The Outlook for ADLaM

Back in the 1980’s, as the story goes, two Fulani brothers growing up in Guinea took it upon themselves to invent a script that they called “ADLaM”:  “Alkule Dandayɗe Leñol Mulugol”, or “The Alphabet that protects the peoples from vanishing”.1  I had the opportunity to meet Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry in 2014 when they visited New York, and heard about the work that had been done up to that point by Michael Everson and Randall Hasson toward bringing the script into the Unicode Standard.  It had been brought to my attention the previous year by Deborah Anderson at the Script Encoding Initiative at UC-Berkeley.  Adlam came to wider public attention in 2016 with the publication of an article in The Atlantic

As with many scripts, it has gone through phases of development, such that the style of the glyphs has varied, in some cases quite substantially, from its original handwritten design, to the way it was printed in early publications, to a calligraphic style which became the standard for use in code charts, to a detailed reworking of some of the glyphs post-standardization by the font design house Jamra Patel.  In digital humanities work, it may not be necessary to track all of these changes, but it would be important to be aware of them in case they come up in, for example, a project addressing Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

Adlam is not the only script that has been used for the Fulani language; it has earned its place alongside ‘Ajami (modified Arabic script), extended Latin, and two short-lived alphabets known as ‘Dita’ and ‘Ba’.2

The utility of Adlam has been expressed through a wide range of resources, covering newspapers, lesson books, translation of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file from the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa, and production of a translation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR).  I helped coordinate the translation of the FAQ on Ebola in August of 2014 during the West Africa outbreak.

excerpt AdlamEbola


Figure 1. Excerpt from the WHO AFRO FAQ on Ebola, translated into Fulani using the Adlam script in 2014 by Ibrahima Barry.

excerpt AdlamUDHR

Figure 2.  Excerpt from the UDHR in Fulani using Adlam, provided by Boubacar Diallo.

Bringing it into the Unicode Standard has allowed it to be supported on newer versions of Android, with some apps like a calculator (kiimirgal) that use it, and on more recent builds of Windows 10 (18252, 18329, and 18346) as part of a system font.  It stands to become more prevalent in bibliographic metadata as system support improves and a romanization table is developed.  You may find catalog records that follow a preliminary romanization table at this link.      



2Mafundikwa, 2004.



Everson, Michael.  Revised proposal for encoding the Adlam script in the SMP of the UCS.  ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 N4628R.  Accessed 17 May, 2019.

Mafundikwa, Saki.  Afrikan alphabets:  the story of writing in Afrika.  New Jersey:  Mark Batty, 2004.

Waddell, Kaveh.  “The alphabet that will save a people from disappearing”.  The Atlantic, 16 November 2016. Accessed 17 May, 2019.

Winden-Jangen. Accessed 17 May, 2019.

Unicode code chart: Adlam. Accessed 17 May, 2019.


2 thoughts on “The Outlook for ADLaM

  1. Interesting article, thanks. If I may, it would also seem useful to step back and look at the history of written Fulani (aka Fula, or the endonyms Pulaar, Pular, and Fulfulde). You mention in passing the Ajami (modified usage of the Arabic alphabet) and extended-Latin scripts. Worth noting that while Ajami never was standardized – some conventions were more or less followed, but differed by region – the Latin script was standardized by the 1960s. Interestingly, Guinea did not adopt this standard until 1989, almost the same time that the Barry brothers invented Adlam. (An alternate Latin standard orthography was used extensively in schools mainly in the Fuuta Jalon region during the Sékou Touré years).

    Some point out the variation by country in the Latin orthography (which are a function largely of language/literacy authorities accommodating multiple languages). These are very minor – on the level of British vs American English, or the different positions of dots in the “fa” & “qaf” characters in Maghrebian Arabic usage.

    Some remarkable work has been and continues to be done in the Latin orthography, attesting to its utility. There was never an Atlantic article on it, but if there were, it might have read like Dr. Sonja Fagerberg-Diallo’s “Learning to Read Woke Me Up!” (2002). (She also wrote on the history of Pulaar-speakers’ use of the Latin script, but I don’t have that reference at hand.)

    The Adlam effort is to be commended for reaching & apparently inspiring some number of Fulaphones whose needs & interests were not met by underfunded literacy programs & the non-existence of mother-tongue classroom instruction in many areas.

    The Romanization of Adlam, or the Adlamization of the Latin orthography, seems straightforward. A technical need at this point is to be able to convert text in both directions.

  2. Thanks, Don! You’ve made some important points that intersect well. Thanks for the reference to Sonja’s work; I was fortunate to have visited her in Dakar around 1997 at ARED. On the Romanization front, we may need the go-ahead from the Library of Congress before a table can be approved and a converter developed.

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