A Journey of Malagasy Script
by Mose Njo
First of all, let’s go back to 1817, more than 200 years ago. Something happened on the 26th of March. And that sealed the fate of the Malagasy language, therefore the Madagascan literature, at least for the next two centuries and counting.
That year, Radama, the King of the Merina, was recognized by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as King of Madagascar. The Kingdom of Madagascar and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland signed a Treaty of Friendship six months later, on the 23rd of October, 1817.
Louis XVIII, the King of France, who reigned between Napoleon and, again, Napoleon, wasn’t happy about it, considering the magnificent island of Madagascar obviously, and by all means, theirs or at least as their chasse gardée. Nonetheless, probably (but not only) because Radama spoke and wrote in French as he spoke and wrote in English, he decided for an equal treatment of both languages in the elaboration of the written Malagasy language.
On the 26th of March, 1823, Radama promulgated a Royal Decree that the Latin alphabet had to be adopted.
From this day on,
the Malagasy alphabet consists of 21 letters:
a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, v, y, z
There is no c, q, u, w, and x since they are not needed.
At least, as King Radama and especially David Jones, also known as Jonjilava—the tall Jones—a Welsh Christian missionary with a “natural giftedness in linguistic”, saw the situation. The King “was also getting advice from a French sergeant named Robin, who had arrived in 1819, and who had become his personal secretary and aide-de-camp. He had taught the King to read, write, and count, and he was the first to have written the Merina dialect in Latin letters.”1
Radama, for early-1800s political reasons and to stop an endless debate among English missionaries about the written transcription of the language2, opted for that Latin system, although he was extensively versed3 in the Arabic-Madagascan tradition.
François Chollet, a software engineer, and AI researcher, once tweeted4,
The grammar and orthography of the French language are overly complex for absolutely no good reason and should be reformed. Virtually no one can spell French correctly. Also, this is true for English as well, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree.
I was thinking, then quoting his tweet5,
Malagasy language should be reformed, for the exact same reasons mentioned by François Chollet in this tweet of his. It’s not intuitive at all. It’s overly complex for early-1800s political reasons and it has literally lost its way since the mid 1970s.
The script reform work was tremendous and splendid of course, but they didn’t think about the intuitive part in the early 1800s.
The gap between how you speak it and how you write it is huge.
One of my forenames is written Anjoanina. No one can write and spell it correctly on the first attempt. Not even Madagascans.
The first time I got to dig into the origin of modern Malagasy writing was when I read Linah Ravonjiariasoa’s book, Radama 1er, fondateur de l’écriture malgache moderne6.
She said modern because Radama used to write in Sorabe. The photo below shows his handwriting. And I got it thanks to her book since the original, Radama’s notebook, was burned down when the Rova, (the Royal Palace) was burnt down in 1995.
David Jones, the Welsh missionary, wanted above all to translate the Bible in Malagasy, of course. To illustrate how serious he was, he even studied Sorabe in Antananarivo, since Antemoro’s Katibos, the guardians of Sorabe, were in Antananarivo to teach Sorabe to the high-born youth. Missionaries also studied how Ravarika or Verkey, in London, had written some extracts from the Bible in Sorabe7.
This Latin system adopted by Radama lead to the creation of schools, general and technical instruction of the population, the advent of a locally and externally-trained intelligentsia, and of course, the birth of the Madagascan literature.
Sorabe was there before, but it was only known and used by a selected few—the elite—while the Latin alphabet is for everyone to use.
Ranavalona, the illiterate and philistine successor of Radama, for all the horror we know about her, had the présence d’esprit to collect8 the Hainteny.
Hainteny is our traditional form of poetry, it is for us what Haiku is for the Japanese.
But the missionaries didn’t like the Hainteny.
Too dirty-minded for their taste.
So, they repressed it so effectively that up until today the vast majority are not aware of its existence.
Thankfully, some writers so fell in love with Hainteny that they wrote books about it.
Like Jean Paulhan, a mystical French writer who translated Hainteny in French.
Like Bakoly Ramiaramanana-Domenichini about whom Professor Albert Rakoto Ratsimamanga said that not only did she revere those Hainteny, she also deciphered and translated them rigorously.
Like Leonard Fox who translated Hainteny in English and “has been able to create the largest assemblage of hainteny texts ever published in one volume9”.
Madagascan-written literature was born.
La linguistique malgache bref aperçu historique, Jacques Dez
De l’usage de l’arabico-malgache en Imérina au début du XIXe siècle: Le cahier d’écriture de Radama Ier, Hubert Jean Berthier
Yet, Malagasy language should be reformed, for the exact same reasons mentioned by François Chollet in this tweet of his It’s not intuitive. At all. It’s overly complex for early 1800s political reasons and it *literally* lost its way since the mid 1970s
Radama 1er, fondateur de l’écriture malgache moderne, Linah Ravonjiariasoa
La tradition arabico-malgache vue à travers le manuscrit A-6 d’Oslo et d’autres manuscrits disponibles, Ludvig Munthe
Hainteny d’autrefois. Haintenin’ny fahiny, Bakoly Domenichini-Ramiaramanana
Mose Njo is a multilingual writer who lives and works in Madagascar. He published a novel in Malagasy called Lisy Mianjoria. A short story he wrote in French was published in the Europunk science fiction anthology. He was among the winners of the Africa @2050 Climate-Fiction Competition. His submission was in English. He has translated plays and poems. He received a scholarship to study independent film-making at the Art-on-the-Run School in Berlin. He also exhibits his conceptual artwork.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely of the writer Mose Njo.