Can transmission chain experiments predict the historical evolution of writing? Evidence from the emergent Vai script.
The Vai script of Liberia is a well-documented emergent writing system from West Africa. Created in relative isolation by five non-literate men in ca. 1833, the syllabary of approximately 200 graphemes has been continuously transmitted to the present day in the Vai-speaking regions of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Given its unusual historical circumstances, we suggest that this system provides an ideal opportunity to test whether the compression effects detected in semiotic transmission experiments have any explanatory power when it comes to understanding the historical evolution of writing. By comparing incremental changes to Vai writing across fifteen consecutive time slices we expect to find evidence of systematic compression acting both on individual graphemes and the entire set. In a second part of our study we use visually complex Vai graphemes as input in two semiotic transmission experiments to re-examine compression effects under a variety of conditions in a laboratory setting.