N'Ko script

The N'Ko (ߒߞߏ) script was created in 1948 by Sulemana Kante (Guinea) and is used mainly for Manding languages. It is most popular in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, with smaller user communities in southern Mali.

N'Ko alphabet includes consonants, vowels, and tone marks (see below). It is written right-to-left. Proponents find it is much better adapted to the Manding languages than other scripts.

There are some efforts using the N'Ko script for other languages in West Africa.

"N'Ko" also refers to an effort at standardizing Manding. This page focuses on it as a writing system.

Background (27/12/2005)

As any new invention, N'Ko alphabet was not created in a vacuum but it was preceded by many tries and efforts at all levels social, cultural and educational levels. In many MANDEN territories, there were insufficient options available to preserve MANDEN culture due to the decline of MANDEN social norms and traditional rules. These rules and norms were created in the conference constitutional of KRUKANFUA by the emperor Sunjata to govern and control the empire of Mali in 1236. These efforts were focused to transcribe and write their language by using well known alphabets like Arabic, Vai or Latin ended in failure.

This inability of using foreign alphabets to write N'Ko does not mean that those alphabets are poor and that fact cannot be considered in any way as a weak point in those particular alphabets. On other hand, the fact that the foreign alphabets were not suited to write N'Ko language cannot also be seen as a weakness in MANDEN culture.

Particularly in those days when you have many social classes in MANDEN society each social class, and each had its own specific task to perform such as Donso, the hunters had the responsibilities to secure the nation. The Jelis had to preserve and pass legends and history from generation to generation, and the religious leaders to teach the young generation. The important thing now to notice is that after the decline of most of the social norms and the classical order of MANDEN society many people realized that the only way to preserve history and culture was to write it down. That is why the genius Fode Solomana Kante worked for seven years to find a solution to this huge problem (inability to write our language by using our own letters).

He spent seven years of work and research on this task. Out of the seven years he labored for four years trying to use Arabic alphabet to transcribe N"Ko (1941-1945). He found out that Arabic lacked the ability to accurately transcribe the Maninka language his branch of the Manden Language N'Ko. Then he spent another three years trying to use the Latin alphabets which also gave the same negative result (1946-1948).

Through all these experiments he gained a lot of experience and he also discovered many things about why these alphabets were unable to write the N'Ko languages. In these experiments the alphabet of Vai was not taken into consideration due to its lack of flexibility in spite of its numerous letters that exceed 215 letters.

Finally in 1949, Fode Solomana Kante invented an independent brand new alphabet for the Manden people that contained all the positive sides of the various alphabets he studied plus many new properties that are fully capable to write the N'Ko language. He named it N'Ko a name which was derived from the mother tongue of the emperor Sunjata and many West Africans - the N'Ko.

Meaning of N'Ko

Before we talk about the different stages in development of N'Ko which was achieved with the efforts of great researchers, allow me to give you a brief explanation on the meaning of this short word - N'Ko.

N'Ko is a two parts compound words (N') which means "I" and (KO) which means "say." Thus you have N'Ko="I say" with this meaning the word points to two different aspects:

  1. An integrated writing system that can be used by all the African languages. It includes vowels, consonants and all diacritical marks to symbolize different kind of tones.
  2. N'Ko is also the name of the language that is spoken by MANDEN people.


As an international writing system N'Ko is the alphabet invented by Fode Solomana Kante in the year 1949 with 27 letters which are classified into the following categories:

  • Seven vowels: ߊ ߋ ߌ ߍ ߎ ߏ ߐ
  • One neutral: ߒ
  • Nineteen consonants: ߓ ߔ ߕ ߖ ߗ ߘ ߙ ߚߛ ߜ ߝ ߞ ߟ ߡ ߢ ߣ ߤ ߥ ߦ
  • Nine diacriticals marks for the tones,
    • three of which are used for the short tones: ߫ ߬ ߭
    • four marks for long tones: ߮ ߯ ߰ ߱
    • one mark for nasalization: ߲
    • the two dots mark that does not specify any tone but only job is to convert vowels to consonants for special application.

Thus writing different sounds using similar letters occur in N'Ko due to these four aspects namely vowels, consonants, neutral and diacritics that organize the writing system and give N'Ko its unique nature. Kante was able to use only 45 letters to transcribe 8520 syllables by joining these four elements of the writing system.

Among the nine diacriticals you have these three - ߭ ߫ ߳ - that convert the main consonants to other consonants. From this point Fode Solomana Kante was able to solve all problems facing him not only in transcribing and writing languages that do not have many tones but also languages with lot of tones and sounds. It is evident that in N'Ko any vowel sound can be pronounced in sixteen different forms. The writing system gives us in one of its syllables what will require four syllables in other alphabets.


From 8520 syllables that N'Ko alphabet is capable of writing, the N'Ko speakers use only 2150. Therefore, there is a great chance that other African languages can be written easily with N'Ko without any modification or transformation. Among the characteristics of N'Ko as writing system is that any single syllable can contains the four different elements (vowels, consonants and diacritical marks) that give it its special appearance and pronunciation.

Example: ߛ ߛ߭ ߛ߳ ߛ߫

These capabilities also give the writer the ability to write down not only sounds and their diacritics but also all the tones that are firmly related to their language. N'Ko orientation is similar to Arabic because it is also written from right to left. The difference however is that in N'Ko you have vowels, consonants and diacriticals which are not available in Arabic.

Building words with N'Ko alphabet has some similarity with the Latin for its system contains vowels and consonants; however the difference is the additional diacritics found in N'Ko. Additionally, there is a difference in their orientations from "right to left" (RTL script). Therefore N'Ko has a kind of hidden force that is extracted from various languages such as Latin and Arabic.

Like Arabic, it has dynamical generalization of letters because a letter can be automatically changed to another letter by placing a mare dot or two dots on top. It has a similarity with Latin in terms of flexibility in building syllables by using vowels and consonants. Apart from all these similarities it has a special property that gives its unique characteristics, which makes N'Ko an integrated African alphabet which is used in nine West African countries Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and all these countries are member states of ECOWAS-CEDEAO.

N'Ko and Manden people

N'Ko people are called in different name such as MANINKA, BAMBARA, MANDINGO, and JULA. The word MALINKE is mostly used by the French, while MANDINGO is used mostly in English. At any rate the N'Ko speakers may be called by difference names but the meaning is the same that is "Children of the Kings", (MAAN) & ( DEN ) and we all do understand each other in spite of differences in dialects .

Manden people learn N'Ko in many different ways such as:

  • Collective learning and adult education.
  • Private and self learning for both men and women in different ages.
  • "N'Ko Alphabet Day," April 14 (observance relating to April 14, 1949, the date the script is believed to have been finalized)

The inventor did not just invent the writing system for our people but He put it into practice as well. He authored something like 180 books within 38 years ending with His death in 1987. His students and followers worked in the same as their teacher did before with courage and endless efforts.

Baba Mamadi Diane, Cairo-Egypt ߓߊ߬ߓߊ߫ ߡߊ߬ߡߊߘߌ߫ ߖߊ߰ߣߍ߫

Examples of usage


CodeEnglish NameNom françaisProperty Value AliasDate
Nkoo165N'kon'ko 2006-10-10

Source: Codes for the representation of names of scripts / Codes pour la représentation des noms d'écritures, http://www.unicode.org/iso15924/iso15924-codes.html

Other sources

References & other links

Descriptions of use

UNESCO, "Mali CMC Makes N'ko Newspaper's Circulation Soar," (12-01-2005) http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=17925&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

Font converter

  • Convertisseur N'Ko (text in 8-bit specialty fonts to Unicode / "Sur ce site, vous pouvez convertir dans le format moderne d'Unicode vos textes n'ko écrits avec les anciennes polices pré-Unicodes") - http://nkoconvert.ho.ua/

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