Ancient African Alphabet

Ancient Africa contained many different cultures, kingdoms, languages, and types of people. Many of the tribes communicated in verbal form, telling stories from one generation to another.

Tribes and groups such as the Ancient Meroitic were known for their spoken language. For those that used written form, there were a lot of differences from one group to the next.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

The Arabic Influences:

Arabic script has had a lot of influence on many African cultures including West Africa. Written script isn’t just a method of writing down the words that are spoken but were also used as a kind of identity within the culture.

In some religions, such as the Muslim religion, there was a belief that simply writing down the Arabic script also carried the power of Islam. Written scripts or alphabets became power political symbols that displayed national or tribal identity.

Ancient Egyptians were First:

Although Egyptians are known for their hieroglyphs, one of the other notable things to remember is that the history of what we now refer to as the “alphabet” began in ancient Egypt. By the time the 27th century BC came around they had 24 hieroglyphs. Pictographs were easy to use because they could communicate a name as well as an idea.

We have returned to use in today’s “memes” which can get a complete message across rather quickly. The numbering system that we use today are all derived from Arabic numbers.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

Writing is Newer for Humans:

Of all of the methods of writing, there are only 4 that are given credit for independent development that eventually became the symbols and alphabets that we use today: Egypt (3500 B.C.E.), Ancient Iraq/Iran (3500 B.C.E.), China, and Mesoamerica. Human beings have been on the earth for around 100,000 years, but it’s only in the last 6,000 years that any kind of writing was invented.

Spreading or sharing the writing to a majority of people around the Earth only started happening in the 20th Century.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region


Facts about Ancient African Housing:

This is a type of standardized script writing that is particular to a specific language. It usually includes spelling rules and other things such as capitalization and punctuation.

Since Africa has so many different languages, special adoptions or rules had to be made to represent each of the languages. Early African languages were mostly expressed in pictograph form. Other exceptions had to be made as there were no specific characters for some “sounds.”

It’s thought that these types of changes were part of the process that created unique scripts for the various cultures in Africa and then around the globe.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

Ancient Egyptian

We are most familiar with the Egyptian hieroglyphs which was a writing system that used pictures or images as symbols. Many could be used in combination for personal names or even types of words.

Old Nubian

This is a very ancient form of the Nubian language that was a variation of what is known as the “Coptic” alphabet and used from the 8th to the 15th century.


This alphabet is still used today in different areas of trade and more modern forms for Berber languages. A variation known as Neo-Tifinagh has around 55 characters.


This form of script was developed in the 8th to 9th century CE in the Horn of Africa so that they could write the Ge’ez language. It’s used today in a number of areas of Africa and is sometimes called “Ethiopic.” It has basic signs for syllables, numbers, and punctuation.


This writing has a number of other similar names and consists of a system of symbols that are particular to the southeaster Nigerian area’s picture script.


The Phoenicians were a group of trading people in what is now known as Lebanon. Their trade with North Africa created some of the cities including Carthage. The Phoenician alphabet is thought to be a combination of a number of other alphabets, including Greek, Arabic, and Latin.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region


Which culture created the numbering system that we use today?


What is it called when a language is expressed in images?


What culture is given credit for creating the first writing?


What 4 groups are given credit for the development of all writing used today?

Egypt (3500 B.C.E.), Ancient Iraq/Iran (3500 B.C.E.), China, and Mesoamerica

What script is thought to carry the power of their God?


What is the name of Egyptian writing?