Monday 24 January 2022

Unicode Trivia U+07C1

Codepoint: U+07C1 "NKO DIGIT ONE"
Block: U+07C0..07FF "NKo"

As reported by Dr Dianne White Oyler in "A Cultural Revolution in Africa: Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence" (2001), the N'Ko script was developed by Souleymane Kanté in 1949, partly in response to

a 1944 challenge posed by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya [We Are in Africa]. Marwa argued that Africans were inferior because they possessed no indigenous written form of communication. His statement that "African voices [languages] are like those of the birds, impossible to transcribe" reflected the prevailing views of many colonial Europeans. Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it incomplete. [Page 588]

Kanté discarded both Arabic and Latin scripts as unable to transcribe all the characteristics of the Mande languages. Having developed a completely novel alphabet instead,

he called together children and illiterates and asked them to draw a line in the dirt; he noticed that seven out of ten drew the line from right to left. For that reason he chose a right-to-left orientation. In all Mande languages the pronoun n- means "I" and the verb ko represents the verb "to say". [Page 589]

So "N'Ko" means "I say" in all the target languages.

The right-to-left mantra extends not only to words, but to digits and numbers too. The ten digits zero to nine (U+07C0 "NKO DIGIT ZERO" to U+07C9 "NKO DIGIT NINE") face right:

N'Ko digits (top), Western Arabic (middle), Eastern Arabic (bottom)

This is particularly noticeable with U+07C1 "NKO DIGIT ONE": '߁'

Not only that, but the least significant digits of multi-digit N'Ko numbers are on the left, unlike almost all other writing systems. Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew numbers place the least significant digit on the right, even though the latter two scripts are written right-to-left.

Consider the improbable phrase "There are 12345 eggs":

There are 12345 eggs = English

Υπάρχουν 12345 αυγά = Greek

 يوجد ١٢٣٤٥ بيضة = Arabic

יש 12345 ביצים = Hebrew

߁߂߃߄߅ ߞߟߌ߫ ߦߋ߫ ߦߋ߲߬ = N’Ko

In case of tofu:

Note that the order of the codepoints for "1", "2", "3" "4" and "5" occur in ascending memory order in all cases. For example:

At first, I wasn't sure how much "support" the Unicode standard gives for this type of anomaly. UCD's sister project CLDR (Common Locale Data Repository) has very little to say about N'Ko. There is scope for algorithmic number formatting, but I didn't find anything specific.

However, after a bit of thought I realised that, because directionality is a property of each codepoint and not of the script of the codepoints, digit ordering in N'Ko works "out of the box".

Consider these bidirectional class fields ("bc") from the UCD:

  • Latin
    • "A" (U+0041 "LATIN CAPTIAL LETTER A") =  "L" = strong left-to-right
    • "1" (U+0041 "LATIN CAPTIAL LETTER A") = "EN" = European number (left-to-right)
  • Greek
    • "α" (U+03B1 "GREEK SMALL LETTER ALPHA") =  "L" = strong left-to-right
  • Arabic
    • "ا" (U+0627 "ARABIC LETTER ALEF") = "AL" =  Arabic letter (right-to-left)
    • "١" (U+0661 "ARABIC-INDIC DIGIT ONE") = "AN" =  Arabic number (left-to-right)
  • Hebrew
    • "א" (U+05D0 "HEBREW LETTER ALEF") = "R" = strong right-to-left
  • N'Ko
    • "ߊ" (U+07CA "NKO LETTER A") = "R" = strong right-to-left
    • "߁" (U+07C1 "NKO DIGIT ONE") = "R" = strong right-to-left

Unlike the other digits, N'Ko digits are marked as strongly right-to-left. The only other examples in Unicode 14.0 I could find were Adlam digits (1989).

Another interesting codepoint from the Unicode "NKo" block is U+07F7 "NKO SYMBOL GBAKURUNEN":

It's a decorative punctuation symbol used to mark the end of a major section of text and represents the three stones holding a cooking pot over a fire:


Finally, there can't be many alphabets that have their own day: April 14.

[Many thanks to Coleman Donaldson for help with the N'Ko language]

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