The Oromo Orthography of Shaykh Bakri Sapalo

The Shaykh Bakri Sapalo Syllabary
Hayward, R.J., Hassan, Mohammed, ``The Oromo Orthography of Shaykh Bakri Sapalo'', Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. XLIV Part 3, University of London, 1981
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The following is a summary of the paper ``The Oromo Orthography of Shaykh Bakri Sapalo'' as it pertains to aspects of the syllabary itself. A summary of Shaykh Bakri Sapalo life is made in the paper as well, while an interesting recounting of the events in the noble man's life that influenced his creation of the script, those details are largely omitted here for brevity, the reader is then referred to the original paper.

Quoting from the paper:

``Another reason for the respect accorded to Shaykh has undoubtedly to be traced to his ingenuity in inventing an indigenous Oromo alphabet. The development of this is said to have taken place in 1956, at the village of Hajich'omie in the Obora Awrajja. Since the letter shown in plate I is dated 1958, it is clear that 1956 is not to be reckoned according to the Ethiopian calendar. It is not really clear why Shaykh Bakri returned to his home area to devote time to the alphabet, unless it was for the purpose of keeping the thing secret, for the authorities would certainly have been adamantly opposed to the idea of Oromo being written in any form, let alone in a script other than Ethiopic. Be that as it may, it does seem highly likely that Bakri was the first Oromo who saw clearly the problems inherent in attempting to write the Oromo language by means of orthographic systems which had been devised primarily for other languages. What it was that inspired him to work at perfecting a truly indigenous alphabet is not something we have been able to find any reference to in those of his writings to which we have had access. That Shaykh Bakri had strong nationalist aspirations is very evident, and according to one of the foremost of his students he is reported to have said that a people such as the Oromo, possessing glorious historical traditions and a uniquely democratic society, was nevertheless condemned to obscurity without a means of writing. Having developed the alphabet, the Shaykh taught it to all his students and to others as well. To a limited extent people began to exchange letters in the new alphabet, and it is claimed that there are still people who can use it today. In addition to letters, Shaykh Bakri himself employed his alphabet for writing his poems and other works, and manuscripts of these are also reported to be in existence, though the only one of which we have been able to obtain a copy is in fact the letter which appears in page I.''

`` the following consideration of Shaykh Bakri's writing system it will become apparent that we are dealing with something which is `purpose-built', in which all the major issues of Oromo phonology are properly provided for.

``The core of the system is set out in the table of Fig. 1. The table has been compiled mainly on the basis of the manuscript shown in Figs. 2-5. The table sets out in one matrix the forms contained in the smaller matrices numbered 1-5 in the manuscript. To the left of each row of graphic forms appears the consonant letter corresponding to what we shall term the `consonant base' for the forms of that row. Each of these is given in letters of the Roman alphabet, modified where necessary in a way familiar to scholars of Oromo from the works of Cerulli and Moreno. The order in which the consonant bases are listed (i.e. the vertical arrangement) follows the order which is consistently followed in each of the smaller matrices of the manuscript. There are thirteen columns in the table, numbered I-XIII. Each column corresponds to a different vocalization or other phonologically relevant modification of the consonant base. An abstract representation of each of these modifications is presented at the head of the column; for example Ca, Co, etc. The forms of a particular column will be referred to by means of the number. Thus it will be convenient to speak of IVth forms or XIth forms, etc. Moreover, taking combinations of letters and numbers we are able to refer precisely to any form occupying a particular cell within the matrix; for example bX, cIV, etc. The ordering of the columns (i.e. the horizontal arrangement) follows the order in which these appear in matrices 1-5 in the manuscript.

``It is hoped that the abstract representations at the heads of the columns will make it clear that the significance of the forms in their respective columns; nevertheless, some brief comments may be appropriate. The Ist forms are the totally unmodified consonant bases. Each Ist form represents in an abstract way the entire set to its right. Ist forms are not themselves used in writing. When compared with Ist forms the IInd, IIIrd, IVth, Vth and VIth forms can all be seen to have graphic elements appended to them. Each of these appendages indicates a different following phonemic vowel, i.e a, u, i, e, and o respectively. The VIIth, VIII, IXth, XIth forms also contain graphic appendages of various sorts. Each of these indicates a different following long vowel, i.e a, u, i, e, and o respectively. Later we shall consider the nature of the graphic representation of the phonological relationship between short and long vowel counterparts; see p.562 XIIth forms represent long (or geminate) consonants, but like Ist forms they are really abstractions which do not appear in writing unless modified by one or other of the vocalic markers. Each XIIth form, therefore, is the base for a further set of ten forms (corresponding to the forms of columns II-XI). It has not been thought those attached to the short consonant bases. Finally, the XIIIth forms represent (short) consonants in either preconsonantal or word-final position. They correspond therefore to the sades forms of the Ethiopic syllabary.

``Although we have no reason whatsoever to entertain the belief that Shaykh Bakri had ever studied modern linguistics, or was acquainted with the concept of a phoneme, it is nevertheless the case that his writing system is almost entirely phonemic; that is to say, it is a system achieving the ideal of just one graphic symbol for each phonologically distinctive sound of the language.''