Indigenous alphabet on the cards for SA

The isiZulu script title isiBheqe Sohlamvu written in isiBheqe script
The isiZulu script title isiBheqe Sohlamvu written in isiBheqe script

A group of South African linguists, software programmers and designers have been working for the past two years on a new indigenous writing system that could soon become recognised officially.

The isiBheqe Sohlamvu script – made up almost entirely of triangular character forms – is a syllabic system, which those in local linguistic circles have been saying is more efficient than the “colonial” alphabet system in use.

The Latin alphabet, they say, often results in very long or disjunctive words in the orthographies of the languages in the Southern Bantu grouping – which include most of the indigenous languages of South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Isibheqe Sohlamvu, also known as Ditema tsa Dinoko, could soon be recognised by the global Unicode Consortium, the official body that specifies the representation of text in modern software products and standards.

Doctoral research by Sandra Land of the University of KwaZulu-Natal on eye movements while reading isiZulu revealed that long words make reading in isiZulu significantly slower than in English. “It is a bit like teaching children (or adults) to play squash and tennis. Although they just have to learn how to run around the court and hit the ball, you would never expect them to use the same racket for both games,” says Land.

What she suggests – an idea echoed by Professor Mark de Vos of Rhodes University – is “a syllabic script similar to that of Japanese, which might have led to a written form that was easier and swifter to read”.

Local linguist and artist NRH Pule Welch, one of the figures leading the development of isiBheqe, says the system hopes to correct this.

“Our languages in South Africa, technically called Sintu or Southern Bantu languages, are agglutinative – meaning all the grammatical information is stacked on to one word,” he says. “So you have verbs and prefixes and suffixes to get all the information contained in the word. For instance, if I say ‘I’m going to show you very well’ in English, that translates to ‘Ngizokubonisisa’ in isiZulu. So that is one word, which is a whole sentence. When you write it in the Latin alphabet, you end up with these very long words.”

The geometric symbols of the isiBheqe script are not linear; rather, they are arranged into syllabic units that form patterns made of triangles – which represent the vowels – filled with circles, arcs, crosses and curves, representing the consonants.

The units are based on the symbolic design traditions of southern Africa, such as Sesotho litema mural art or Zulu amaBhele beadwork. These have sometimes been considered ideographies (letters, symbols or signs used to represent whole ideas) similar to the Adinkra symbols of west Africa that have informed the development of ancient African writing like Egypt’s hieroglyphs, or Nigeria’s nsibidi.

“The word ‘isiBheqe’ comes from the isiZulu word ibheqe, which are those things that in English are sometimes called ‘Zulu love letters’ – those little pieces of beadwork that have certain geometric designs and colour systems on them,” explains Welch.

“It is something a young woman gives to a man that says certain things about their relationship, because different colours and shapes have different symbolisms. You see the same thing in Ndebele house-painting, which is an amalgamation of the Sotho tradition with Nguni beadwork and basketry. In all of these, the fundamental form is the triangle. Hence, isiBheqe Sohlamvu: ‘Sohlamvu’ means ‘of the syllable’, a system of writing that is syllabic.

“The symbols are not arbitrary. They are actually diagrams of the mouth when you speak the words. So it is not difficult to remember because, if you can feel how your mouth is pronouncing the words when you speak, you can write the words using the system. Thus, it is very simple to learn and represents all the Sintu languages of South Africa under one orthography, or writing system.”

Should the IsiBheqe Unicode application be successful, it will allow the fastest and most practical dispersal of the isiBheqe system, the group says, but these proposals frequently take years to move from an initial draft to final standardisation.

Even without it, Welch says, the project already boasts an online typable keyboard which people can use to create their own isiBheqe texts, with informative charts explaining the system on their website, It will continue to develop online with YouTube videos and art collaborations.

“The apartheid state and the colonial system that founded it has created these divisions in our languages – which we can see politically in the Bantustan idea,” says Welch. “Many of the more than 35 minor languages and ethnicities, like Bhaca, Hlubi and Sepulan, were never officialised and are slowly being lost to a monolingual system. IsiBheqe fosters the idea of multilingual literature with a Pan-Africanist system along the lines of other decolonial literacy movements in Sintu-speaking Africa, such as Mandombe in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mwangwego in Malawi.”

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