Language Lost and Found Department: Do you Know N’ko?

by Translation Guy on January 13, 2012

Bingerville, Cote d’Ivoire, July, 1947: Cola nut merchant Solomana Kante’s paper is rustling under the breeze from the ceiling fans. He reads a line written by a Lebanese living in West Africa.  “Black Africans are not interested in writing their languages.” Kante is surprised. “Why not?” he asks himself and decides to be the first to start writing.

He came up with N’ko, a script unlike any other, neither Arabic or Roman, but drawn from both, and perfectly suited to the sounds of his native tongue. Kante wrote many books and taught many students. But the student-by-student spread of the new writing system was slow. There were no printing presses, and Kante’s many books were written by hand, and copied by his students by hand. It was a language that came to be powered by only manual typewriters, so N’ko remained unknown to the people it was written for.

Then came TV, broadcasting its hopelessly cosmopolitan Euro-world in French and English, the languages of power and riches. Local pride was headed to the land of lost languages,  at radio flyer speeds, too. How could it be any worse? Along came the Internet.

Remember how when it started it was English only? Speakers of the world’s greatest languages French, Hindi, Arabic, are still swamped by the vast sea of English language content on the web, so how about all the content online for a little written language like N’ko, still mostly unlearned by the 35 million speakers of Manden and related languages that can use the script.

“For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages alive. 

“Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that.”

But texting gave the kids a reason to use that heritage language. So it turns out that cellphones are the last best hope of hundreds of languages in a similar stew.

“For the vast majority of the world, cellphone, not the Internet, is the coolest available technology. And they are using those phones to text rather than to talk. Though most of the world’s languages have no written form, people are beginning to transliterate their mother tongues into the alphabet of a national language,” says K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. “Now they can text in the language they grew up speaking.”

Harrison met a Siberian truck driver who devised his own system for writing the endangered Chulym language using the Cyrillic alphabet. “You find people like him everywhere,”  because “We are getting languages where the first writing is not the translation of the Bible — as it has often happened — but text messages.”

Whether a language lives or dies, says Harrison, is a choice made by 6-year-olds. And what makes a 6-year-old want to learn a language is being able to use it in everyday life. “Language is driven from the ground up,’ says Don Thornton, a software developer in Las Vegas who specializes in making video games and mobile apps in Native American languages. “It doesn’t matter if you have a million speakers — if your kids aren’t learning, you’re in big trouble.”

With texting, dying languages can become heritage languages. Here in NYC, I see a lot of my daughter’s friends holding tight to their family’s language. The ones that use it don’t lose it.  There’s more on N’ko to come.

More in Tina Rosenberg’s great NYT piece, Everyone Speaks Text Message. Oh yeah, and some serious N’ko instruction by this guy on YouTube.


  1. That was a nice little link about Solmana Kante. Looks like there is a lot of interest in the written form of the language and it looks like it has a bright future. Wonderful.

  2. Beck says:

    I think it’s great that video games and mobile apps are being produced for languages other than English. Native Americans (among others) should have those things available to use, otherwise technology does kill languages because people have to adapt to what is available.

  3. Wonder the reason behind the truck driver in Siberia for creating a new language. My guess it to not be spied on.

  4. I think many people hold on to other languages to use them when they don’t want other people to know what they are talking about. Same goes with kids and not wanting their parents to know. They are like secret spy languages.

  5. Bonnie Heath says:

    I absolutely love when you write about topics like this because it makes me think how others think. I only speak English and when I use the internet or watch TV I can’t even imagine what it is like to use these technologies and not not understand it.

  6. Heritage languages need to be kept. Countries, governenments, and others need to do what they can to preserve them. I think it is a travesty when these languages can be saved but aren’t. We have lost enough of our history and there is no need for this to happen in today’s world.

  7. antar says:

    When I lived in Asia, I used to go to a McDonalds every Saturday morning to help the locals practice English. I was amazed at how many of them were young. The overwhelming reason to learn was to use the internet and watch movies. If the young kids could decide what language to speak, it would be English and the local language probably would die out.

  8. Muffin says:

    Tradition and heritage is wonderful and I think it’s a tragedy that so many leave it behind to adapt to the new modern world. However, I am older and if I grew up in this generation I am sure I would be as marveled by the cosmopolitan societies portrayed on TV and I would want to be like that as well.

  9. shg says:

    Hard to believe that Kante’s books had to be done by hand in the 40’s.

  10. Interesting statistic from the link “Everyone Speaks Text Messages.” It said that of the 6909 logged languages, hundreds will not be passed to the next generation. That is so sad. If so, I hope that trend does not continue where each generation loses hundreds.

  11. I would gladly give up a lot in my life as long as I could keep my phone. It does everything! I sold my Ipod, my Nintendo DS, and my digital camera. I hardly ever bring my laptop anywhere with me. The phone does it all and it is the coolest thing you could own. Period.

  12. Henry Odom says:

    I agree totally. A cell phone is the coolest technology available. Many people go without necessities but still have a phone. And don’t forget every middle schooler out there wants one, too.

  13. Casanova says:

    I agree that languages live and die, but I don’t agree it’s because of the 6 year olds. The adults still decide what is taught in schools and what is spoken in the home. If a family’s values are important, then the importance of preservation is passed on.

    • Ken says:

      As in six-year-olds do as they are told. Well said.

  14. Stanley Ryan says:

    N’Ko looks like a very important cultural language. I hope it only gets stonger and used by more. Thanks for bringing attention to it.

  15. modern world is not always good,the heritage languages need to be kept. people can learn many things from the heritage languages, especially about cultures.

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