How a new alphabet is helping an ancient people write its own future
When they were 10 and 14, brothers Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry set out to invent an alphabet for their native language, Fulfulde, which had been spoken by millions of people for centuries but never had its own writing system. While their friends were out playing in the neighborhood, Ibrahima, the older brother, and Abdoulaye would shut themselves in their room in the family’s house in Nzérékoré, Guinea, close their eyes and draw shapes on paper.
When one of them called stop they’d open their eyes, choose the shapes they liked and decide what sound of the language they matched best. Before long, they’d created a writing system that eventually became known as ADLaM.
The brothers couldn’t have known the challenges that lay ahead. They couldn’t have imagined the decades-long journey to bring their writing system into widespread use, one that would eventually lead them to Microsoft. They wouldn’t have dreamed that the script they invented would change lives and open the door to literacy for millions of people around the world.
They didn’t know any of that back in 1989. They were just two kids with a naïve sense of purpose.
“We just wanted people to be able to write correctly in their own language, but we didn’t know what that meant. We didn’t know how much work it would be,” said Abdoulaye Barry, now 39 and living in Portland, Oregon.
“If we knew everything we would have to go through, I don’t think we would have done it.”
A new writing system takes shape
The Fulbhe, or Fulani, people were originally nomadic pastoralists who dispersed across West Africa, settling in countries stretching from Sudan to Senegal and along the coast of the Red Sea. More than 40 million people speak Fulfulde — some estimates put the number at between 50 and 60 million — in around 20 African countries. But the Fulbhe people never developed a script for their language, instead using Arabic and sometimes Latin characters to write in their native tongue, also known as Fulani, Pular and Fula. Many sounds in Fulfulde can’t be represented by either alphabet, so Fulfulde speakers improvised as they wrote, with varying results that often led to muddled communications.
The Barry brothers’ father, Isshaga Barry, who knew Arabic, would decipher letters for friends and family who brought them to the house. When he was busy or tired, young Abdoulaye and Ibrahima would help out.
“They were very hard to read, those letters,” Abdoulaye recalled. “People would use the most approximate Arabic sound to represent a sound that doesn’t exist in Arabic. You had to be somebody who knows how to read Arabic letters well and also knows the Fulfulde language to be able to decipher those letters.”
Abdoulaye asked his father why their people didn’t have their own writing system. Isshaga replied that the only alphabet they had was Arabic, and Abdoulaye promised to create one for Fulfulde.
“At a basic level, that’s how the whole idea of ADLaM started,” Abdoulaye said. “We saw that there was a need for something and we thought maybe we could fix it.”
The brothers developed an alphabet with 28 letters and 10 numerals written right to left, later adding six more letters for other African languages and borrowed words. They first taught it to their younger sister, then began teaching people at local markets, asking each student to teach at least three more people. They transcribed books and produced their own handwritten books and pamphlets in ADLaM, focusing on practical topics such as infant care and water filtration.
While attending university in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, the brothers started a group called Winden Jangen — Fulfulde for “writing and reading” — and continued developing ADLaM. Abdoulaye left Guinea in 2003, moving to Portland with his wife and studying finance. Ibrahima stayed behind, completing a civil engineering degree, and continued working on ADLaM. He wrote more books and started a newspaper, translating news stories from the radio and television from French to Fulfulde. Isshaga, a shopkeeper, photocopied the newspapers and Ibrahima handed them out to Fulbhe people, who were so grateful they sometimes wept.
But not everyone was pleased by the brothers’ work. Some objected to their efforts to spread ADLaM, saying Fulbhe people should learn French, English or Arabic instead. In 2002, military officers raided a Winden Jangen meeting, arrested Ibrahima and imprisoned him for three months. He was not charged with anything or ever told why he was arrested, Abdoulaye said. Undeterred, Ibrahima moved to Portland in 2007 and continued writing books while studying civil engineering and mathematics.
ADLaM, meanwhile, was spreading beyond Guinea. A palm oil dealer, a woman the brothers’ mother knew, was teaching ADLaM to people in Senegal, Gambia and Sierra Leone. A man from Senegal told Ibrahima that after learning ADLaM, he felt so strongly about the need to share what he’d learned that he left his auto repair business behind and went to Nigeria and Ghana to teach others.
“He said, ‘This is changing people’s lives,’” said Ibrahima, now 43. “We realized this is something people want.”
ADLaM comes online
The brothers also understood that to fully tap ADLaM’s potential, they needed to get it onto computers. They made inquiries about getting ADLaM encoded in Unicode, the global computing industry standard for text, but got no response. After working and saving for close to a year, the brothers had enough money to hire a Seattle company to create a keyboard and font for ADLaM. Since their script wasn’t supported by Unicode, they layered it on top of the Arabic alphabet. But without the encoding, any text they typed just came through as random groupings of Arabic letters unless the recipients had the font installed on their computers.
Following that setback, Ibrahima made a fateful decision. Wanting to refine the letters the Seattle font designer developed, which he wasn’t happy with, he enrolled in a calligraphy class at Portland Community College. The instructor, Rebecca Wild, asked students at the start of each course why they were taking her class. Some needed an art credit; others wanted to decorate cakes or become tattoo artists. The explanation from the quiet African man with the French accent stunned Wild.
“It was mind-blowing when I heard the story of why he was doing this,” said Wild, who lives in Port Townsend, Washington. “It’s so remarkable. I think they deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for what they’re doing. What a difference they’ve made on this planet, and they’re these two humble brothers.”
Wild was struck by Ibrahima’s focus and assiduousness in class. “He was always a star student,” she said. “He had this skill set and unending patience. He worked and worked and worked in class on the assignments, but at the same time, he was taking all this stuff he was learning in class back to ADLaM.”
Wild helped Ibrahima get a scholarship to a calligraphy conference at Reed College in Portland, where he met Randall Hasson, a calligraphy artist and painter. Hasson was seated at a table one afternoon, giving a lettering demonstration with another instructor, and Ibrahima came over. A book about African alphabets rested on the table. Ibrahima picked it up, commented that the scripts in the book weren’t the only African alphabets and offhandedly mentioned that he and his brother had invented an alphabet.
Hasson, who has extensively researched ancient alphabets, assumed Ibrahima meant that he and his brother had somehow modified an alphabet.
“I said, ‘You mean you adapted an alphabet?’” Hasson recalled. “I had to ask him three times to be sure he had actually invented one.”
After hearing Ibrahima’s story, Hasson suggested teaming up for a talk on ADLaM at a calligraphy conference in Colorado the following year. The audience sat rapt as Hasson told Ibrahima’s story, giving him a standing ovation as he walked to the stage. During a break earlier in the day, Ibrahima asked Hasson to come and meet a few people. They were four Fulbhe men who had driven almost 1,800 miles from New York just to hear Ibrahima’s talk, hoping it would finally help get ADLaM the connections they sought.
Hasson was so moved after speaking with them that he walked away, sat down in an empty stairwell and cried.
“At that moment,” he said, “I began to understand how important this talk was to these people.”
Ibrahima made connections at the conference that got him introduced to Michael Everson, one of the editors of the Unicode Standard. It was the break the brothers needed. With help from Everson, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye put together a proposal for ADLaM to be added to Unicode.
Andrew Glass is a senior program manager at Microsoft who works on font and keyboard technology and provides expertise to the Unicode Technical Committee. The ADLaM proposal and the Barry brothers’ pending visit to the Unicode Consortium generated much interest and excitement among Glass and other committee members, most of whom have linguistics backgrounds. Glass’s graduate studies focused on writing systems that are around 2,000 years old, and like other linguists he uses a methodological, technical approach to analyze and understand writing systems.
But here were two brothers with no training in linguistics, who developed an alphabet through a natural, organic approach — and when they were children, no less. New writing systems aren’t created very often, and the chance to actually talk with the inventors of one was rare.
“You come across things in these old writing systems and you wonder why it’s the way it is, and there’s nobody to ask,” Glass said. “This was a unique opportunity to say, ‘Why is it like this? Did they think about doing things differently? Why are the letters ordered this way?’ and things like that.”
Microsoft worked with designers to develop a font for Windows and Office called Ebrima that supports ADLaM and several other African writing systems.
It was during the Unicode process that ADLaM got its new name. The brothers originally called their alphabet Bindi Pular, meaning “Pular script,” but had always wanted a more meaningful name. Some people in Guinea who’d been teaching the script suggested ADLaM, an acronym using the first four letters of the script for a phrase that translates to “the alphabet that will prevent a people from being lost.” The Unicode Technical Committee approved ADLaM in 2014 and the alphabet was included in Unicode 9.0, released in June 2016. The brothers were elated.
“It was very exciting for us,” Abdoulaye said. “Once we got encoded, we thought, ‘This is it.’”
But they soon realized there were other, possibly even more challenging hurdles ahead. For ADLaM to be usable on computers, it had to be supported on desktop and mobile operating systems, and with fonts and keyboards. To make it broadly accessible, it also needed to be integrated on social networking sites.
The brothers’ script found a champion in Glass, who had developed Windows keyboards for several languages and worked on supporting various writing systems in Microsoft technology. Glass told others at Microsoft about ADLaM and helped connect the Barry brothers to the right people at the company. He developed keyboard layouts for ADLaM, initially as a project during Microsoft’s annual companywide employee hackathon.
Judy Safran-Aasen, a program manager for Microsoft’s Windows design group, also saw the importance of incorporating ADLaM into Microsoft products. Safran-Aasen wrote a business plan for adding ADLaM to Windows and pushed the work forward with various Microsoft teams.
“It was a shoestring collaboration of a few people who were really interested in seeing this happen,” she said. “It’s a powerful human interest story, and if you tell the story you can get people onboard.
“This is going to have an impact on literacy throughout that community and enable people to be part of the Windows ecosystem, where before that just wasn’t available to them,” Safran-Aasen said. “I’m really excited that we can make this happen.”
ADLaM creators Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry in Portland, Oregon.
Microsoft worked with two type designers in Maine, Mark Jamra and Neil Patel, to develop an ADLaM component for Windows and Office within Microsoft’s existing Ebrima font, which also supports other African writing systems. ADLaM support is included in the Windows 10 May 2019 update, allowing users to type and see ADLaM in Windows, including in Word and other Office apps.
Microsoft’s support for ADLaM, Abdoulaye said, “is going to be a huge jump for us.”
ADLaM is also supported by the Kigelia typeface system developed by Jamra and Patel, which includes eight African scripts and is being added to Office later this year. The designers wanted to create a type system for a region of the world lacking in typeface development, where they say existing fonts tend to be oversimplified and poorly researched. They consulted extensively with Ibrahima and Abdoulaye to refine ADLaM’s forms, painstakingly working to execute on the brothers’ vision within the boundaries of font technology.
“This was their life’s work that they started when they were kids,” Patel said. “To get it right is a big deal.”
And to many Africans, Jamra said, a script is more than just an alphabet. ”These writing systems are cultural icons,” he said. “It’s not like the Latin script. They really are symbols of ethnic identity for many of these communities.”
They’re also a means of preserving and advancing a culture. Without a writing system it’s difficult for people to record their history, to share perspective and knowledge across generations, even to engage in the basic communications that facilitate commerce and daily activities. There is greater interest in recent years in establishing writing systems for languages that didn’t have them, Glass said, to help ensure those languages remain relevant and don’t disappear. He pointed to the Osage script, created by an elder in 2006 to preserve and revitalize the language, as an example.
“There is a big push among language communities to develop writing systems,” Glass said. “And when they get them, they are such a powerful tool to put identity around that community, and also empower that community to learn and become educated.
“I think ADLaM has tremendous potential to change circumstances and improve people’s lives. That’s one of the things that’s really exciting about this.”
Keeping a culture alive
Ibrahima and Abdoulaye don’t know how many people around the world have learned ADLaM. It could be hundreds of thousands, maybe more. As many as 24 countries have been represented at ADLaM’s annual conference in Guinea, and there are ADLaM learning centers in Africa, Europe and the U.S. On a recent trip to Brussels, Ibrahima discovered that four learning centers had opened there and others have started in the Netherlands.
“I was really surprised. I couldn’t imagine that ADLaM has reached so many people outside of Africa,” he said.
Abdoulaye “Bobody” Barry (no relation to ADLaM’s creator) lives in Harlem, New York and is part of Winden Jangen, now a nonprofit organization based in New York City. He learned ADLaM a decade ago and has taught it to hundreds of people, first at mosques and then through messaging applications using an Android app. The script has enabled Fulbhe people, many of whom never learned to read and write in English or French, to connect around the world and has fostered a sense of sense of cultural pride, Barry said.
“This is part of our blood. It came from our culture,” he said. “This is not from the French people or the Arabic people. This is ours. This is our culture. That’s why people get so excited.”
Suwadu Jallow emigrated to the U.S. from Gambia in 2012 and took an ADLaM class the Barry brothers taught at Portland Community College. ADLaM is easy for Fulfulde speakers to learn, she said, and will help sustain the language, particularly among the African diaspora.
“Now I can teach this language to someone and have the sense of my tribe being here for years and years to come without the language dying off,” said Jallow, who lives in Seattle. “Having this writing system, you can teach kids how to speak (Fulfulde) just like you teach them to speak English. It will help preserve the language and let people be creative and innovative.”
Jallow is pursuing a master’s in accounting at the University of Washington and hopes to develop an inventory-tracking system in ADLaM after she graduates. She got the idea after helping out in her mother’s baby clothing shop in Gambia as a child and seeing that her mother, who understood little English and Arabic, could not properly record and track expenses. ADLaM, she said, can empower people like her mother who are fluent in Fulfulde and just need a way to write it.
“It’s going to increase literacy,” she said. “I believe knowledge is power, and if you’re able to read and write, that’s a very powerful tool to have. You can do a lot of things that you weren’t able to do.”
The Fulbhe people in Guinea historically produced a considerable volume of books and manuscripts, Abdoulaye Barry said, using Arabic to write in their language. Most households traditionally had a handwritten personal book detailing the family’s ancestry and the history of the Fulbhe people. But the books weren’t shared outside the home, and Fulbhe people largely stopped writing during French colonization, when the government mandated teaching in French and the use of Arabic was limited primarily to learning the Koran.
“Everything else was basically discounted and no longer had the value that it had before the French came,” Abdoulaye said.
Having ADLaM on phones and computers creates infinite possibilities — Fulbhe people around the world will be able to text each other, surf the internet, produce written materials in their own language. But even before ADLaM’s entry into the digital world, Fulfulde speakers in numerous countries have been using the script to write books. Ibrahima mentions a man in Guinea who never went to school and has written more than 30 books in ADLaM, and a high school girl, also in Guinea, who wrote a book about geography and another about how to succeed on exams. The president of Winden Jangen, Abdoulaye Barry (also no relation to Ibrahima’s brother), said many older Fulbhe people who weren’t formally educated are now writing about Fulbhe history and traditions.
“Now, everybody can read that and understand the culture,” he said. “The only way to keep a culture alive is if you read and write in your own language.”
‘The kids are the future’
Though ADLaM has spread over several continents, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye aren’t slowing down their work. Both spend much of their spare time promoting the script, traveling to conferences and continuing to write. Ibrahima, who sleeps a maximum of four hours a night, recently finished the first book of ADLaM grammar and hopes to build a learning academy in Guinea.
On a chilly recent day in Abdoulaye’s home in Portland, the brothers offer tea and patiently answer questions about ADLaM. They are unfailingly gracious, gamely agreeing to drive to a scenic spot on the Willamette River for photos after a long day of talking. They’re also quick to deflect praise for what they have accomplished. Ibrahima, who sometimes wakes up to hundreds of email and text messages from grateful ADLaM learners, said simply that he’s “very happy” with how the script has progressed. For his brother, the response to ADLaM can be overwhelming.
Having this writing system, you can teach kids how to speak Fulani just like you teach them to speak English. It will help preserve the language and let people be creative and innovative.
“It’s very emotional sometimes,” Abdoulaye said. “I feel like people are grateful beyond what we deserve.”
The brothers want ADLaM to be a tool for combating illiteracy, one as lasting and important to their people as the world’s most well-known alphabets are to cultures that use them. They have a particular goal of ADLaM being used to educate African women, who they said are more impacted by illiteracy than men and are typically the parent who teaches children to read.
“If we educate women we can help a lot of people in the community, because they are the foundation of our community,” Abdoulaye said. “I think ADLaM is the best way to educate people because they don’t need to learn a whole new language that’s only used at school. If we switched to this, it would make education a lot easier.”
That hasn’t happened yet, but ADLaM has fostered a grassroots learning movement fueled largely through social media. There are several ADLaM pages on Facebook, and groups with hundreds of members are learning together on messaging apps. Abdoulaye said he and Ibrahima used to hear mostly about adults learning ADLaM, but increasingly it’s now children. Those children will grow up with ADLaM, using the script Abdoulaye and Ibrahima invented all those years ago in their bedroom.
“That makes us believe ADLaM is going to live,” Abdoulaye said. “It’s now settled into the community because it’s in the kids, and the kids are the future.”
Originally published on 7/29/2019 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft