There are thousands abstract writting nsibidi symbols, of which over 500 have been recorded.
They were once taught in a school to children. Outside knowledge of nsibidi came in 1904 when T. Before the British colonisation of the area, nsibidi was divided into a sacred version and a public, more decorative version which could be used by women. The name of a boy called ‘Onuaha’ as recorded by J. Macgregor interpreted the first two symbols as corruptions of the Latin letters ‘N’ and ‘A’ and the last symbol a generic nsibidi.
Macgregor noted the growing European influence on nsibidi. The origin of the word nsibidi is not known. One theory traces the word to the Ekoid languages, where it means «cruel letters», reflecting the harsh laws of the secret societies that hold nsibidi knowledge. The origin of nsibidi is most commonly attributed to the Ejagham people of the northern Cross River region, mostly because colonial administrators found the largest and most diverse nsibidi among them. Nsibidi spread throughout the region over time and mixed with other cultures and art forms such as the Igbo uri or uli graphic design. Nsibidi has a wide vocabulary of signs usually imprinted on calabashes, brass ware, textiles, wood sculptures, masquerade costumes, buildings and on human skin. Nsibidi has been described as a «fluid system» of communication consisting of hundreds of abstract and pictographic signs.
Nsibidi was described in the colonial era by P. Talbot as «a kind of primitive secret writing», Talbot explained that nsibidi was used for messages «abstract writting or painted on split palm stems». An image of a recorded judgement case known as an ‘Ikpe’ written in nsibidi from Enyong. The Ikpe from Enyong written in nsibidi as recorded by J. Nsibidi was used in judgement cases known as ‘Ikpe’ in some Cross River communities. Macgregor was able to retrieve and translate an nsibidi record from Enyong of an ikpe judgement. The record is of an Ikpe or judgement case.
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Ukara motifs are designed in white and are placed on grids set against an indigo background. Some of the designs include abstract symbols representing the Ekpe society such as repeating triangles representing the leopard’s claws and therefore Ekpe’s power. Nsibidi was the inspiration for the Wakandan writing system shown in the 2018 Marvel Cinematic Universe film Black Panther. Below are some examples of nsibidi recorded by J. Further Notes on ‘Nsibidi Signs with Their Meanings from the Ikom District, Southern Nigeria».
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. Language in Africa: An Introductory Survey. Early Ceramics from Calabar, Nigeria: Towards a History of Nsibidi».
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