Paths to understanding Kpelle

For those interested in learning more about the history and use of the Kpelle language and script, there are a few key resources to be recommended.  One is a dictionary by Theodore Leidenfrost and John S. McKay, Kpelee-woo-Kwii-woo su-kula kɔlɔ, published by Palaverhut Press in softcover in Moscow, Idaho in 2007, four years before Leidenfrost’s death.  It runs for 400 pages and has a good bibliography.  Another is L’écriture guerzée, by P. Lassort (1951), which is the first known instance of the Kpelle syllabary appearing in print, in the form of an analytical chart.  Diedrich Westermann and William Welmers made substantial contributions to grammatical and phonological analysis respectively, and Maria Konoshenko (“Tonal systems in three dialects of the Kpelle language”, Mandenkan, 2008) has added significantly to the understanding of tone across various Kpelle dialects.  Additional dictionary resources were developed by Jean Le P. Leger around 1975 and Elizabeth G. Winkler in 1997.

But I would hazard to guess that the lion’s share of documentation and translation has been undertaken by the ethnomusicologist Ruth Stone and her father, the late Rev. Otto Spehr, colleagues of Leidenfrost who worked in and around Totota.  Ruth’s work includes an analysis of the “Woi” epic, published as Dried millet breaking in 1988, and Let the inside be sweet, published in 1982.  Rev. Spehr worked with Welmers and Roland Homrighausen on the Kpelle New Testament, published in 1967 by the Bible Society in West Africa as Gbanaŋ-woo-kɛɛ Ninai.

Our understanding of how the script survived into the 1970’s is owing mainly to a 1990 article by Dr. Stone in the Liberian Studies Journal, “Ingenious invention:  the indigenous Kpelle script”, which recounts its origins with Chief Gbili of Sanoyea, use by his wife and other chiefs, and its transmission to the musician Lee-Polu-Mala-Yale, of the village of Zongkai.

I summarized some of the above points in a 2008 report:  Since the writing of that preliminary report, more material has come to light in the form of 1970’s-era recorded audio interviews still held at Indiana.  I ordered copies of CD’s of the material for personal use, but to ensure that it reaches the widest possible audience, I requested that the material be put online for streaming.  Happily, the Archives of Traditional Music responded to me in December with the news that Ruth and Verlon Stone have granted permission for this collection of recordings to be made available soon in this way.  While the material still needs to be transcribed and translated, I am hopeful it will give us better insight into the social context in which the script was used.


Fig. 1.  Preliminary code chart proposal for Kpelle in Unicode from Everson & Riley, 2010.


Bible Society in Monrovia. 1967. Gbanaŋ-Woo-Kɛɛ Ninai. [Kpelle New Testament.]

Everson, Michael and Charles Riley.  2010.  “Preliminary proposal for encoding the Kpelle script in the SMP of the UCS”.

Konoshenko, Maria.  2008.  “Tonal systems in three dialects of the Kpelle language” in Mandenkan no. 44, pp. 21-42.

Lassort, P.  “L’écriture guerzée” in Premiere Conférence Internationale des Africanistes de l’Ouest, 1945, Comptes rendus. Vol. 2. pp. 209-215.

Leidenfrost, Theodore and John S. McKay. 2007.  Kpelee-woo-Kwii-woo su-kula kɔlɔ. Moscow, Idaho:  Palaverhut Press.

Stone, Ruth M.  1982.  Let the inside be sweet: the interpretation of music event among the Kpelle of Liberia.  Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press.

_______________.  1988.  Dried millet breaking:  time, words, and song in the Woi epic of the Kpelle.  Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press.

_______________.  1990.  “Ingenious invention:  the indigenous Kpelle script” in Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. 15: no. 2, pp. 135-144.

Welmers, William.  1962.  “The phonology of Kpelle” in Journal of African Languages, Vol. 1: no. 1, pp. 69-93.

Westermann, Diedrich and H. J. Melzian.  1930.  The Kpelle language in Liberia: grammatical outline, colloquial sentences, and vocabulary. Berlin: Reimer.

Winkler, Elizabeth G.  1997.   Kpelle-English dictionary with English-Kpelle glossary. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.



2 thoughts on “Paths to understanding Kpelle

    1. Hi Mario, it will take some time for all the pieces to come into place to support a fully functional standard, an encoded font, and a keyboard. In the meantime, you can download a free non-standard font from here:, a small business that I co-founded. I have your e-mail address, and can send you a Keyman keyboard layout too via e-mail.

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