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An African reference alphabet was first proposed in 1978 by a UNESCO-organized conference held in Niamey, Niger, and the proposed alphabet was revised in 1982. The conference recommended the use of single letters for a sound (that is, a phoneme) instead of using two or three-letter combinations, or letters with diacritical marks.
The African Reference Alphabet is clearly related to the Africa Alphabet and reflected practice based on the latter (including use of IPA characters). The Niamey conference also built on work of a previous UNESCO-organized meeting on harmonization of transcriptions of African languages, that was held in Bamako, Mali in 1966.
Separate versions of the conference's report were produced in English and French. Different images of the alphabet were used in the two versions, and there are a number of differences between the two.
The English version proposed an alphabet of 57 letters, given in both upper and lower-case forms. Eight of these are formed from common Latin letters with the addition of an underline mark (_). Some of the glyphs (two uppercase forms and , one lowercase form ) cannot be accurately represented in Unicode (as of version 13, March 2020).
This version also listed eight accents (acute accent (´), grave accent (`), circumflex (ˆ), caron (ˇ), macron (¯), tilde (˜), trema (¨), and a superscript dot (˙) and nine punctuation marks (? ! ( ) « » , ; .).
In the French version, the letters were hand-printed in lower case only. Only 56 of the letters in the English version were listed – omitting the hooktop-z – and two further apostrophe-like letters (ʾ and ʿ) were included. Also, five of the letters were written with a subscript dot instead of an underscore as in the English version (ḍ ḥ ṣ ṭ and ẓ). (These represent Arabic-style emphatic consonants while the remaining underlined letters (c̱, q̱ and x̱) represent clicks.) Accents and punctuation do not appear. The French and English sets are otherwise identical.
- Ɑ/ɑ is "Latin alpha" () not "Latin script a" (). In Unicode, Latin alpha and script a are not considered as separate characters.
- The upper case I, the counterpart of the lower case i, does not have crossbars () while the upper case counterpart of the lower case ɪ has them ().
- The letter “Z with tophook” () is not included in Unicode.
The 1982 revision of the alphabet was made by Michael Mann and David Dalby, who had attended the Niamey conference. It has 60 letters; some are quite different from the 1978 version. Another key feature of this alphabet is that it included only lower-case letters, making it unicase.
A typewriter keyboard was proposed as well: for the additional characters, the uppercase letters had to be given up. It was probably for this reason that the keyboard did not get used. However, the proposal of the additional characters is valuable as it reflects the needs for writing African languages. On the other hand, in quite a few orthographical systems of African languages, two-letter combinations are used to represent additional sounds.
- "Presentation of the "African Reference Alphabet" (in 4 images) from the Niamey 1978 meeting". www.bisharat.net. Retrieved 2013-05-10.
- Mann, Michael; Dalby, David: A Thesaurus of African Languages, London 1987, ISBN 0-905450-24-8, p. 207
- Mann, Michael; Dalby, David: A Thesaurus of African Languages, London 1987, ISBN 0-905450-24-8, p. 210
- Mann, Michael, and David Dalby. 1987. A thesaurus of African languages: A classified and annotated inventory of the spoken languages of Africa with an appendix on their written representation. London: Hans Zell Publishers. ISBN 0-905450-24-8
- African Languages: Proceedings of the meeting of experts on the transcription and harmonization of African languages, Niamey (Niger), 17–21 July 1978, Paris: UNESCO, 1981