Zukunfstphilologie Winter Academy on World Scripts: Concepts and Practices of Writing from a Comparative Perspective

Next month I’ll be speaking at a Winter Academy on world scripts in Cape Town, thanks to the generosity of Berlin Free University and the Forum Transregionale Studien.

My topics are ‘The preconditions of grammatogeny: A contextual comparison of script invention in Africa and the Asia-Pacific’, and ‘Why do some new scripts fail and others succeed?’.

At least thirteen new script were created in West Africa over the course of the twentieth century, with the most fertile period being the 1920s and 1930s. And there are at least another ten in Southeast Asia and the Pacific but the documentation here is much thinner.

One possible 19th century invention is a script for Bima that I remembered seeing in Plates to Raffles‘s History of Java (1817)I tracked it down yesterday and made high resolution scan. Here it is:

An Alphabet formerly adopted in Bima but not now used

An Alphabet formerly adopted in Bima but not now used

As far as I know, this is the only documentation of this script, and there appears to be no relationship with known scripts of the region. The underlying system, on the other hand, looks like a straightforward Indic alphasyllabary with /a/ as the inherent vowel. So my hypothesis is that this is a cipher script for another Indonesian system, and that the scribe was deliberately devising exotic shapes for it. 

An interesting theme in the origin stories for West African scripts is that they were revealed to the inventor in a dream or vision. This narrative turns up in Southeast Asia too, but more commonly script inventors in this region talk of recuperating the system from the distant past through discovery of artefacts, the study of ‘old books’ or studious reflection. I wonder if the “not now used” refers to a claim to antiquity on the part of the inventor?


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