N'Ko |

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Manden mirindi lakunun gna kuda


The N'Ko and its SPEAKERS

karan loku dinkira

N'Ko Jamana lu keyoro



CŰte díIvoire



Sierra Leone



Guinťe Bisau

NíKo before and after its Unicode Codification.

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today. In this presentation one shall focus on some of the new things invented not only relating to information computer technology as a new revolution but also concerning many programmers  in the field of programming today. Ėthe NíKO as one of the dominating and widely spoken languages in west Africa and also as one of the  writing systems  in Africa.

For that being the case our todayís presentation is going to  focus on the  circumstances surrounding NíKO language before itís was introduced in the Unicode. Therefore, this presentation will be dealing with four main points to introduce the different stages preceding the NíKo implementation of Unicode.  These stages are important because of the fact that NíKo is an important language in 9 different West African countries with over 30 million speakers.

       These points include the followings:

      (A) The earlier stages of NíKOís life that include a brief history of  NíKO such as its invention ,its naming , its spread by Fode Solomana Kanteh, His followers and their works. 

       (B) The stage in which many contacts are made to Unicode NíKO passing through all necessary transactions and ISO protocols until it was finally accepted and recommended in a conference in the city of Paris 13-15/9/05.

       (C) The final stage is the one that concerns all of us in this conference which is to localize modern digital devices, and software. This localization is of a great benefit particularly in places where NíKO is widely spoken in Africa which can create huge markets for companies and programmers working in that field.

These are what we are going to be dealt with from the previously mentioned points

1-the earlier stages of NíKOíS life:

As any new invention, NíKO alphabet was not created in vain but it was preceded by many tries and efforts at all levels social, cultural and educational levels. In many MANDEN territories, there were insufficient options to preserve MANDEN culture due to the decline of MANDEN social norms and traditional rules which were made in the conference of KRUKANFUA by SUNJATA to govern and control the system in the empire of Mali -1236 ending with the failure of MANDEN people to transcribe and write their language by using well known alphabets like Arabic, Vaie or Latin.

This inability of using foreign alphabets to write NíKO doesnít mean that those alphabets are poor and that they cannot be considered in any way as a weak point in those particular alphabets. The fact that foreign alphabets were not suited to write NíKO language cannot be seen as a weak point in MANDEN culture.

Particularly in those days when you have many social classes in MANDEN society each social class has its own specific task to perform such as DONSOLOU the hunters to secure the nation and jelis to preserve and pass legends and sagas from generation to generation plus religious men to teach the young generation the important thing now to be noticed is that after the decline of most of the social norms and the classical order of MANDEN society.

Many people realized that the only way to preserve our culture was to write it down. That is why the genius FODE SOLOMANA KANTE worked for seven years to find a solution to this huge problem (inability to write our language by using our own letters).

Out of the seven years he spent four years trying to use Arabic alphabet to transcribe NíKO (1941-1945). He found out that Arabic lacked the ability to accurately transcribe Maninkakan language. Then he spent another three years trying to use the Latin alphabets which also gave the same negative result (1946-1948).

Through all these experiments he had gained a lot of experience and he had also discovered many things about why these alphabets were unable to write NíKO language. In these experiments the alphabet of Vaie was not taken into consideration due its lack of flexibility in spite of its numerous letters that exceed 215 letters.

Finally in 1949, an independent brand new alphabet for NíKO people was invented by FODE SOLOMANA KANTE that contained all the positive sides of various alphabets plus many new trends to fully suit our language. He named it NíKO which was derived from the mother tongue it self the language of SUNJATA and many West Africans Ė the NíKo.

Before we talk about different stages in development of NíKo with efforts of great researchers and the Unicode organization, allow me to give you a brief explanation on the meaning of this short word Ė NíKo:

NíKo is two partial compound word (Ní) which means ĎIí and (KO) which means ďsayĒ thus you have NíKO=I say  with this meaning the word points to two different aspects :


1-   an integrated writing system that can be used by all the African languages. It  includes vowels , consonants and all diacritical marks to symbolize different kind of tones.

2-   Also NíKO is the name of the language that is spoken by MANDEN people.

As an international writing system NíKO is the alphabet invented by FODE SOLOMANA KANTE in the year 1949 with 27 letters which are classified into:

   Seven vowels =

   One neutral    =

   Nineteen consonants =

Plus nine diacriticals for the tones three of which are used for the short tones

four marks for long tones one mark for Ėnasalization and two dotted mark that does not specify any tone its only job is to convert vowels to consonants a task that has a special application.

 Among these nine diacriticals you have three that convert main consonants to another consonants which is close to it in terms of tones from this point FODE SOLOMANA KANTE was able to solve all problems facing him not only in transcribing and writing languages that have not many tones but also languages with lot of tones and sounds. In NíKO the evidence is that any vowel sound can be pronounced in sixteen different forms.

Thus writing different sounds using similar letters does not occur in NíKO due to these four aspects of NíKO: vowels, consonants, neutral and diacritics that organize the writing system and give NíKO its unique nature. KANTE was able to transcribe 8520 syllables by joining these four elements it takes only 45 letters to transcribe.

This NíKO alphabet gives us in its one syllable what we can get in four syllable in other alphabets.  From 8520 syllables that NíKO alphabet is capable of writing NíKo speakers use only 2150.  Therefore,  there is a great chance that other African languages to be written with NíKO without any modification or transformation easily.

Among the characteristics of NíKO as writing system is that any single syllable contains four different elements that give it its special appearance and pronunciation and these four elements are the (vowels, consonants and diacritical marks.


That also gives the writer the ability to write down not only sounds and their diacritics but also with all their tones that are firmly related to them.

Writing NíKO in the aspect of orientation is some how similar to Arabic hence it also starts from right to left. The difference however is that in NíKO you have vowels, consonants and diacriticals which are not available in Arabic.

Building words with NíKO alphabet has some kind of similarity with Latin for its letters contain vowels and consonants; however the difference is the additional diacritics that are found in NíKO. Additionally, there is a difference in their orientations from ďright to leftĒ (RTL script).


In this case NíKO has a kind of hidden force that is extracted from various languages such as English and Arabic.

Like Arabic, it has dynamical generalization of letters hence a letter can be automatically change to another letter by placing a mare dot or two dots at the same time it has a similarity with Latin in terms of flexibility in building syllables by using vowels and consonants.

Apart from all these it has a special taste that gives its unique characteristics, which makes NíKO an integrated African alphabet which is used in nine West African countries (Guinea, Mali, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

All these countries are member states of ECOWAS and ECOMOG

In todayís world NíKO people are called in different name such as:

MANINKA, BAMBARA, MANDINGO, and JULA. MANDEN and MALINKE are mostly used by the French while MANDINGO is used mostly in English at any rate there may be a difference in names but the meaning is the same  that is ďChildren of the KingísĒ (MAAN) &( DEN ) and we all do understand each other in spite of differences in dialects .      



The map of MANDEN in West Africa



In terms of application people in our territories learn NíKO in many different ways such as:

-          Collective learning and adult education.

-          Private and self learning for both men and women in different ages.

The inventor did not stop only at the point of inventing writing for our people but He put it into practice as well. He authored something like 180 books within 38 years ending with His death in 1987.His students and followers worked in the same as their teacher did before with courage and endless efforts. 

B- The stage in which NíKO is put into Unicode (13-14/9/2005:

After all these years of having our fonts still lacking most of their qualities due to the Unicode NíKO people and their friends throughout the world stand shoulder to   shoulder to get their language into the Unicode then after many conferences and processes finally the Unicode organization accepted NíKO and registered it officially in Paris in a date and time which is mentioned above as one of the languages they recommended.

It was in 2001 when we started researching and reviewing NíKO alphabet closely with the aim of enhancing it for Unicode we were in constant touch with each other throughout this process.

Here you are some of the well known personalities and organizations that help to accomplish this noble task:

  • Dr. Baba Mamadi Diane = Professor at Cairo University

  • Mamady Doumbuya       =president of NíKo institute

  • Karamo Kaba Jammeh = president of NíKo association Sweden

  • Dr. Deborah Anderson = professor university of California (Berkeley)

  • Rick McGowan          = vice president Unicode

  • Dr. Kenneth Whistler = director Unicode technical director

  • Michael Everson       = alphabet expert

On the 1/1/2004 Dr. Baba Mamadi Diane, Mamady Doumbouya, Karamo Kaba Jammeh and Michael Everson presented application form to Unicode in their struggle to put NíKO into Unicode, fortunately the demand was accepted and NíKO was given this ID number(ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2/WG2 N 26XX 2004-01-01

 International Organization for Standardization


Plus this site we have also created many web pages in French to help researchers in that field. like:


From that time many contacts and conferences in many places like in china Canada have been made on NíKO until it was finally accepted in Paris conference by Unicode 13-15/9/2005 and it was given this number:

Unicode Data Ė 2.0.0d4.text 10 Ė oct Ė 2005 18 1.0m


In all these processes UNESCO, African Academy for Languages in Bamako and all NíKo associations in West Africa plus the authorities at Unicode played a great role in putting NíKO Unicode.

With this agreement we are now looking forward to see NíKo included and integrated with new coming computer software such as upcoming versions of windows so that we would be able to recreate our web sites that could be seen worldwide without any problem.

C- The stage of localizing devices with NíKO.

Localization of NíKO is possible particularly after NíKO is put into the Unicode what we hope is to see new huge markets that are modern and flourishing in our countries particularly for companies and programmers who have interests in that matter.

This acceptance of NíKO as one of the Unicode languages which was supported by many multicultural and coexistence supporters worldwide coincided with a conference in Bamako Mali on multilingualism in cyberspace 5/5/2005 then in Dakar Senegal 7/9/2005.

Both these conferences took place in the heart of MANDEN land where many supporters of global integration participated in support of African languages that are being marginalized particularly in the world of new digital devices, to make African languages useful in this digital paperless world that can be viewed through our computer screens and satellite channels.

These two conferences made a tremendous impact on Manden people who speak NíKO language which is the container of their culture and civilization also these conferences upgrade the thoughts and concepts of NíKO people about Unicode, multilingualism and much more such as the high percentage that NíKO gained in Paris which shows the popularity of NíKO particularly in the European scene.

For that being the case the localization of devices with African languages is of a great importance to the entire dwellers of the continent that can also create job opportunities for youths and mass investment opportunities for super inter continental companies as well as programmers, which can bridge the digital gap and strengthen friendship, progress and prosperity among shareholders.

D- Details on percentages of NíKO speakers in West Africa.

It is a difficult task to count down exactly how many people do speak a certain language particularly if this language is not spoken only by its natives, such languages as NíKO  are considered as national languages not only ethnical or tribal.

That is why the percentage of NíKO speakers can be pointed out according to the geographical area in which they are and according to their demographical spread.

Because the spread of any language is not measured only by its natives but with the number of those speakers who are not natives. The spread of language is also measured by the number of its speakers in comparison with the number of other languages.

From these points of views we can deduce that NíKO is the language spoken by most of west Africans particularly in those francophone countries.  That is why it will not be fair in any case to consider NíKO as a language of certain ethnic group, but NíKO is really a language that belongs to the entire population of that region particularly in this age of information and awareness.

 That is why you can see that when the French came to Africa, the language they chose was NíKO to ease their communication with the natives most of whom can fluently speak NíKO. On that occasion said one of their scholars "Gerard Galtier": NíKO is a language not a language of certain ethnic group but for the entire West Africans.

The following is list of statistics on NíKO and its speakers which is compiled by (EEC no.119-jen-feb.1988) from IMF about sub-Saharan Africa.

In this report all the places where NíKO is spoken is well pointed out: Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and it is considered as minority language in country like Senegal:



Population In million

NíKO language

Percentage Of its speakers

Total percentage of its speakers

Number of NíKO speakers


As first language

As second language






























Ivory Coast







The Total amount of NíKO speakers in million



At any rate this previous detail from EEC is not so accurate due to that it did not include all the West African countries where MANDEN people can be found in large numbers, for that being the case the second following table is more accurate:



Population in million

The Language "N'Ko"

Percentage NíKo speakers

Total speakers in million






Ivory Coast















Burkina Faso















Guinea Bissau





Sera Leon





Total NíKo Speakers in million

33.895 million











Total NíKo Speakers in million


Total of NíKo  Speakers




According to this table the total percentage of NíKO speakers in these nine African countries is equivalent to 51% that is something like 33.895 million out of 64.8 million in habitants. 


Dr. Diane Mohammed

Professor of NíKO language Cairo University.


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