Vai Manuscript 1834This is the earliest known Vai manuscript, copied from Konrad Tuchscherer and P. E. Hair's article, Cherokee and West Africa: Examining the Origins of the Vai Script, History in Africa 29, 2002.
Here is a paragraph from John Singler's chapter on African Scripts in The World's Writing Systems.
"Most literates find the need for only forty to sixty characters. In many ways the participants at the 1962 conference 'filled in the blanks' creating symbols where none had existed before. Thus the conference largely introduced into the writing system distinctions between pairs of syllables beginning with s and z, f and v, wV andV, and the palatal consonants c, j, nj, and y. Very often, a contrast already existed between pairs of consonants with some vowels; now it was extended to all seven vowels. Thus most of the seeming systematicity in the shape of characters is artificial, imposed in 1962 and never in fact accepted by script users.(According to Welmers 1976: 11, the system did not originally distinguish between b (implosive) and mb (implosive), d (implosive)and nd (implosive), or [k] and [ng], these distinctions were only introduced into the writing system around 1900.) A further point about the relationship of the chart to ordinary use is that the usual form of some charcters represents an inversion, reversal, or turning of the version in the chart."
The World's Writing Systems edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. Oxford University Press. NY. 1996.
This is a followup from yesterday's post about IBM's SHARK software. I can't offer any more details except to say that the 1834 manuscript uses approximately 60 symbols which corresponds to Singler's estimate. Therefore, the 1900 and 1962 standardization and the current Unicode proposal have all significantly increased the inventory of the Vai syllabary. This is just one more curious fact about writing systems.
Addendum: This comment comes from an email from Tombekai Sherman, a Liberian consultant to the Vai Unicode Proposal.
"I find myself around a minimum of 200 characters. All of these characters are not used in every piece of writing. But they are all needed in order to communicate fully at all times. Old writers who use very minimum characters are difficult to be understood. "