Updated 26 January, 2024
This page brings together basic information about the Bamum script and its use for the Bamun language. It aims to provide a brief, descriptive summary of the modern, printed orthography and typographic features, and to advise how to write Bamun using Unicode. This page restricts itself to discussion of the modern syllabary, and does not cover earlier pictograms and logograms.
Richard Ishida, Bamum (Bamum Syllabary) Orthography Notes, 26-Jan-2024, https://r12a.github.io/scripts/bamu/bax
ꛦ-ꚳꛊꚤ ꚳꚣꚧ꛱ꛦꚧ꛱ ꚳ꛰ꚴꚢ ꛲ꛗ ꛧ-ꚳꛊꚤ ꛄꚧ꛱ ꚳ꛰ꛤ꛰ ꚩꚤ ꛲ꛗ ꛨ-ꛅꚧ꛱ ꛣꚠ ꚳꛊꚤꚳ ꛎꛦ ꛛꚧ꛱ ꛲ꛗ ꛩ-꛲ꚣꛤ ꛅꚧ꛱ ꛇꛛꚧ꛱ ꛤ꛰ ꛨ ꚣꛤ ꛛꚧ꛱ ꛦ꛰ꚳ꛰ ꛪ-ꛕꚠꛤ ꛅꚧ ꛈ ꛅꚧ꛱ ꛖ ꚳ꛰ꛤ꛰ ꛲ꚱꛅ꛱
The Bamum script was used for administrative and educational purposes and documentation until the 1930s, when the script's inventor, King Nyoja, was exiled by the French and German colonial powers. The libraries and the printing press were destroyed, many of the books in the Bamum script were also destroyed, and the teaching of the script in schools was banned.
After Cameroon became independent in 1960, Seidou Njimoluh the son and heir of the script's inventor, King Nyoja, collected the Bamum manuscripts and other materials that survived and put them in his father's museum.o
Today the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project is trying to revive the Bamum script by teaching it to young people. o
ꚠ ꚡ ꚢ ꚣ a-ka-u-ku (A name for the script, using its first 4 letters.)
The Bamum script was invented by King Ibrahim Njoya (r. 1895 – 1931). It was originally a collection of around 500 logographs, adapted over 5 major revisions, and sometimes written vertically, top to bottom. No significant works are thought to have survived from this period, and we do not examine these characters here. Their use appears to have been restricted to only a few members of the palace.ws
A final overhaul of the script in 1910 reduced the characters to the syllabic set described here. The koqndon and tukwentis diacritics were introduced at that time to extend the repertoire.
Sources Scriptsource, Omniglot, and Wikipedia.
The Bamum script is a syllabary. Letters typically represent a combination of consonants and vowels. See the table to the right for a brief overview of features for the modern Bamum orthography.
Bamum text runs left to right in horizontal lines.
Words are separated by spaces. The script is unicameral.
This is a simple syllabary where letter shapes don't follow any systematic pattern. Bamum has 78 basic letters, but A6F0 can be added to a base letter to expand the repertoire. In many cases this shortens the vowel and adds a glottal stop, but sometimes it makes other sound changes. In 2 cases A6F1 also produces a change in sound.
Using 6 letters and the 2 aforementioned diacritics, it is possible to write 11 standalone vowels, most of which come in pairs, ending with and without a glottal stop.
Syllables beginning with a consonant are written using 73 basic letters, plus the same 73 letters with A6F0, plus digraphs for 24 additional CV syllables; giving a total of 170 syllables. A few of these have built-in codas that are not the glottal stop.
Where one of the previously described syllables doesn't end with a coda, 12 syllable-final consonant sounds can be applied by killing the vowel with A6F1.
The spoken language is tonal, but tones are not written, although some syllables may be dedicated to a particular tone.
Bamum has its own set of punctuation marks.
Ten of the syllables are also used to represent numbers.
See also index_numbers.
These characters have the Unicode general category of number, but also serve as ordinary syllables.
These are sounds of the Bamun language.
Click on the sounds to reveal locations in this document where they are mentioned.
Phones in a lighter colour are non-native or allophones. Source Wikipedia.
Open syllables have vowels of normal length, but vowels followed by a glottal stop are half-long /ˑ/.
Some transcriptions include an x to indicate a
slight voiceless velar fricative (according to Ward) that occasionally follows ɯ and other close vowels. It has been omitted here.r
Bamum has 5 tones: à low, á high, ā mid, ǎ rising, â falling.wl,#Tones
Observation: Evidence needed as to whether or not they are indicated in the orthography.
Most Bamum words are syllables of the form CV(C).d,584
The closing consonant of a syllable can only be one of p t m n ŋ.d,584
Observation: It was difficult to find information about the Bamum syllabary, and the phonetic values of the symbols had to be interpreted from different transcriptions, which occasionally appeared to be inconsistent. The lists below use Wikipedia as the basis for the plain syllables and those with diacritics. There appear to be some anomalies in the Wikipedia data and an attempt was made to address those. The information about digraphs comes from Omniglot. The following should be considered a best estimate of the correspondences between letters and sounds, given the information available.
Bamum has 6 characters dedicated to vowel-only syllables. The full set of 11 Bamum vowel syllables is produced by adding one of 2 combining marks. The set of unique code points involved is:
The following letters are all used for syllables that begin with a consonant. (The vowel-related letters above are omitted.)
The 80 syllabic symbols of the Bamum syllabary are not sufficient to cover all the sounds of the Bamun language. To extend the repertoire, 3 approaches are used.
꛰ [U+A6F0 BAMUM COMBINING MARK KOQNDON] changes the sound of a syllable. This most commonly involves shortening the vowel and adding a final glottal stop while removing any existing syllable-final consonants, eg. compareꚻ kɛt ꚻ꛰ kɛʔ
Sometimes prenasalisation is also removed,ws,266 eg. compareꛇ ⁿte ꛇ꛰ teʔ
In other cases, the sound change involves syllable-final nasalisation rather than a glottal stop, eg. compareꛝ pi ꛝ꛰ pĩ
In a number of other cases, the change is much more idiosyncratic, eg. compareꛙ fɔm ꛙ꛰ ᵐvɔp
Combinations of each of the basic letters with A6F0.
Typically, A6F1 simply kills the vowel sound. However, there are 2 exceptions, where it produces a sound change.
In the first case, the vowel is killed but the consonant changes.
In the second case, it produces a different vowel.
ꚧ꛱ ɔ͓ ə
Additional sounds can be created by combining syllable glyphs.
For example, ꛘꚢ [U+A6D8 BAMUM LETTER FU + U+A6A2 BAMUM LETTER U] doubles the vowel of fu to produce the voiced syllable vu.wl
Other examples don't appear to follow a specific rule. For example, ꛔꚤ [U+A6D4 BAMUM LETTER NGGA + U+A6A4 BAMUM LETTER EE] combines symbols for ᵑga and e to make the sound gi.
Digraphs that produce additional CV(C) syllables.
A6F1 generally kills the vowel to produce a symbol that can be used for a syllable coda, eg. compare:
In one case, this diacritic produces a different vowel, rather than killing the vowel (see tukwentis).
Bamum uses 10 ordinary syllables to also represent numeric digits.
ꛯ [U+A6EF BAMUM LETTER KOGHOM] originally had the value 10, or multiples of 10, but was changed to a decimal zero when the syllabary was produced.r,4
Bamum text runs left to right in horizontal lines.
bidi_class properties for characters in the Bamun orthography described here.
You can experiment with examples using the Bamum character app.
Bamoun letters don't interact, so no special shaping is needed.
Base characters carry only a single combining mark.
Bamum graphemes are single glyphs with an optional combining mark above, and text units can be handled adequately by Unicode grapheme clusters.
Each syllable is a grapheme cluster on its own, but also when combined with koqndon or tukwentis.
Click on the text version of this word to see more detail about the composition.
Spaces are used to separate words in Bamum.
Bamum uses hyphens inside words, eg. these 2 words are from the sample above ꛧ-ꚳꛊꚤ mᵇᵃᵃ-mpᵉe mbaa-mpee ꛨ-ꛅꚧ꛱ tᵋᵗ-pᵚˣɔ͓ tɛt-pɯʔ
Bamum has its own punctuation marks. The punctuation marks correspond closely to Western equivalents, probably because the Western punctuation was the inspiration.
꛲ [U+A6F2 BAMUM NJAEMLI] introduces proper-nouns, or can be used to disambiguate homographs.
By default, lines are broken at inter-word spaces. As in almost all writing systems, certain punctuation characters should not appear at the end or the start of a line.
As in almost all writing systems, certain punctuation characters should not appear at the end or the start of a line. The Unicode line-break properties help applications decide whether a character should appear at the start or end of a line.
Show (default) line-breaking properties for characters in the modern Bamun orthography.
The following list gives examples of default behaviours for some of the characters used in Bamum. Context may affect the behaviour of some of these and other characters.
Click/tap on the characters to show what they are.
Bamum uses the so-called 'alphabetic' baseline, which is the same as for Latin and many other scripts.
Glyphs in the Bamum syllabary are typically the same height and lack ascenders or descenders. However, most glyphs can have one of 2 combining marks above, which significantly increase the vertical height.
To give an approximate idea, fig_baselines compares Latin and Bamum glyphs from the Noto font. The basic height of Bamum letters is set at the Latin cap-height, however combining marks reach well beyond the Latin ascenders, creating a need for larger line spacing.