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The politics of Malawi's alphabet

IMG_4025-300x219Nolen Mwangwego scripted an original alphabet to better suit Malawi's vernacular. Photo by Michelle Dobrovolny.  

By Michelle Dobrovolny

The Latin alphabet is so familiar that few of us pause to question its use. But its application to a number of non-European languages is in fact quite controversial. Letters can carry meaning as much as words. For Malawian scholar Nolen Mwangwego, the Latin letters used to transcribe most African languages—including Malawi’s vernacular, Chichewa—are  politically-loaded ideograms of Western economic and cultural dominance.

"Why do we use the English alphabet to write our languages?" he asks. "In our languages [in Malawi] we have a verb that means 'to write'. In Chichewa, it is kulemba. So if this verb exists, it means that people used to write before colonization. We did have our own way of writing. It makes sense that we would have one again."

Accordingly, Mwangwego has developed an alphabet specifically for the Tumbuka, Chichewa and Sena languages spoken in Malawi. His script, unabashedly named Mwangwego Script, serves two purposes: as political statement, and as an improved representation for the unique qualities of these languages.

In Africa, the alphabet is political. With the exception of Ethiopia, Algeria and Vai, where syllabaries have existed for centuries, African societies were traditionally oral cultures. Literacy came with Christian missionaries who initially wrote down African languages as a way to proselytize to the masses. Literacy in Africa was not a benign historical development but a political instrument of religious conversion and cultural colonization. For Mwangwego, the continued use of the Latin alphabet is an outdated relic of an oppressive history.

"We were colonized. That colonization is still in our minds," he says echoing the sentiment of Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo.

Mwangwego is not the first African to develop an alphabet as a political statement. In 1949, author Souleymane Kante introduced the N'ko alphabet to Guinea, which soon spread across West Africa. Kante described his syllabary as a response to the denigration of oral culture by the West as well as an attempt to preserve traditional forms of knowledge.

Mwangwego Script, however, serves a pragmatic as well as political purpose. The Latin alphabet is simply not designed to represent the nuances of certain sounds in Malawian languages. In Chichewa, for example, the words for with and is become the homonym ndi when transcribed with the Latin alphabet. Though meaning can generally be gleaned from context, the lack of markings for ndi can lead to confusion. Literally, the Chichewa phrase munthu ndi galu as transcribed with the Latin alphabet can be read ambiguously as "person with dog" or "person is dog."


A sample of Mwangwego Script

Mwangwego says his alphabet is also better suited to the grammatical structure of Malawian languages, which are part of the Bantu linguistic group that is dominant throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Bantu languages are constructed using prefixes and suffixes attached to root nouns. Using Latin consonants and vowels to write Chichewa can make for overly-long constructions. For example, the word zosiyanasiyana, meaning "different things", takes only 7 characters using Mwanwego script, as opposed to the 14 required with the Latin alphabet.

Mwangwego began teaching his script to others in 2001, forming a community of about 200 adherents who use it to communicate amongst one another via email and at social gatherings. While there likely won't be a mass movement to change Malawi's alphabet any time soon, Mwangwego Script, as a political statement, claims literacy as part of Malawian culture rather than merely a Western representation of language.

"If we had our own alphabet, that would be an identity for Malawi," says Mwangwego. "It shows that writing is not just part of Western culture."

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