Fonts in transition

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 The British Library/public domain
The British Library/public domain

Throughout history, people have created different sign systems that correspond to the specifics of each language. The scripts have evolved in the process. Today, it is no longer possible to trace exactly how, since the development has usually been completed thousands of years ago. This is not the case with the West African Vai script, which did not come into being until the 1830s. Its well-documented development provides researchers with insights into the evolution of scripts.

The West African Vai people developed their own script for their language about 100 years ago. The document pictured here dates from 1849. A large number of well-preserved Vai documents enable scholars to study the development of this script and thereby gain insights into the evolution of writing systems in general.

Writing systems

The world’s scripts can be roughly divided into three systems - although there are also mixed systems.

Letter scripts are divided into alphabetic scripts, such as Greek, Latin, or Cyrillic, and consonant scripts, such as Arabic, in which vowels are not represented.

In syllabic writing, the individual characters (graphemes) usually stand for several letters, for example, for a combination of consonant and vowel.

In logographs, each character has a meaning, but usually does not represent a whole concept. Characters are combined to represent concepts. In Chinese, there are often combinations between one or more meaning characters (pictograms) and a character that also includes pronunciation (phonogram).

Development of the alphabet

Protosinaitic, the oldest known alphabetic script, can be traced back to hieroglyphics. The Phoenician script represents a further developmental step, from which, among other things, the Greek script developed. However, it is no longer possible to trace exactly which changes the individual letters underwent. Presumably, characters were simplified over time for easier writing, but only to the extent that they can still be easily distinguished when reading.

The Vai script

The syllabic script with about 200 graphemes (script elements) was developed by illiterate people in Liberia from the 1830s onwards. Thanks to numerous documents, the development of the script from its beginnings to its standardization as Unicode in 2005 is well documented. An international research team including Olivier Morin, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology, has analyzed the changes in characters using mathematical models. From this, it can be concluded that the individual character elements do indeed become simpler over time, as has been suspected for some time.

Descriptive complexity, as measured by the size of the image file in zip format, has decreased significantly over time.

The predictable evolution of letter shapes: an emergent script of West Africa recapitulates historical change in writing systems.