to foreign linguistic habits. e.g. ye yote/yeyote, huyu huyu/huyuhuyu, mbali mbali/mbalimbali

         Transcription of the other Tanzanian languages and the establishment of an official alphabet are problems that have not yet been considered.

         It is hoped that the results of the present meeting will definitely be taken into consideration.


         Six languages or language groups are recognized for educational purposes. These are Luganda, Runyoro/Rutooro, Runyankore/Rukiga, Lugbara, Ateso/Akarimojong and Luro (a composite of Lango, Acholi, Alur). These languages adopted the "Africa" alphabet as early as 1946 and, particularly in the Bantu group of languages, there is a long tradition of publication based on this alphabet.


         There is no standard orthography acceptable to all speakers of Luro, Lugbara and Ateso/Akarimojong, all these languages having evolved two different coexisting orthographic systems based on religious grounds.

         The issue of segmentation of words present considerable problems in the writing of all Bantu languages in Uganda.

         Undue emphasis is still placed on English. In fact, since independence, there has been a rapid Europeanization of media of instruction thus hampering efforts in the resolution of orthographic problems existing in Ugandan languages and the promotion in general of Ugandan languages.


         Within each group of languages, there is urgent need to harmonize as well as to review existing practices.


         The linguistic map of Zaire with its complex pattern of Bantu and non-Bantu languages is often compared to a draughts board or mosaic. The exact number is still not known. Some authors speak of 250 languages, while others consider that the true figure is probably even higher.


         Several transcription systems, all based on the Latin alphabet, are in use in Zaire.

         Those systems which existed prior to 1960 and were primarily employed in a religious or educational context, do not use any particular linguistic signs; they are still in use and are to be found particularly in private correspondence, in the songs of Zaire, in old school-books, in magazines and periodicals, and in administrative, legal and religious texts.

         Recent transcriptions, particularly those introduced since 1960, incorporate specific diacritical signs. They are more phonetic that their predecessors, but less widely used. Their use is primarily limited to education and to a more or less specialized works.

         The most recent system (1974), which is used unofficially, has been evolved by Zairian linguistic experts.


         Up to the present time, there has been no official decree establishing either a single alphabet or a reference alphabet for the transcription of the languages of Zaire.

         The Government of Zaire, however, favours the expansion of four major national languages, namely Lingala, Ciluba, Kikongo and Swahili; French being the official administrative and educational language. Accordingly, radio and television programmes include broadcasts in these four languages, and in addition government assistance is given to organizations and study centres whose object is the study and teaching of the national languages (e.g. the Zaire Linguists Society and the CELTA).

         As a result, elementary textbooks for the first two years of primary school have been drawn up in accordance with the system proposed by the Zaire linguists (cf. communication of Mr. Kalema).

         Comparison revealed that the Zaire linguists have been at pains to simplify and harmonize the transcription systems in current use.


         There are no major problems at the technical level, thanks to the simplicity of the proposed system. Such problems as could exist would be of a psychological, educational and financial order.



         Seven commissions are working separately on the standardization of the seven officially approved languages of Zambia. These are Bemba, Kaonda, Lozi, Lundi, Luwale, Nyanja and Tonga.

         Four of these languages (Bemba, Lozi, Nyanja and Tonga) are taught in the secondary schools.


         Distinction between short and long vowels (should length be indicated by doubling the letter ?).

         Should digraphs be used to represent consonants for which there is no single corresponding letter in the Latin alphabet?

         The commissions have been reluctant to modify the alphabet used for English, their reasoning (unfortunately faulty) being that to change the orthography of a language is to lose the identity of that language.

         In spite of all these obstacles, an impressive document has emerged. The tones are not noted.


Item 2 of the Agenda

         Follow -up by countries concerned to the recommendations of experts on the standardization and unification of the transcription of African languages.

         In discussing this point, the experts bore in mind the meetings held in Bamako (1966) in Yaoundé (1970) and in Cotonou (1975).

         It emerged from the various statements that, of the countries concerned, some had implemented the experts' recommendations, either wholly or in part, while others had not. It was noted that in both cases national contingencies had been a determining factor. (1)

         As many of the problems raised under this agenda item had already been covered in the discussions on item 1, the experts considered that the subject was now exhausted.

Items 3 and 4 of the Agenda

         The technical difficulties encounted in the harmonization of the transcription of a single language or of languages common to several countries.

         A comparative study of the factors which have retarded or facilitated the harmonization of the African languages.

         In introducing his text, Mr. Dalby drew attention to the need:

         (1) to eliminate or reduce orthographic anomalies within each African language and, where possible, as between one African language and another;

         (2) to conform to orthographic rules drawn up by governments;

         (3) to turn the scientific studies carried out by linguists to practical account: e.g. elimination of illiteracy, harmonization of African languages;

         (4) to encourage the compilation of practical orthographies for less widely - spoken African languages;

         (5) to publish texts in the official orthography in the fields of culture, literature and education.

         Mr. Dalby pointed out that the International African Institute (IAI) through its Executive Council (with a majority of African members ) and through its research workers (mostly African) was pursuing these aims. The international orthographic system proposed at Niamey by the IAI conformed, in fact, to the principle of "one sound, one sign". The proposed system endeavoured to present, in the form of a reference table, a series of single characters for single sounds, showing the equivalence of these signs with other signs (diacritics and diagraphs) in present use in Africa. This reference table aimed at being both descriptive and practical, but was not intended to be prescriptive or theoretical. It provided sufficient signs to transcribe the great majority of African languages including Arabic. Mr. Dalby expressed the hope that the compilation of such an orthographic reference system, improved where necessary by the discussions in Niamey, could facilitate the harmonization of the orthography of the African languages. He pointed out that orthographic signs introduced by the IAI in 1928 - 1930 had received increasing support with the passage of time. Thus, the Bamako meeting (1966) had recommended hooked letters for the transcription of Peul and Hausa in French - speaking countries, and the Conakry [? - or Cotonou?] meeting (1975) had recommended the signs ? and ? for Jula.

         The meeting also took note of the use of harmonized alphabet for the transcription of African  names in Arabic proposed by the meeting of experts on the "Ethnony[m]s and toponymes" organized by UNESCO from 3 to 7 July 1978 in the context of the preparation of the General History of Africa.

         In the course of the discussions, a number of proposals were made regarding the extent to which symbols derived from African alphabets could prove useful in improving the general reference alphabet adopted by the meeting of experts in Niamey, by making it possible to eliminate:

         - deformed Latin symbols;

         - diagraphs whose use was not acceptable.

Without either accepting or rejecting this proposal, participants took note of it in a spirit of scientific open-mindedness.

         In conclusion, Mr. Dalby pointed out that the transcription of European languages had remained in a state of confusion for more than a thousand years, following the imposition, first by Roman colonizers and subsequently by the Church, of the Latin alphabet with its relatively small number of letters. He expressed the hope that Africa would escape the effects of that same orthographic colonization by establishing an alphabet appropriate to its languages.

         A very fruitful discussion followed this statement and it was agreed to request the subcommittee on the alphabet and orthography to undertake a more detailed study of the problem.

         The meeting studied the problems posed by the technical reproduction of the characters requires by the African languages. It was felt that steps should be taken to increase the volume and quality of experimental printed matter and to devise formulas adapted in the context of African publishing.

         At the conclusion of the discussions on the first four agenda items, Mr. A.I Sow read out the preliminary draft of a declaration of principles which met with general approval.

         The following three subcommittees vere then set up.

         (1)     Subcommittee on Alphabets and Orthographies

                  Mr., Ibrahim A. Mukoshy - Chairman

                  Mr. P. Ntahombaye - Rapporteurs

                  Mr. David Dalby

         (2)     Subcommittee on Language Group Co-ordination

                  Mr. Atin kouassi - Chairman

                  Mr. Hazoume - Rapporteurs

                  Mr. Moussa Touré

         (3)     Subcommittee on Recommendations

                  Mrs. Kounta -         Chairman

                  Mr. Alpha I. Sow - Rapporteur

         Opening the discussion, the Chairman informed participants that only the text drawn up by the Subcommittee on Recommendations was available. After a wide exchange of views on the desirability of opening the discussions only with this document which, logically, should come last, one participant suggested - particularly since the Chairman of Subcommittee 3 was obliged to leave within a few hours - that the Chairmen of the various subcommittees should give brief résumés of the results of their work. The participants accepted this proposal and, at the suggestion of the Chairman, commented in general terms on the statements relating to subcommittees 1 and 2, with the intention of reverting to them when the texts of those two subcommittees were available. The report of Subcommittees 3 was, however, discussed in greater detail.

         Before adjourning, the participants agreed to set up a commission to synthesize the reports of the three subcommittees. Mr. Atin Kouassi, Mr. A.I. Sow, Mr. Touré and Mrs. Thomas agreed to form this committee.

         During the final session, the report of the synthesis Committee and the Final Report, respectively, were discussed and approved.

         The closing ceremony of the meeting was presided over by Mr. Assane Boubacar, Secretary - General of the Ministry of National Education.

Item 5 of the Agenda

Conclusions and recommendations


1.       Black Africa is confronted today with the challenge of modernization. In order to meet this challenge with the maximum effectiveness, every research worker must restate the problems encountered within his own field in terms of the wider aspirations of the peoples.

2.       We therefore consider it essential that the resources of world-wide linguistic science and the advanced technology of the industrialized countries should be placed at the service of the projects being organized with such dedication by Africans today. This would make it possible, to create within a very short period of time, highly effective instruments to be used for the education of the masses in the context of the harmonious development of their societies.

3.       It has been noted nevertheless that while regional and sub regional meetings of experts have been held, with the aid of UNESCO, over a period of more than ten years and have drawn up reasonable and well-founded proposals, these proposals have been periodically called in question in certain quarters, generally on dubious grounds. Such subjective attitudes impair the prospects of satisfactorily completing a long - term task whose outcome affects the future of millions of Africans.

4.       We confirm our agreement with the methodological observations and proposals formulated at the meetings held in Bamako (1966), Yaoundé (1970) and Cotonou (1975): the alphabet presented in this report is proof of this. We propose its adoption by the African States concerned and by the various specialists who are working on the African languages.

5.       We urge governments, institutions and research workers with their own tradition of writing African languages to conform to the proposals formulated at these meetings on harmonization. This is all the more justified inasmuch as the number of those who have benefited from literacy training or schooling in African languages has still not attained, in any country of Black Africa, the sort of irreversible level that could constitute a ground for refusing to introduce the changes necessary in order to achieve a reasonable degree of harmonization.

         The aim to be pursued, in fact, is to ensure that all significant sounds in all the languages of the same political and cultural area are symbolized in the same manner, by a single sign for:

         (a)      identical phonemes in the various languages of a single country;

         (b)     the phonemes of a language spoken in more than one country of a linguistic area.

6.       Harmonization would thus contribute to the reform of existing usage and enable every African to proceed readily from the graphic system of his own languages to any other system in the same country and in the same cultural area.


7.       Any proposed alphabet should therefore derive from a vigorous phonological description of the language to be written and its dialectal environment. It should also be based on an analysis of the linguistic situation of the country where the language is spoken and provide a foundation for coherent planning based on a scientifically established theory.

8.       These considerations lead us to the African Reference Alphabet, codified and harmonized as follows:

         (i)      Alphabetic table (see Annex)

                  This African alphabet should be considered as a reference alphabet, compiled in accordance with the following                          methodological principles:

                          one sound, one sign: only one symbol should be selected to represent a given sound, and it should be used to represent that sound alone.

                          clarity and simplicity: the diagraph is not a satisfactorily solution. It has been adopted only in exceptional cases and where strictly necessary. Diacritics have been reduced to the absolute minimum, experience showing that they are very often omitted or neglected in manuscripts. Moreover, it has been proved that a profusion of diacritical signs makes a text harder to read.

         (ii)     Comments

                  In order to facilitate the adoption of this reference alphabet for certain specific languages, the following notes have been added:

                  (a)      Vowels

                          Nasalization is preferably represented by the vowel followed by n (Vn). Use of the tilde (Ṽ) is only justifiable if the syllabic structure does not allow an n to be placed after the vowel.

                          The tone, if it has to be marked, is represented by (´) for the high tone, and (`) for the low tone, (- [this mark is unclear in original] ) for the falling modulated tone, () for the rising tone. The medium tone will be marked by a horizontal line above the vowel ().

                          Length is preferably represented by the doubling of the vowel. Where necessary, to avoid ambiguity, use should be made of some sign appropriate to the language concerned.

                          Dipthongs are represented by the vowel + w/y (Vw/Vy) or by w/y + the vowel (wV/yV), except where phonological analysis makes this impossible.

                          Aspirate vowels are represented by the vowel +h (Vh)

                          Central vowels not represented by the signs selected may be symbolized by the corresponding vowel + diaeresis: (¨v).

                  (b)     Consonants

                          Aspiration is represented by h.

                          Palatalization is represented by y.

                          Labialization is represented by w.

                          Gemination is represented by the redoubling of the consonant.

                          Prenasalization (syllabic nasal or prefixed nasal) is represented by m/n/y + the consonant.

                          Diagraphs are recommended for the labio - velars /kp/ amd /gb/, the laterals /hl/ and /dl/, and for prenasalized, affricate and (less frequent) lateral phonemes, for example, /dz/pf/Yl/sl/tl/xl/... In certain African languages with no phonemic aspiration, digraphs may be established with /h/: /dh/ for [ʒ], /th/ for [θ], /gh/ for [ɣ], /sh/ for [ʃ].

                          Diacritics will also be reduced tothe minimum. In the reference alphabet, they appear in two forms: a subscript horizontal line for clicks (this may be omitted in most of the languages concerned), and a subscript dot for Arabic-type emphatics.

         (iii)     Segmentation

9.       Segmentation must be based on the actual phonological morphological and syntactical fact of each language.

10.     It is recommended, in this context, that care should be taken not to impose the segmentation of foreign languages on the languages of Africa.

11.     We recommend, moreover, harmonization of the principles of segmentation for languages of the same linguistic area.


12.     In order better to ensure co-ordination of the activities of governments and international organizations in connection with the development of African languages, a clear definition is required of the various frameworks within which bilateral and international co-operation can operate most effectively. We propose two types of framework, to cover all activities concerned with the transcription and harmonization of languages and groups of languages.

13.     1.       Geographic and Linguistic Frameworks

                  A.      Inter-African Languages        

                  (a)      Importance of these languages:

                          They encourage the development of inter-African relations and so contribute to strengthening African Unity.

                          They act as pilot languages for all other languages of the same linguistic group or of the same geographical area in so far as the solutions adopted for them can also be applied to other, less widely - spoken languages.

                          Moreover, they can readily benefit from the assistance of international organizations within the framework of regional projects.

                  (b)     Possible criteria for the definition of inter - African languages:

                          A language may be described as "inter-African" if it:

                          - is common to several countries;

                          - is spoken by a large number of people;

                          - enjoys a privileged status in certain countries.

                  (c)      Provisional list of inter - African languages West Africa

                          Fulfulde (Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, etc. )

                          Hausa (Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, etc.)

                          Kanuri (Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon)

                          Mandigo (Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, the Gambia, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta)

                          Songhay - Zarma (Mali, Niger, Benin)

                          Tamashek (Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Morocco)                         

                          Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin, Togo)

                          Wolof (Senegal, the Gambia)                 

                          Central and East Africa

                          Ewondo- Fang (Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon)

                          Kikongo (Zaire, Angola, Congo, Gabon)

                          Kinyarwanda and Kirundi (Rwanda, Burundi)

                          Kiswahili (Tanzania, Kenya, Zaire, Uganda, Mozambique, Malawi, Comores, Somalia etc. )

                          Lingala (Zaire, Congo)

                          Oromo (Ethiopia, Kenya etc.)                 

                          Sango (Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Zaire etc.)

                          Somali (Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti)

                          Southern Africa                 

                          Tswana-Sotho (Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa)                 

                          Nguni-Xhosa-Zulu-Swati-Ndebele (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe)

                          Shona (Zimbabwe, Mozambique)

                  B. Language Groups and Subgroups

                  1.       Definitions: These are languages belonging to the same linguistic and cultural area and generally not related to the inter-African languages mentioned above. Their common problems (linguistic research, oral traditions, promotion ) should, therefore, be resolved within the framework of the linguistic classifications provisionally established.

                  2.       Provisional list

                          (i)      the "West Atlantic" languages (Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone);

                          (ii)     the "Kru" languages (Liberia, Ivory Coast);

                          (iii)     the "Voltaic" languages (Mali, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger);

                          (iv)     the "Senoufo" languages (Ivory Coast, Mali, Upper Volta);

                          (v)     the "Kwa" languages (Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria);

                          (vi)     the "Bantu" languages (Cameroon, Angola, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, etc. ).

         14.     Institutional Frameworks

                  (a)      National Level

                          Centres for linguistic research and for the study of oral traditions, government departments or national commissions, inter-state commissions, etc.

                  (b)     Regional and sub regional Level

                          Regional and Sub regional centres such as CELHTO, CERDOTOLA and other centres to be established.


15. It must be recognized that most governments have not yet defined their linguistic policy. This restrains the co-ordination of  efforts to develop all the national languages at their sub regional levels. Consequently, these governments will be obliged to call upon existing institutions competent in this field or those to be established for assistance in defining their linguistic policy.

16.     With a view to the implementation of these proposals, we recommend African countries and UNESCO:

         (a)      to set up, in each linguistic area, a co-ordinating committee composed of representatives of national research institutions in order to ensure the adoption, for all the languages to be transcribed, of a system of writing in conformity with the symbols chosen for languages in the same cultural area;

         (b)     to organize periodically, on the scale of each linguistic area, seminars, courses of instruction and study tours for the technical and scientific training of personnel entrusted with carrying out African language programmes: teachers, research workers, professional communications and media personnel, technical personnel, etc.;

         (c)      to widen interdisciplinary co-operation at the linguistic area level;

         (d)      to ensure the proper application of the proposed code in the texts of publications issued by the various organizations concerned;

         (e)      to encourage harmonization of the use of the African languages in all information fields: radio, press, cinema, television;

         (f)      to collect and circulate information on all activities being carried out in the field of African languages;

         (g)      to hold consultations at an early date with competent persons in the printing and book production industries with a view to devising a standard keyboard reproducing the symbols of the African alphabet;

         (h)     to compile and circulate a reference work embracing the most important contributions to the transcription and harmonization of the African languages, for use as a practical Guide by interested countries, institutions and research workers;

         (i)      to encourage such systematic research projects as could contribute, through the analysis and classification of the African languages, to the elucidation of the history of the people of Africa and help to determine their relationships.         

Thanks to Dr. Joseph Lauer of Michigan State University for help with locating African languages: Proceedings of the meeting of experts on the transcription and harmonization of African languages, Niamey (Niger), 17-21 July 1978. Paris: UNESCO, 1981, from which selections are reproduced here. Appropriate permissions being sought. Thanks to Kabirou Amousa for help with typing.

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