Minding Mende

A fair amount of source material in the Kikakui script of the Mende language of Sierra Leone has just been made available for viewing, transcription, and annotation here.  These are notebooks of a goldsmith who wrote in them during the 1950’s.  They were acquired from their late author, Bokari Kanneh, by Dr. Konrad Tuchscherer in March of 1994, and donated to Yale in 2009.  According to the information provided to Yale by Tuchscherer, Kanneh “was a Mende (with some Maninka heritage) who lived in Nyandeyema, Nongowa Chiefdom”.

MendeSample2
Fig. 1. Sample page image from Yale MS2049, the Mende Notebooks of Bokari Kanneh

Tuchscherer worked with Michael Everson to develop the Unicode proposal for Mende Kikakui, and the resulting chart can be found here for comparison to these sources.  A font and an input tool were developed by Jason Glavy and Andrew Cunningham, respectively, that can be used together here.

It is readily apparent that the tools and charts do not conform perfectly to the source material.  In some cases, this is due to mere glyph variants—rotations or modifications of the visual representation of a character as an abstraction.  But it is quite common to find in these sources characters that are in no way accounted for in the Unicode chart.  To be encoded, a semantic value needs to be assignable to a character.  In these notebooks, which contain content that falls outside of what has been accounted for in analytic charts, we don’t always have a certain semantic value, or other identification, to denote which character is represented and it’s not (as yet) determinable from context.

Fortunately, this state of affairs does not necessitate a reworking of the existing code chart as such.  It only implies that, at worst, there are additional characters to be accounted for in future versions of the Unicode Standard as further analysis permits.

Most other Mende texts that exist are in the Latin script.  One example that should be more widely known is this “prayer composed for the use of the Mendi prisoners at New Haven, by their teachers, and translated into Mendi, by James Covey”, dating from an 1840 article by Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr., from the time of the Amistad case (copied here but with hyphens removed for legibility):

“O Gewaw wa, biabi yandingo; biabi hani gbele bateni; biabi fuli bateni; biabi ngali bateni; biabi tûmbilegai bateni; biabi ngiyi bateni; ke ndzha wa; biabi dzhate bateni, ke nguli, ke gnwawni, ke nwua, ke nûnga wuloa.

“O Gewaw, biabi hinda gbele; biabi tamoi sina tigbele loa; biabi gna loa; biabi gna di loa; biabi gna loa, kia fuli agua; biabi gna loa gbindi; biabi gilila hinde gbi gnaga kala.

“O Gewaw, biabi gna gaw kola, gnagi siagwa bima; bi gna gaw mehe gi me ke gi gbawli, gi siagwa bima.  Gna di ei ha, gna di alolaw kunafaw.  Gna di bate yandingo.  Gnagi bi mawli, bi gnama humgbi.  Gnagi bi mawli, bi gna dawwung yandingo.  Gnagi hinda yammo wilia.  Manu gnama.  Gi bima ninia.  Kia nga ha, bi gna di we, bi dila hinda bigbe; Gewaw wa ndui wa.  Amen.”

Thanks are due to Jeanette Zaragoza De Leon, Thomas Thurston, Fred Lamp, Joseph Opala, and Joseph Yannielli for their research on and interest in Mende materials, which encouraged me to find what I could for them.

Bibliography

Dalby, David. 1967. A survey of the indigenous scripts of Liberia and Sierra Leone: Vai, Mende, Loma, Kpelle and Bassa. African Language Studies 8. 1-51.

Everson, Michael, and Konrad Tuchscherer. 2012. “Revised proposal for encoding the Mende script in the SMP of the UCS”. JTC1/SC2/WG2 N4167.

Gibbs, Josiah Willard, Sr. 1840. “A Mendi Vocabulary”. American Journal of Science & Arts 38:1, pp. 44-48.

Innes, Gordon. 1967. A practical introduction to Mende. London: School for Oriental and African Studies.

Pemagbi, Joe. 1991. A guide to Mende orthography. [Freetown]: Sierra Leone Adult Education Assocation.

Tuchscherer, Konrad. 1996. The Kikakui (Mende) syllabary and number writing system: Descriptive, historical and ethnographic accounts of a West African tradition of writing. A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of Arts in candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa, The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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