The N'ko script was created in 1949 by Soloman Kante to write the Bambara language, one of the Manding languages spoken in Mali, in response to a newspaper article reflecting the colonial misconception that Africans were culturally inferior due to their lack of indigenous writing systems. The word N'ko means "I say" in all the Manding languages. Kante had travelled widely throughout West Africa, and his knowledge of the Arabic script influenced his invention.
The N'ko alphabet is phonemic, with each sound represented by one symbol. Letter shapes change depending on their position within the word. The alphabet contains 19 consonants, 7 vowels and 8 diacritics. There are two "abstract" consonants, na woloso and nya woloso, which represent mutation by a preceding nasal.
Vowels are not always written, so the absence of a vowel between consonants does not imply a consonant cluster. The dagbasinna symbol is written after the first consonant in a cluster to indicate that there is no following vowel.
Tone marking is required; seven of the diacritics are used for this purpose and the remaining one indicates nasalization. Each tone mark may only be applied to either long or short vowels, never to both. The tone of a syllable is determined by both the length of the vowel, and the tone mark, as shown below.
There are also three further combining marks which were added at a later date and are used to transcribe foreign sounds. Writing is from right to left, and cursive. It is punctuated using a combination of N'ko and Arabic punctuation, as well as a decorative symbol which is used to indicate the end of a section of text.
N'ko is also used to write the Kangbe language - a literary (that is, predominantly written as opposed to spoken) language which combines the features of various Manding languages, is understandable by all literate Manding speakers and is used in situations where speakers of different Manding languages need a neutral means of communication. Its role as a literary language has contributed to N'ko's status as one of the most widely used indigenous West African scripts, which has in turn been instrumental in fulfilling one of the functions for which Kante had designed it; the strengthening of Manding cultural identity in the region. The N'ko literacy movement operated largely on the fringes of formal education, which was conducted in the Latin script. Despite receiving no government funding or endorsement, and having no official curriculum, it succeeded because it exploited the desire of the Manding people to define and possess their identity.
In 1986 l’Association pour l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko (ICRA-N’KO) was established, and officially approved as an NGO for the promotion of N'ko five years later. The script is currently used in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire as well as Mali, and has been used for publications relating to indigenous knowledge, including descriptions of medical rituals, traditional poetry, and philosophical works, as well as textbooks and a transcription of the Qur'an.