Know the language that had your alphabet created by two boys

Fulfillment (also called the Fulani or Fulani language) is spoken by up to 60 million people, ranging from Sudan to Senegal and along the Red Sea coast, including 20 countries. The Fulbhe, however, never developed an alphabet for their language; instead they used Arabic and sometimes Latin characters, even though many sounds have no match in either alphabet.

The brothers Abdoulaye and Ibrahima Barry grew up in Nzérékoré, Guinea. It was 1989 and the two were 10 and 14 years old when they began to create an alphabet out of nowhere that faithfully expressed the language they spoke. The boys' father, Isshaga Barry, spoke Arabic and helped friends and relatives by reading letters; when he was busy or tired, the task fell to Abdoulaye and Ibrahima.

Speak fulfillment and write in Arabic

Abdoulaye recalls that “reading was difficult because people used the closest Arabic sound to represent something that does not exist in Arabic. You had to know two languages ​​well - spoken fulfillment and written Arabic - in order to decipher what was written. So he and Ibrahima decided to create an alphabet by combining sounds and shapes.

The fulfillment, whose alphabet has 34 letters, is written from right to left. (Source: Microsoft / Reproduction)

After younger sister Aissata learned the new system, Abdoulaye and Ibrahima set up a capillary network for spreading the alphabet, teaching people in local markets and asking each student to pass on the knowledge to at least three more.

In addition, they began shedding books and writing ADLaM publications about community routine such as child care and water filtration. Already at university, they founded the Winden Jangen - Fulfulde group to continue to spread the system. But there was opposition to the fulbhe people learning anything other than French or Arabic. In 2002, Ibrahima was arrested for three months before emigrating to the US, where Abdoulaye already lived.

One of the books that the Barry brothers used in the mid-1990s to teach the ADLaM alphabet. (Source: Flickr / Stephen Coles)

From real to virtual

ADLaM spread beyond Guinea, but it had to reach the virtual world - the hurdle was Unicode, the global text computing industry standard, not ADLaM compliant. The brothers saved for a year to hire anyone to create a keyboard and font for the new alphabet.

With the mismatch, ADLaM was inserted as a layer over the Arabic alphabet. Without the correct encoding, however, the text sent would turn into random groups of Arabic letters if received by a device without the specific font installed.

Ibrahima began studying handwriting and, while giving a talk about ADLaM, made contacts that led him to Michael Everson, one of the Unicode editors and program manager at Microsoft. With their help, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye came up with a proposal to add ADLaM to Unicode.

The alphabet, already transformed into a font for Unicode. (Source: Sky Knowledge / Reproduction)

The ADLaM then earned the name by which it became known. Until then, it was simply called Bindi Jumping, which means "Jumping Writing." ADLaM, a suggestion of people in Guinea who taught writing, is an acronym formed by the first letters of the words (written by the new system) that form the phrase "the alphabet that will prevent the loss of a people." The Unicode Technical Committee approved ADLaM in 2014 and it was included in version 9.0, released in June 2016.

Inside Windows, traveling the world

But the brothers realized that the work was not over yet: ADLaM also needed to be supported by major operating systems (PC and mobile). Microsoft has worked to develop an ADLaM component for Windows and Office within Ebrima font, which also supports other African writing systems.

Abdoulaye (first left) and Ibrahima (behind designer Stephen Coles, right) with Mark Jamra and Neil Patel (left), who inserted ADLaM into Windows. (Source: Flickr / Stephen Coles)

ADLaM support has been added to the May 10 Windows update, allowing users to type and see the alphabet in Word and other Office applications. The new system is also supported by Microsoft's Kigelia typeface, which includes eight African alphabets and will be added to Office later this year.

Ibrahima and Abdoulaye do not know how many people in the world have learned ADLaM; ADLaM's annual conference in Guinea had 24 countries, and there are learning centers in Africa, Europe and the US.