N'Ko alphabet

Languages N'Ko
Creator Solomana Kante
Time period
1949 to the present
Direction Right-to-left
ISO 15924 Nkoo, 165
Unicode alias

N'Ko (ߒߞߏ) is both a script devised by Solomana Kante in 1949, as a writing system for the Manding languages of West Africa, and the name of the literary language written in that script. The term N'Ko means I say in all Manding languages.

The script has a few similarities to the Arabic script, notably its direction (right-to-left) and the letters which are connected at the base. Unlike Arabic, it obligatorily marks both tone and vowels. N'Ko tones are marked as diacritics, in a similar manner to the marking of some vowels in Arabic.


Kante created N'Ko in response to what he felt were beliefs that Africans were a cultureless people, because before then, no indigenous African writing system for his language existed. N'Ko came first into use in Kankan, Guinea, as a Maninka alphabet and was disseminated from there into other Mande-speaking parts of West Africa. N'Ko Alphabet Day is April 14, relating to the date in 1949 when the script is believed to have been finalized.[1]

The introduction of the alphabet led to a movement promoting literacy in the N'Ko alphabet among Mande speakers in both Anglophone and Francophone West Africa. N'Ko literacy was instrumental in shaping the Mandinka cultural identity in Guinea, and it has also strengthened the Mande identity in other parts of West Africa.[2]

Current use

As of 2005, it is used mainly in Guinea and the Ivory Coast (respectively by Maninka and Dyula speakers), with an active user community in Mali (by Bambara-speakers). Publications include a translation of the Quran, a variety of textbooks on subjects such as physics and geography, poetic and philosophical works, descriptions of traditional medicine, a dictionary, and several local newspapers. It has been classed as the most successful of the West African scripts.[3] The literary language used is intended as a koiné blending elements of the principal Manding languages (which are mutually intelligible), but has a very strong Maninka flavour.

The Latin script with several extended characters (phonetic additions) is used for all Manding languages to one degree or another for historic reasons and because of its adoption for "official" transcriptions of the languages by various governments. In some cases, such as with Bambara in Mali, promoting literacy using this orthography has led to a fair degree of literacy in it. Arabic transcription is commonly used for Mandinka in The Gambia and Senegal.

There has also been documented use of N'Ko, with additional diacritics, for traditional religious publications in the Yoruba and Fon languages of Benin and southwest Nigeria.[4]


The N'Ko alphabet is written from right to left, with letters being connected to one another.





A tone diacritic is placed above some consonant letters to cover sounds not found in Manding, such as gb-dot for /g/ (a different diacritic produces /ɣ/) and f-dot for /v/.


N'Ko uses diacritical marks to denote tonality and vowel length. Together with plain vowels, N'Ko distinguishes four tones: high, low, ascending, and descending; and two vowel lengths: long and short. However no mark exists for a short, descending tone.




N'ko and computers

With the increasing use of computers and the subsequent desire to provide universal access to information technology, the challenge arose of developing ways to use N'ko on computers. From the 1990s on, there were efforts to develop fonts and even web content by adapting other software and fonts. A DOS word processor named Koma Kuda was developed by Prof. Baba Mamadi Diané from Cairo University.[5] However the lack of intercompatibility inherent in such solutions was a block to further development.

Pango 1.18 and GNOME 2.20 have native support for the N'ko languages. An iOS calculator in N'ko, N'ko:Calc, is available on the Apple App Store. An iOS app for sending email in N'ko is available: Triage-N'ko. There is a virtual keyboard named virtual-keyboard-nko to type N'ko characters on Windows operating system.

An N’Ko font, Conakry, is available for Windows 8, macOS, and OpenOffice-LibreOffice’s Graphite engine, which was developed by SIL International.[6]


N'Ko script was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0.

UNESCO's Programme Initiative B@bel supported preparing a proposal to encode N'Ko in Unicode. In 2004, the proposal, presented by three professors of N'Ko (Baba Mamadi Diané, Mamady Doumbouya, and Karamo Kaba Jammeh) working with Michael Everson, was approved for balloting by the ISO working group WG2. In 2006, N'Ko was approved for Unicode 5.0.

The Unicode block for N'Ko is U+07C0–U+07FF:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
U+07Cx ߀ ߁ ߂ ߃ ߄ ߅ ߆ ߇ ߈ ߉ ߊ ߋ ߌ ߍ ߎ ߏ
U+07Dx ߐ ߑ ߒ ߓ ߔ ߕ ߖ ߗ ߘ ߙ ߚ ߛ ߜ ߝ ߞ ߟ
U+07Ex ߠ ߡ ߢ ߣ ߤ ߥ ߦ ߧ ߨ ߩ ߪ ߫ ߬ ߭ ߮ ߯
U+07Fx ߰ ߱ ߲ ߳ ߴ ߵ ߶ ߷ ߸ ߹ ߺ ߽ ߾ ߿
1.^ As of Unicode version 11.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

The literary language

Region Guinea, Mali, etc.
Native speakers
Manding koine
Language codes
ISO 639-2 nqo
ISO 639-3 nqo
Glottolog (insufficiently attested or not a distinct language)

N'Ko literature is evolving into a literary language, termed kangbe 'clear language', that is based on a compromise dialect of several Manding languages. Mande speakers use kangbe to communicate in writing.[9] For example, the word for 'name' in Bamanan is tɔgɔ and in Maninka it is toh. In written communication each person will write it in N’Ko, and yet read and pronounce it as in their own language.


  1. Oyler, Dianne White (November 2005). The History of N’ko and its Role in Mande Transnational Identity: Words as Weapons. Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers. p. 1. ISBN 0-9653308-7-7.
  2. Oyler, Dianne White (1994) Mande identity through literacy, the N'ko writing system as an agent of cultural nationalism. Toronto: African Studies Association.
  3. Unseth, Peter. 2011. Invention of Scripts in West Africa for Ethnic Revitalization. In The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts, ed. by Joshua A. Fishman and Ofelia García, pp. 23–32. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Àgèlògbàgàn Àgbɔ̀vì, Gànhúmehàn Vodún
  5. Personal note from the LISA/Cairo conference, in Dec. 2005, Don Osborn
  6. Rosenberg, Tina (2011-12-09). "Everyone Speaks Text Message". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-22.
  7. N'ko at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  8. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "N'Ko". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  9. N'Ko Language Tutorial: Introduction


  • Condé, Ibrahima Sory 2. Soulemana Kanté entre Linguistique et Grammaire : Le cas de la langue littéraire utilisée dans les textes en N’ko (in French)
  • Conrad, David C. (2001). Reconstructing Oral Tradition: Souleymane Kanté’s Approach to Writing Mande History. Mande Studies 3, 147–200.
  • Dalby, David (1969) 'Further indigenous scripts of West Africa: Mandin, Wolof and Fula alphabets and Yoruba 'Holy' writing', African Language Studies, 10, pp. 161–181.
  • Davydov, Artem. On Souleymane Kanté's "Nko Grammar"
  • Everson, Michael, Mamady Doumbouya, Baba Mamadi Diané, & Karamo Jammeh. 2004. Proposal to add the N’Ko script to the BMP of the UCS
  • Oyler, Dianne White (1994) Mande identity through literacy, the N'ko writing system as an agent of cultural nationalism. Toronto : African Studies Association.
  • Oyler, Dianne (1995). For "All Those Who Say N'ko": N'ko Literacy and Mande Cultural Nationalism in the Republic of Guinea. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida.
  • Oyler, Dianne White (1997) 'The N'ko alphabet as a vehicle of indigenist historiography', History in Africa, 24, pp. 239–256.
  • Rovenchak, Andrij. (2015) Quantitative Studies in the Corpus of Nko Periodicals, Recent Contributions to Quantitative Linguistics, Arjuna Tuzzi, Martina Benešová, Ján Macutek (eds.), 125–138. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Singler, John Victor (1996) 'Scripts of West Africa', in Daniels, Peter T., & Bright, William (eds) The World's Writing Systems, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc. pp. 593–598.
  • Vydrine, Valentin F. (2001) 'Souleymane Kanté, un philosophe-innovateur traditionnaliste maninka vu à travers ses écrits en nko', Mande Studies, 3, pp. 99–131.
  • Wyrod, Christopher. 2003. The light on the horizon: N’ko literacy and formal schooling in Guinea. MA thesis, George Washington University.
  • Wyrod, Christopher. 2008. A social orthography of identity: the N’ko literacy movement in West Africa. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 192:27–44.
  • B@bel and Script Encoding Initiative Supporting Linguistic Diversity in Cyberspace 12-11-2004 (UNESCO)
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