I am delighted to be hosting another rare guest post today. M.L. is the author of the Theonite Series (comprised, thus far, of Planet Adyn and Orbit) and The Sword of Kaigen. The Sword of Kaigen is out in one week, and I will have a review up on release day. I finished it last week and, believe me, you’re going to want to read this one.
The Sword of Kaigen is set in an analog to Japan. The tech is essentially modern, but the protagonists are distinctly old samurai. The story is a character-driven heroic fantasy with one hell of a tent-pole battle set piece.
I have only read The Sword of Kaigen, but I gather that it is a standalone loosely linked to the Theonite Series. Where the setting of The Sword of Kaigen is inspired by Japan, the setting of the main series is inspired by Africa. I asked M.L. to write a little about the research that went into the main series. A common problem to non-Western settings: a lack of good English-language sources.
Letters from the Past
The Vai syllabary is the oldest of several writing systems created by the Mande of West Africa, an ethnic group I only know about through my adventures in world-building.
I was in high school when I decided that I wanted to set my first series of books (now published under the title Theonite) in a parallel dimension that reversed the racial hierarchies of Earth. This naturally necessitated a modern African superpower to dominate the planet. Now, as much as I enjoy a colorful amalgam of African cultures (see Black Panther, which will gleefully squash a Zulu headdress, Mande mudcloth, and Omo body paint into a single character design) I wanted to take a more grounded approach by picking a single African culture to serve as the inspiration for my fictional conquerors.
This meant that I had to find an African society that was 1) demonstrably capable of empire, slavery, and rapid innovation, 2) neglected enough by Western scholarship that it might seem alien to our Earthling protagonist (basically, not Egypt), and 3) based in a religion other than Christianity or Islam – again, so that it could be removed from the Western textbook perception of empire. The Mande fulfilled all these criteria with flying colors (okay, their later empires of Mali and Songhai were Muslim but their early forays into conquest predated their wholesale conversion to Islam. It still works).
When I decided to base an expansive world on an African ethnic group, I had no idea what I was getting into. Any field of study has its holes but Western scholarship is swiss cheese when it comes to Africa. This was a hard-learned lesson for me, as I spent the latter years of high school and all of college grasping for any resources I could find on the Mande people, their language, and their history.
I wasn’t intimately familiar with the Vai syllabary until late college, when I started work on a West African alphabet to go with my Mande-based conlang of Yammaninke. By this point in my world-building career, having done years of research and studied abroad with a Mande griot, I was wise to the blindness and biases of my English-language sources. Most of our information on Africa is clouded by the colonial mindsets of the Europeans who documented it and Vai is no exception.
The Vai syllabary was conceived when Mamolu Duwalu Bukele of Bandakoro, Sierra Leone, was visited by a dream messenger who showed him the symbols to be used in the new, purely-Mande writing system. The Western world came to know of the syllabary through S.W. Koelle, a German missionary, who befriended Bukele and recorded his story. Despite admitting a lacking understanding of Bukele’s wording, Koelle extrapolates that the dream messenger was a Christian missionary (like himself, big surprise) and that the symbols must either be purely made-up or based on Arabic, Hebrew, or Roman letters. Perhaps informed by this bias, Western scholars who later examined the script compared it to Arabic, Hebrew, and Roman writing systems (and also to the Cherokee syllabary but that is a different variety of colonial nonsense for another essay).
It was purely by accident, in the middle of world-building, that I came to vehemently disagree with Koelle and the scholars who came after him. It only takes a pair of functioning eyes to see that the Vai syllabary bears no resemblance to Arabic, Hebrew, or Roman script. At first glance, its characters reminded me of the symbols found in Mande divination and mudcloth (I still think both of these are worth looking into, though I personally lack the expertise) but in developing my fictional alphabet, I uncovered a different, unexpected connection.
The process by which I constructed the Yammaninke alphabet involved looking at several West African writing systems side-by-side and fusing them to reflect my estimation of the ethnic mix of my fictional people. In doing this, I noticed right away that Vai bears distinct similarities to the Tifinagh alphabet, an ancient script still used by the Tuareg of northwestern Africa to write their language, Tamashek.
The Tuareg are not Mande but they have a history of trade, conflict, and intermarriage with the Mande dating back into ancient times. Mande people, even those unable to read Tifinagh, have been visually exposed to it for at least as long as they have been exposed to Arabic, as Tuareg metal smiths traditionally carve their signatures into their crafts, most famously their silver pendants, which have been traded all over West Africa for centuries.
Disclaimer here: I am a language nerd, not a linguist. I cannot make any definitive claims about Vai’s inspiration or origins but, having compared the two writing systems closely, I can confidently say that the Vai syllabary has more forms in common with Tifinagh than any other writing system, including other Mande scripts like the Mende syllabary and the N’ko alphabet.
To give a few examples, the distinctive Vai /tɔ/ is identical to the Tifinagh /d/, with the Vai symbol for /ɗɔ/ being two dots off.
The Vai /nɔ/ is similar to the Tifinagh /n/.
The Vai symbol for /e/ is notably similar to the Tifinagh symbol for the similar sound /ə/.
While Western accounts tend to focus on the Vai syllabary’s use in Bible transcriptions, it was also used, after the Tuareg fashion, in inscriptions on metal crafts.
Am I the only person (or even the only non-Mande person) ever to have noted these similarities between Vai and Tifiniagh? Probably not. Am I equipped to research this to its full extent? No. I don’t have a degree in linguistic anthropology or the means to do extensive fieldwork in West Africa. This little discovery is just one example of how fiction can lead us deeper into reality than any history class.
There are letters from the past waiting in plain sight. Just because those before us didn’t bother learning to read them doesn’t mean we can’t. Koelle, for instance, had no reason to know about the Mande peoples’ history with the Tuareg and, being a missionary, he had vested interest in tying perceived advancements such as literacy to the monotheistic religions associated with Roman, Arabic, and Hebrew. The scholars of the past have missed so much in human error, leaving history full of mysteries that shouldn’t have to wait for a YA author trying to invent a language.
Especially in the world of fantasy, in which we explore Europe to death and then complain that ‘everything has been done before,’ I think it’s worth looking into lesser-studied cultures. We might uncover forgotten pieces of history in the process.
- As I looked back on my sources for this post, I found more recent articles positing that Vai did not, in fact, originate with Bukele in the 1820s, but that it is a more ancient writing system based on ancient Berber (essentially assigning it a very similar origin to the Tifinagh script). I didn’t include these claims because they appear to be low on evidence, hotly contested, and tied up in some other theories about human migration that I find suspect, but I thought they were worth a mention, if anyone wants to look into them.
- You can find a guide to my Yammaninke alphabet here.
Imperato, Pascal James, and Marli Shamir, “Bokolanfini: Mud Cloth of the Bamana of Mali,” in African Arts, Vol. 3, No. 4. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Summer, 1970.
Inscribing Meaning: Writing & Graphic Systems in African Art Smithsonian exhibit on Vai and other African scripts
Kreamer, Christine Mullen, Mary Nooter Roberts, Elizabeth Harney and Allyson Purpura, “Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art,” in African Arts, Vol. 40, No. 3. UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: Autumn, 2007.
Tuchscherer, Konrad, and P. E. H. Hair, “Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script,” in History in Africa, Vol. 29. African Studies Association: 2002.
Tuchscherer, Konrad, “African Script and Scripture: The History of the Kikakui (Mende) Writing System for Bible Translations,” in African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 8, No. 2. Taylor & Francis, Ltd: 1995.
Tuchscherer, Konrad, “The Lost Script of the Bagam,” in African Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 390. Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society: January 1999.
The Sword of Kaigen is out on Tuesday, February 19.