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Afaka syllabary

Languages Ndyuka
Creator Afáka Atumisi
Time period
Invented 1910
ISO 15924 Afak, 439

The Afaka script (afaka sikifi) is a syllabary of 56 letters devised in 1910 for the Ndyuka language, an English-based creole of Surinam. The script is named after its inventor, Afáka Atumisi. It continues to be used to write Ndyuka in the 21st century, but the literacy rate in the language for all scripts is under 10%.[citation needed]

Afaka is the only script in use that was designed specifically for a creole or for a form of English. It is not yet supported by Unicode.


File:Afaka syllabary.png
The syllabary as recorded by Gonggrijp in 1968. All letters may include a final nasal (a for an, ba for ban, etc.), and the rows for b, d, dy, and g may also stand for mb, nd, ndy, and ng. The y row is placed between g and k because it was originally transcribed with Dutch j. The dot inside the loop of nya may be an error due to confusion with similarly shaped be.

Afaka is a defective script. Tone is phonemic but not written. Final consonants (the nasal [n]) are not written, but long vowels are, by adding a vowel letter. Prenasalized stops and voiced stops are written with the same letters, and syllables with the vowels [u] and [o] are seldom distinguished: The syllables [o]/[u], [po]/[pu], and [to]/[tu] have separate letters, but syllables starting with the consonants [b, d, dy, f, g, l, m, n, s, y] do not. Thus the Afaka rendition of Ndyuka could also be read as Dyoka. In four cases syllables with [e] and [i] are not distinguished (after the consonants [l, m, s, w]); a single letter is used for both [ba] and [pa], and another for both [u] and [ku]. Several consonants have only one glyph assigned to them. These are [ty], which only has a glyph for [tya]; [kw] (also [kp]), which only has [kwa ~ kpa]; [ny], which only has [nya] (though older records report that letter pulled double duty for [nyu]); and [dy], which only has [dyu/dyo]. There are no glyphs assigned specifically to the consonant [gw] ~ [gb]. The result of these conflations is that the only syllables for which there is no ambiguity (except for tone) are those beginning with the consonant [t].

There is a single punctuation mark, the pipe (|), which corresponds to a comma or a period. Afaka initially used spaces between words, but not all writers have continued to do so.


The origins of many of the letters are obscure, though several appear to be acrophonic rebuses, with many of these being symbols from Africa. Examples of rebuses include a curl with a dot in it representing a baby in the belly (in Ndyuka, a abi beli, lit. "she has belly", means "she's pregnant"), and which stands for [be]; two hands outstretched to give stand for [gi]; symbols for come (Ndyuka kom) and go to represent [ko] and [go]; two linked circles for we stand for [wi], while [yu] is an inversion of [mi], corresponding to the pronouns you and me; letters like Roman numerals two and four are [tu] and [fo]. [ka] and [pi] are said to represent feces (Ndyuka kaka) and urine (pisi). A "+" sign stands for [ne], from the word name, derived from the practice of signing one's name with an X. The odd conflation of [u] and [ku] is due to the letter being a pair of hooks, which is uku in Ndyuka.[1] The only letters which appear to correspond to the Latin alphabet are the vowels a, o, and maybe e, though o is justified as the shape of the mouth when pronouncing it.[2]

Variants and syllabic order

Texts in Afaka's own hand show significant variation in the letters. A good number are rotated a quarter turn, and sometimes inverted as well; these are be, di, dyo, fi, ga, ge, ye, ni, nya, pu, se, so, te, and tu, while lo, ba/pa, and wa may be in mirror-image and sa, to may be simply inverted. Others have curved vs angular variants: do, fa, ge, go, ko, and kwa. In yet others, the variants appear to reflect differences in stroke order.

The traditional mnemonic order (alphabetic order) may partially reflect the origins of some of the signs. For example, tu and fo ("two" and "four", respectively), yu and mi ("you" and "me"), and ko and go ("come" and "go") are placed near each other. Other syllables are placed near each other to spell out words: futu ("foot"), odi ("hello"), and ati ("heart"), or even phrases: a moke un taki ("it gives us speech"), masa gado te baka ben ye ("Lord God, that the white man heard").

File:Afaka variants.png
Three orders of the Afaka syllabary as recorded in the Patili Molosi Buku, c. 1917. The traditional order is at top. Letters which retain a final nasal may reflect their origin, such as ne(m) from "name" and ko(m) from "come". The mid order differs in moving row 5 and the syllable a to the beginning. Most significant allographs can be seen in comparing these two syllabaries, with some letters rotated and others more angular in the mid syllabary. The bottom order is arranged top-to-bottom according to the Dutch alphabetic order, reflecting the Dutch spellings j and oe for modern Ndyuka y and u, respectively.
File:Afaka 1920.png
The syllabary as recorded in 1920. The order is the original except that a comes first. There are three errors: kwa is missing; te(n) in column 4 was written ti(ng), though ti appears again in column 6; and di in column 6 was transcribed ba, though it duplicates di in column 5. (Ba/pa in column 5 had only been transcribed as pa. It should also be closed at the bottom; perhaps this is an inking error.) Also, accounts from the second half of the 20th century no longer give nyu as an alternate reading of nya.

Sample text

This is apparently the first letter written by Afaka. It was copied into the Patili Molosi Buku c. 1917.

ke mi gadu | mi masa | mi bigi na ini a ulotu |

fu a papila di yu be gi afaka | ma mi de
aga siki fu dede | fa mi sa du | oli ulotu | mi go
na pamalibo na lati ati oso | tu bolo | di mi ná abi
moni | de yaki mi | de taki mi mu oloko moni fosi |
mi sa go na ati osu | da na dati mi e begi | masa
gadu fu a sa gi mi ana | fu mi deesi | a
siki fu mi | ma mi sa taki abena | a sa kon tyali
patili go na ndyuka | eke fa patili taki a bun
gi wi | ma mi de aga pe na mi ede | ala
mi noso poli na ini ye | da mi ná abi
losutu ye |

Oh my God, my Lord, I start with the words on the paper that you've given Afaka. But I'm deathly ill. How can I say it? I went to Paramaribo, Lands Hospital, two times. Because I have no money, they chased me away. They say I must first earn money [before] I go to the Hospital. Therefore I pray to the Lord God that he will give me a hand with the medicine for my illness. But I will talk to Abena. He will bring this to the Priest of the Ndyuka. So as the Father says it is good for us. But I have pain in my head. All my nose is rotting from the inside, I tell you. So I have no rest, I tell you.


  1. ^ In fact, Dubelaar and Pakosie imply that this letter also stands for [uku], making it a logogram.
  2. ^ E, which resembles a capital Latin letter M, may be acrophonic for the name of the letter "em".


  • Dubelaar, Cornelis & André Pakosie, Het Afakaschrift van de Tapanahoni rivier in Suriname. Utrecht 1999. ISBN 90-5538-032-6.
  • Gonggryp, J. W. 1960. The Evolution of a Djuka-Script in Surinam. Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 40:63-72.
  • Huttar, George. 1987. The Afaka script: an indigenous creole syllabary. In The Thirteenth LACUS Forum, pp. 167-177.
  • Huttar, George. 1992. Afaka and his creole syllabary: the social context of a writing system. Language in Context: essays for Robert E. Longacre, ed. by Shin Ja Hwang and William Merrifield, pp. 593-604. Dallas: SIL and University of Texas at Arlington.

External links

The only available font is poorly designed, apparently copied from a low-resolution image: