Articles > ADLaM: the story of an artificial scriptby Alexis Ulrich
The Fula people, also known as Fulani or Fulɓe, have an estimated population of around 30 million people. They are primarily located in the Sahara, Sahel, and West Africa regions, where they inhabit more than 20 countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, Cameroon, and Mali. Despite being recognized as the largest nomadic pastoral community globally, a significant proportion of the Fula people are semi-sedentary, and some have adopted a sedentary lifestyle.
Mostly Muslims, the Fula people used a script derived from Arabic to write their language, which goes by various names such as Fula, Fulani, Fulfulde, Pulaar, or Pular. This script, known as Ajami, is an adaptation of the Arabic script used for writing African languages. To accommodate sounds not present in Standard Arabic, additional dots or lines are incorporated into existing letters in the Ajami script.
In the 1930s, a Latin orthography was adapted, and adopted, to write Fula. Later, in 1966, Unesco organized a meeting in Bamako with the aim of standardizing national languages, resulting in the creation of the Bamako transcription. From that point forward, Fulani had a unified alphabet that was harmonized, standardized, and universally recognized across the entire Fulani-speaking world. Notably, the alphabet included special “hooked” characters like Ɓ/ɓ, Ɗ/ɗ, and Ŋ/ŋ, crafted to represent specific sounds of the language.
In 1989, two young boys from the small town of Nzérékoré, Guinea, Abdoulaye Barry (aged 10) and his brother Ibrahima (aged 14), invented an innovative alphabet known as ADLaM. The name ADLaM is derived from the initial four letters of their new script: alif, dâli, lam, and mim. It is also the acronym of Alkule Dandayɗe Leñol Mulugol, which means “the alphabet that protects the peoples from vanishing”.
They were used to help their father transcribing letters in Arabic writing for the community, a writing system that didn’t feel like their own. Besides, some sounds of the Fulani language have no representation in the Arabic alphabet, even in Ajami. So people relied on added diacritics to write them down, but they were not standard.
To design their alphabet, Abdoulaye and Ibrahima drew shapes for each sound with their eyes closed, then decided if the result was worthy or not. The whole process took them about six months. They learned the script, and practiced it writing down short stories their mother was telling them.
To prove their family their alphabet was working, one of the brothers wrote a text on a piece of paper and left the room, then the other came in and read it aloud. The latter wrote another text from his father, then left the room too. Their sister, Aissata Barry, who had learnt the alphabet too, entered then and read it. The proof was made. The ADLaM script swiftly gained popularity within the Fulani community, becoming widely embraced and celebrated as their very own writing system.
The ADLaM alphabet is composed of 28 letters, with an additional 6 characters to accommodate the transcription of other African languages, 7 modifiers (or diacritics), 2 punctuations, and 10 digits. It is written from right to left, including numbers (whereas in Arabic, numbers are written from left to right). The alphabet is bicameral, which means it has upper and lower case, and its letters can be written joined together.
But it took time. First, they wrote their own handwritten books on practical topics as infant care and water filtration. They went to university in Conakry, then Abdoulaye moved with his wife to Portland, Oregon, while his brother kept working on ADLaM promotion while studying for a civil engineering degree. He started a newspaper, xeroxed and distributed freely. Ibrahima moved to Portland too in 2007 to study civil engineering and mathematics. He also enrolled in a calligraphy class, where his teacher sent him to a calligraphy conference. At that conference, he met with an editor of the Unicode Consortium. A few years later, in October 2014, the ADLaM script was discussed in the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) #141 in Sunnyvale, California, as a proposal for encoding.
Twenty-seven years after the two brothers first letters drawings, the ADLaM script was finally granted official recognition and inclusion in the ISO 15924 international standard, which establishes codes for various writing systems and scripts; under the code Adlm. The same year, it was also integrated into Unicode 9.0, marking its entry into the digital realm. The once artificial script created by Abdoulaye Barry and his brother Ibrahima now became a recognized and widely used writing system.
Numerals in ADLaM script
Free pdf resources to learn the ADLaM script
- ADLaM alphabet learning guide in ten lessons
- ADLaM alphabet book
- ADLaM writing book
- Apprendre à écrire en ADLaM (in French)
- The Winden Jangen Adlam organization website has a section for pdf books written in ADLaM