Latin script / Roman alphabet

This page discusses the Latin (or Roman) script as used for writing African languages.

1.  Use & modifications for African languages

Contemporary use of the Latin or Roman alphabet for African languages dates to European contacts, especially of missionaries, on the eve of European colonisation. Adaptation of this alphabet to African languages has occurred over a shorter historical period than its adaptation to European languages (and also than the adaptation of the Arabic script to many African languages).

Two general facts are worth noting. First, as linguist David Dalby mentioned in the Niamey conference on African language transcription in 1978, the adaptation of the relatively small alphabet of the Latin language to the other languages of Europe was a long and not easy process (witness the unusual spellings that are a result in both English and French, for instance). The Latin alphabet may have its advantages in certain ways but also its shortcomings.

Second, there have been some serious efforts in Africa, both before and after independence, and involving both Africans and non-Africans, to engineer the adaptation of this writing system to the sounds and tones of African languages. This has been done mainly through addition of modified letters (extended characters) and/or diacritics (marks above or below the letters). Many of these are also used by linguists as part of the International Phonetic Alphabet. This approach has remained important in some parts of the continent, notably West Africa, but has been abandoned for other languages, notably in southern Africa (many of which now use the Latin alphabet as in English).

2.  Latin-based & Extended Latin

To say an orthography is "Latin-based" simply means that it uses the Latin (also called Roman) alphabet, or some part of it, and may use diacritics and/or extended characters (modified letters) to represent sounds that are important to distinguish for meaning.

An "extended Latin" orthography is a Latin-based one that includes extended characters and sometimes requires special diacritics placement or stacking?.

3.  ASCII, Extended Characters, and Unicode

The problem of how to deal with extended character sets - an expanded Latin alphabet - in typewriters and eventually personal computers is one that has concerned numerous people for some time. The problem for a long time was the limited number of "spaces" for letters on the keyboard - literally in the case of typewriters, but figuratively in computers that first used the 128-character ASCII character set and the later 256-character ANSI and ISO-8859-1 sets. The advent of Unicode has overcome this limitation but presented other problems in how to deal with composition of characters and diacritics.

These are very current issues for localisation of content and software.

4.  Some specific adaptations of the Latin script in Africa

  • "Bamako orthography" - so-called after the UNESCO expert meeting held in Bamako, Mali in March 1966. Among other things, it recommended adoption of common alphabet for African languages (based largely on that of IIALC?). This was a key conference in a series sponsored by UNESCO.
  • Boko - name of Latin orthography of Hausa.
  • IIALC? (International Institute of African Languages and Cultures) "Practical Orthography of African Languages," 1928/1930. An important colonial-era effort to standardize African language transcriptions.
  • NELIMO orthography, developed by the Núcleo de Estudo das Línguas Moçambicanas in Mozambique for languages of that country
  • Ngambai orthography - used for Sara languages of Chad.
  • Onwu orthography set in 1961 for Igbo in Nigeria.
  • Pan-Nigerian orthography developed in Nigeria in the 1980s.
  • Qubee - name of Latin orthography of Oromo in Ethiopia and Kenya.
  • Rejaf language conference 1928 - set orthographies for six languages of southern Sudan (and vicinity?) including Dinka, Nuer, and Zande.
  • Standardization and uniformization of spelling of national languages of Zaïre in 1974 - set of rules for orthographies of Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili and Chiluba in Zaïre (DRC) / Standardisation et uniformisation de l'orthographe des langues nationales du Zaïre, 1974

With regard to Nigeria, see also Othographies for Nigerian languages

5.  Schemes for unification or harmonisation of orthographies

Since the Latin script was introduced by Europeans who were used to using this alphabet in different ways in their native languages, and also because of different choices in approach to transcription by different people from the same background, there arose in some cases different ways of writing the same languages. Some efforts, such as several mentioned in the previous section, have overcome these differences to one degree or another. The organisation CASAS is currently working for harmonisation in several parts of Africa.

There have also been proposals that have not been accepted such as:

  • Nhlapo, J.M. 1945. Nguni and Sotho. A practical plan for the unification of the South African Bantu languages. Cape Town: The African Bookman. 167p. (See

6.  Resources & tools

7.  ISO-15924

CodeEnglish NameNom françaisProperty Value AliasDate

Source: Codes for the representation of names of scripts / Codes pour la représentation des noms d’écritures,

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