The Pan Nigerian Alphabet
One of the most undervalued creation by Hermann Zapf
We all know Hermann Zapf for his countless typographic designs, from the most famous (Palatino, Optima, Zapfino) to the lesser known (such as Gilgengart, his first typeface).
But his work in creating alphabetic systems remains in the shadows.
Hermann Zapf has two such systems to his credit. From 1977 to 1984 he designed the Sequoya alphabet for the Cherokee Indians (1). From 1983 to 1985, he worked on finalizing the pan-Nigerian alphabet, which was intended to unite more than 400 languages.
In this article, I would like to talk about this last subject, which is close to my heart for two reasons. Firstly, because it is one of the most ambitious typographic projects to have emerged in recent years (2). Secondly, because it concerns a country that is particularly close to my heart: Nigeria (3).
The context for the emergence of the Pan-Nigerian alphabet
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa (140 million inhabitants), it was created in 1914 from the union of three former British colonies: the Northern Protectorate, the Southern Protectorate, and the Lagos Colony. Nigeria became independent in 1960.
Given the conditions under which the state was formed, it is not surprising that Nigeria has the greatest linguistic diversity in Africa. In Nigeria, more than 400 different languages coexist in Nigeria, with taking pride of place English, French and Arabic as exogenous languages and Yorùbá, Igbo and Hausa as endogenous languages.
Presentation of the 3 languages

Hausa (a Chadian language belonging to the large group of Afro-Asian group of Afro-Asiatic languages, which also includes the Berber languages, Coptic as well as Semitic languages) is one of the main commercial languages of West Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Togo); it is spoken by about 50 million people, the Hausa. In Nigeria, Hausa is spoken mainly in the north of the country.

Yorùbá is a tonal language belonging to the Benue-Congolese language family. It is spoken by over 25 million people, the Yorubas, in Nigeria, Benin, Togo but also in Brazil, Sierra Leone and Cuba. In Nigeria, Yoruba is mainly spoken in the southwest of the country.

Igbo belongs, like Yorùbá, to the Benue-Congolese language family, and is spoken by more than 20 million people, the Igbo, mainly in the south-east of Nigeria, including the area corresponding to the former Biafra.

In 1977, 10 years after the start of the Biafran war that ended the old colonial order and plunged the country into such an anarchic state, so characteristic of Nigeria, at once a source of considerable mining, oil and cultural wealth but also of violence, dissension, ethnic and religious clashes, the Nigerian government is putting in place an ambitious educational programme along with a new constitution, determined to take full responsibility for a linguistic diversity that had been largely ignored until then. This policy took shape under the name of National Policy on Education (NPE) and was further revised in 1981, 1985 and 1998.

This policy is based on two simple principles:
1. the principle of respect for the mother tongue language.
2. the principle of multilingualism.

Professor Ayo Bamgbose explains them as follows:
“The mother tongue should be used as a vehicle of instruction in the early stages of schooling; each child should learn one of the three main Nigerian languages [Yorùbá, Igbo and Houssa, editor’s note], in addition to their mother tongue and English.”
The practical consequence of this policy has been the need to develop grammars, syllabaries, textbooks, and dictionaries for the study of the Nigerian languages thus promoted as a federal educational focus.

The development of such materials necessarily raised the question of the written transcription of these languages. Generally speaking, as Ayo Bamgbose explained it at the Niamey conference (4), Nigerian languages, like all other African languages, had to be written down in the course of their Nigerian languages, like all other African languages, were faced with four major problems in their transcription:

1. The systems bequeathed by the missionaries
2. The introduction of phonetic symbols
3. The influence of European languages
4. The influence of printing (5)
1. The systems bequeathed by the missionaries

First and foremost, the Latin alphabet (6) had the effect of flattening the vocalisation of African languages when they are put on the screen; for example, a language with seven vowels in speech has only five in writing: a, e, i, o, u, which we know well. This is not without its problems, when, for example, in the same text the same word is transcribed in two different ways (Ayo Bamgbose gives us the example of the word “kingdom” in the Vocabulary of the the yorùbá language of 1843 which is transcribed “Ille-obba” in one place and “Illeh-obbah” in another).
2. The introduction of phonetic symbols represented the opposite trend of the Latin alphabet pitfall.

Where the Latin alphabet oversimplified, the symbols added too much sophistication without always achieving, by far, the accuracy of the accuracy or fidelity among different transcribers of the same language.

However, these symbols could be introduced into the transcription of some languages such as Ewe (a tonal language, spoken by 3 million people and in Nigeria in the south-west) but not for others like Yorùbá. This has only added to the general confusion of transcriptions.
3. The influence of European languages is particularly evident in the typographical interpenetration of English into Yoruba.

Thus the sound ʃ (“che”) which is transcribed in Yorùbá. Under the influence of the same sound ʃ (“che”) is found in Yorùbá, transcribed in the English or in the Yorùbá way.
4. The influence of the printing press and the typewriter has made a critical and necessary reform of the typography of Nigerian languages.

Indeed, to speak of the influence of printing and typewriters is still to speak of the influence of Europe on Africa, it is to speak of languages transcribed without diacritical characters, it is to speak of practical problems in the day-to-day use of typewriters in Africa, which have long been the simplest and cheapest way to publish. To give an idea of the state of the art in Nigeria at the turn of the 1980s, it was considered that the most beautiful books were those reproduced in lithography from typewritten texts. As a result, printing and typing techniques were typing techniques in use at the time had a decisive influence on the typographic reform to come.

In particular, the question of diacritical marks was particularly debated since the tonal imperative of the language was met by the concrete modalities of the typeface, the language’s tonal imperative, the concrete modalities for the use of diacritical signs, which are more fragile, and which require more frequent replacement. The consequence is simple: simple letters are preferable to letters with diacritical marks.
Niamey alphabet or African reference alphabet
These principles, which governed the development of the Niamey alphabet, also governed the development of pan-Nigerian alphabet. In addition to these principles, there are four rules set out in 1954 by Hans Wolf in his book Nigerian Typography: precision, economy, consistency, and similarity.

What Niger has achieved with the Niamey alphabet, Nigeria will achieve it in 1983 at a typewriter symposium held in Benin City (7). Kay Williamson (8) showed a model of a pan-Nigerian alphabet made in 1981 and reworked by Nigerian linguists.
Hermann Zapf’s intervention
This is where Hermann Zapf comes in. He made it possible for the project, which had been carried out by the linguists until then, to become a reality.

At this stage of the project, the specifications for the Pan-Nigerian alphabet were as follows: it must contain all the characters necessary for the composition of the major Nigerian languages, namely Yorùbá, Hausa and Igbo.

But it must also solve some problems inherent to photocomposition, notably the placement of diacritical marks on capital letters as well as the placement of tone marks and lowercase dots under letters of varying widths. To meet these requirements, the height of the letters was reduced and each diacritical mark or lower dot was individually combined with a Latin letter.

Hermann Zapf used Kay Williamson’s specifications to do what linguistics had not been able to do sufficiently before: draw. At the suggestion of Wolfgang Hartmann of the Neufville foundry (9), Hermann Zapf redesigned the Pan-Nigerian alphabet on the basis of an existing typeface: Impressum, which had been created 20 years earlier by Walter Baum and published in the 20 years earlier by Walter Baum and published by Bauer and Intertype to compete with Linotype’s Excelsior designed by Chauncey Griffith in 1931. Compared to the technical constraints mentioned above, Impressum lends itself well to the reduction of the height of the letters as well as the harmonisation of the width of the letters, all with a view to a better to improve the placement of diacritical marks.
Hermann Zapf’s Pan Nigerian Alphabet (1983) produced in collaboration with the linguist Victor Manfred (source: Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, Hartley and Marks Publishers, 2004)
In addition to the use of sub-diacritical marks attached to the letters (even if this is not well represented in the image, these are in principle vertical subscript bars, even if the influence has often transformed them into underdots) the Pan-Nigerian alphabet is characterised by its conciseness, especially when compared to the Niamey alphabet.

Directly influenced by linguistics and the International Phonetic Alphabet (created in 1888), the alphabet (created in 1888), four signs stand out: the Ɓ crooked B for Hausa; the Ɗ crooked D for Hausa, the Ǝ reflexive E, notably for Kanuri, a Nilo-Saharan language spoken in north-eastern Nigeria in the Nigeria in Bornou State) and the Ƙ crooked K, used to represent the ejective k of Hausa).
Posterity of the Pan-Nigerian alphabet of 1983
The Pan-Nigerian of 1983 is a lead version for handwriting.
Hermann Zapf concluded his work on the Pan-Nigerian alphabet in 1985 with a monospace version of his font for typewriters (10). Here again, the choice of Impressum was a good one. It is not difficult to imagine an adaptation of Impressum design to the constraints of fixed spacing.
The JolanPanNigerian font

In 1985, Victor Manfredi and the programmer Edward Ọgụejiọfọ developed a font called JolanPanNigerian and a pan-Nigerian keyboard as part of a programme for the Federal Ministry of Education.

The JolanPanNigerian font was developed in bitmap and vector versions using Fontastic (for the bitmap version) and Fontographer (for the vector version).
It has also been configured to be as ergonomic as possible in terms of character accessibility through the simplest possible keystroke combinations using MacKeyméléon software.

The JolanPanNigerian font is still an experimental version of Hermann Zapf’s PanNigerian, adapted to the Macintosh only and developed for the Journal of the Linguistic Association of Nigeria.

The characters of the Pan-Nigerian alphabet were included in the first version of Unicode in 1991 in the subset called “Extended Latin B”.
Criticisms and limitations of the pan-Nigerian alphabet
It has been criticized for being too concise in terms of phonetic characters, especially in comparison with Niamey alphabet.

The pan-Nigerian alphabet was supposed to abolish the use of digrams, which remain a typographical pis-aller.

It must be noted that they persist today, particularly the ‘gb’ in Yorùbá.

Nevertheless, the pan-Nigerian alphabet has enabled a typographic federation of the languages of Nigeria, which was its primary goal; the language that seems to have benefited most from it seems to be unquestionably Hausa (for which three remarkable letters of the Pan-Nigerian alphabet have been designed, see below), whose transcription remains in the Ajami tradition. Igbo was also able to achieve greater recognition the pan-Nigerian alphabet.
Aesthetics, utility and universality of typography
Zapf’s experience with the Pan-Nigerian alphabet, although poorly documented, undoubtedly gave his work a salutary depth.

Zapf moved beyond stylisation (which still prevailed in his work on the Cherokee alphabet) to tackle a broad cultural issue alongside Nigerian linguists and scholars. This is a first step towards universality. To go beyond the Gutenbergian entitlements of the Latin alphabet, so convenient and so familiar, to reach the shores of the odyssey of the shores of the pan-linguistic odyssey embodied by Unicode.

Zapf opened up a path that is still largely unexplored today.

The technical potential is there, but the typographic diversity is still far from being equal to this challenge. Today, 95% of typographic production concerns fonts whose encoding does not go beyond the extended Latin A.

The modesty of the extraordinary calligrapher and type designer Hermann Zapf facing the challenge of the pan-Nigerian alphabet should make us think more about the meaning of the typographic actions to be taken.

Today, the difficulty lies not so much in the aesthetics of typography, but more in the scope of its action so that it can serve the greatest number of people in the spirit of a real linguistic, cultural and therefore typographic diversity.

(1) Hermann Zapf, Alphabetsgeschichte, Linotype, 2007

(2) A 2008 article on Hermann Zapf highlights the particular difficulty of the project within his typographic work: “Die schwierigste Aufgage was zweifellos die Schaffung eines pan-nigerianischen Alphabets. Zapf musste für rund vierhundert Sprachen, die auf dem Gebiet Nigerias gesprochen werden, einen geimesamen Zeichenvorrat schaffen.” — “The most difficult task was undoubtedly the creation of a pan-Nigerian alphabet. Zapf had to create a common set of characters for around four hundred languages spoken in the territory of Nigeria.” — source: Markus Kauffmann, “Wenn Wörter ihr Gesicht verlieren”, Wiener Zeitung, Samstag, 15. November 2008

(3) I got this attachment from my father, a Beninese, who passed on to me a Nigerian name and more precisely a Yoruba name, a people to which my paternal grandfather belonged. I take advantage of this article to pay tribute to them.

(4) This gave rise in 1978 to the other African reference alphabet, the Niamey alphabet

(5) Ayo Bamgbose, On devising and harmonizing orthographies in African languages, July 17-21 1978

(6) It should be noted, however, that before the Latin alphabet, the Ajami system of Arabic transcription of African languages existed in this region of Africa since the 14th century, and even since the 11th century under the influence of the Berber Zanaga people (source: Mamadou CISSE, “Écrits et écriture en Afrique de l'Ouest”, Revue électronique internationale de sciences du langage Sudlangues, n°6, June 2006). The myth of the late literacy of Africa in the 19th century is therefore largely defeated.

(7) Capital of Edo State and capital of the short-lived Republic of Benin during the Biafran War, not to be confused with Benin, formerly Dahomey

(8) Kay Williamson (1935-2005) was a British linguist who spent three quarters of her life in Nigeria; she taught at several universities and played a leading role in the development and promotion of languages in southern Nigeria, particularly Igbo and Ijo, but also some of the country's minority languages.

(9) Victor Manfredi, Igbo lingustic consciousness, its origins and limits, p. 391, 1991.

(10) Until then, a very incomplete version of the 1980 Pan-Nigerian alphabet proposed by Olivetti at the National Language Center before Kay Williamson's work was completed and before Zapf's intervention, prevailed on typewriters.

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