Bassa Vah orthography notes

Updated 26 January, 2024

This page brings together basic information about the Bassa Vah script and its use for the Bassa language. It aims to provide a brief, descriptive summary of the modern, printed orthography and typographic features, and to advise how to write Bassa using Unicode.

Referencing this document

Richard Ishida, Bassa (Bassa Vah) Orthography Notes, 26-Jan-2024,


Select part of this sample text to show a list of characters, with links to more details. Source
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𖫞𖫫𖫰 𖫐𖫭𖫱𖫐-𖫗𖫭𖫰𖫞𖫭𖫰 𖫑𖫫𖫱 𖫔𖫬𖫱𖫞𖫬𖫱𖫭𖫱𖫐-𖫕𖫭𖫰 𖫔𖫪𖫰𖫬𖫲, 𖫞𖫫𖫰𖫬𖫱 𖫕𖫨𖫲𖫐-𖫕𖫪𖫱 𖫒𖫫𖫰𖫭𖫰𖫐 𖫛𖫩𖫰𖫞𖫩𖫰𖫬𖫲 𖫔𖫬𖫰𖫭𖫱𖫐 𖫛𖫨𖫐𖫵 𖫑𖫫𖫰 𖫛𖫧𖫲 𖫔𖫫𖫰𖫞𖫫𖫰 𖫠𖫭𖫱𖫞𖫭𖫱𖫭𖫲-𖫥𖫩𖫲𖫭𖫱𖫐 𖫠𖫩𖫱𖫞𖫩𖫱-𖫕𖫪𖫱𖫧𖫱 𖫑𖫫𖫱 𖫞𖫬𖫲 𖫔𖫪𖫱𖫐𖫭𖫲𖫐 𖫛𖫨𖫰𖫐-𖫛𖫨𖫰𖫐 𖫒𖫨𖫱𖫫𖫱𖫭𖫱𖫐 𖫞𖫫𖫰 𖫕𖫨𖫲𖫪𖫰𖫐, 𖫑𖫫𖫰 𖫛𖫧𖫲 𖫔𖫫𖫰𖫞𖫫𖫰 𖫔𖫬𖫰 𖫛𖫧𖫲𖫧𖫱 𖫕𖫪𖫲𖫐-𖫞𖫬𖫱 𖫑𖫫𖫰 𖫝𖫩𖫲 𖫔𖫪𖫲𖫐𖫭𖫱𖫐 𖫔𖫩𖫰 𖫞𖫭𖫰𖫭𖫰 𖫑𖫧𖫱𖫵

Usage & history

The Bassa Vah script is used to write the Bassa language spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and by Bassa speakers in Brazil and the Caribbean. It is not widely used at present, although there are some ongoing efforts to revive its use.

𖫢𖫧𖫳𖫒𖫨𖫰𖫨𖫱 ba⁴sɔ¹ɔ² (Ɓǎsɔ́ɔ̀) Bassa


According to ScriptSource, "the script developed from the earlier Bassa communication system of signs made from chewed leaves or carved into trees and left in set locations where they would be found and interpreted. As this system developed, it was employed by the Bassa people to avoid slave traders, so was suppressed by colonial powers and became almost extinct".

Wikipedia takes up the story: "Dr. Thomas Flo Lewis, who rediscovered the script in South America from descendants of Bassa Slaves taken to the Americas ... instigated publishing of limited materials in the language from the mid-1900s through the 1930s, with its height in the 1910s and 1920s. It is alleged that some of the signs are based on native Bassa pictograms revealed by a former slave. It is not clear what connection it may have had with neighboring scripts, but type was cast for it, and an association for its promotion was formed in Liberia in 1959."

Sources: Scriptsource, Wikipedia.

Basic features

The Bassa Vah script is an alphabet. Both consonants and vowels are indicated by letters. See the table to the right for a brief overview of features for the modern Bassa Vah orthography.

Bassa Vah text runs left to right in horizontal lines.

There is no case distinction. Words are separated by spaces.

❯ consonantSummary

23 consonant letters are used for Bassa Vah, 3 of which are used for more than one sound. Consonants are mostly written using straightforward letters. However, with the exception of n, nasals and stops are represented by the same letter: it is pronounced as a nasal when the following vowel is nasalised.

There are no special arrangements for consonant clusters, but in rapid speech when a morpheme has 2 consonants, the first vowel is collapsed.

❯ basicV

Bassa Vah is an alphabet and the vowel symbols are straightforward letters: there are 7 vowel sounds and 7 vowel letters. Vowel letters can be used in standalone positions without any support, but are always written with a tone mark.

In some contexts the vowel of the initial syllable in a word is reduced, and may be omitted from the Latin transcription of that word. These are referred to as 'transitional' vowels.

Syllables are mostly open, but the vowel may be nasalised by a syllable-final n consonant

Bassa has 5 tones, 2 of which are contour tones. Every syllable must have a tone mark, including standalone vowel sounds, and the mark is positioned in the centre of the vowel glyph.

Bassa Vah uses ASCII digits, and ASCII code points for punctuation marks, with the exception of 16AF5.

For a much more detailed description of Bassa phonology, see Bertkau.b

Character index







Combining marks










To be investigated

Items to show in lists


These are sounds for the Bassa 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 Bertkau.

Vowel sounds

i ĩ u ũ e o ɛ ɛ̃ ɔ ɔ̃ a ã

Consonant sounds

labial dental alveolar post-
palatal velar glottal
stop p b
t d
    c ɟ k ɡ
k͡p ɡ͡b
fricative f v   s z     ɣʷ h
nasal m   n   ɲ  
approximant w   l      
trill/flap     r  


Bassa has 5 tones, 2 of which are contour tones.

The following table provides typical phonological transcriptions and descriptions for the five tones.

high á ˦ 𖫧𖫰𖫛𖫧𖫱
mid a/ā ˧ 𖫖𖫫𖫲𖫞𖫫𖫲
low à ˨ 𖫔𖫧𖫱𖫒𖫨𖫴
low-mid a᷅/ǎ ˨˧ 𖫢𖫪𖫱𖫭𖫳
high-low áà/â ˥˩ 𖫥𖫪𖫴


Bassa morphemes typically don't have final consonants, but do often end in a nasalised vowel.

The morphemes may begin with a consonant 'cluster', which is formed from an initial consonant followed by a 'transitional vowel', then another consonant. In rapid speech the transitional vowel is very short, and its sound is entirely predictable from the combination of consonants. In slow speech, the sound is the same as that of the 'full vowel' which follows the consonant cluster.b,8

A romanisation system such as that used by Bertkau omits the transitional vowel, eg. vnɛ̃̀, but the Bassa Vah script represents the transitional vowel with the same vowel symbol used for the full vowel, b,46 eg. 𖫣𖫬𖫱𖫐𖫐𖫬𖫱𖫐 vɛ²nnɛ²n

The above is a type of intervocalic consonant. The pattern CVCV usually only occurs for this or for one of the following reasons:b,8ff


Vowel summary table

The following table summarises the main vowel to character assigments.

Bassa vowels are simple letters, but they are always written with a tone mark, as shown here. Nasalised vowels are written by adding 𖫐 immediately after them (not shown here).

𖫭𖫰␣𖫭𖫱␣𖫭𖫲␣𖫭𖫳␣𖫭𖫴␣ ␣𖫪𖫰␣𖫪𖫱␣𖫪𖫲␣𖫪𖫳␣𖫪
𖫫𖫰␣𖫫𖫱␣𖫫𖫲␣𖫫𖫳␣𖫫𖫴␣ ␣𖫩𖫰␣𖫩𖫱␣𖫩𖫲␣𖫩𖫳␣𖫩
𖫬𖫰␣𖫬𖫱␣𖫬𖫲␣𖫬𖫳␣𖫬𖫴␣ ␣𖫨𖫰␣𖫨𖫱␣𖫨𖫲␣𖫨𖫳␣𖫨

For additional details see vowel_mappings.

Vowel letters

Use of vowels is straightforward. These are the characters.


It is quite common to find vowels at the beginning of a word, and sometimes several together, eg. 𖫒𖫭𖫰𖫧𖫱𖫪𖫰𖫐

Transitional vowels


In rapid speech the vowel between an initial consonant and a medial consonant that is one of 𖫞 [U+16ADE BASSA VAH LETTER DO], 𖫔 [U+16AD4 BASSA VAH LETTER MBE], or 𖫐 [U+16AD0 BASSA VAH LETTER ENNI], the initial vowel is collapsed, in a predictable way. The initial vowel becomes a shortened version of the vowel that follows the medial consonant. The shortness is typically not shown in the Vah orthography, but may affect a Latin transcription, eg. 𖫞𖫧𖫰𖫔𖫧𖫰 𖫡𖫩𖫳𖫞𖫩𖫳 𖫣𖫬𖫱𖫐𖫐𖫬𖫱𖫐

In some cases, determined by personal preference, the initial vowel may be replaced with 𖫦 [U+16AE6 BASSA VAH LETTER WADDA],b2 eg.


Standalone vowels

Standalone vowels are written using ordinary vowel letters and no special arrangements.




𖫐 [U+16AD0 BASSA VAH LETTER ENNI] is used in syllable-final position to indicate nasalisation of the preceding vowel,sr eg. 𖫛𖫨𖫰𖫐-𖫛𖫨𖫰𖫐 wɔ¹n-wɔ¹n wɔ̃́-wɔ̃́

Bertkau reports that the ENNI glyph is sometimes attached to the vowel,b,46 something like this 𖫑𖫪𖫱𖫐𖫧𖫐 kũ̀ã̀ work



Bassa Vah has 5 tone marks. Every syllable must have a tone mark, and they are positioned in the centre of the vowel glyph, eg. 𖫩𖫰 𖫩𖫱 𖫩𖫲 𖫩𖫳 𖫩𖫴 o¹ o² o³ o⁴ o⁵𖫫𖫰 𖫫𖫱 𖫫𖫲 𖫫𖫳 𖫫𖫴 e¹ e² e³ e⁴ e⁵

Tone marks are stored as combining marks immediately after a vowel letter. In a sequence involving standalone vowel sounds, each vowel will have a tone mark, eg. 𖫒𖫨𖫱𖫫𖫱𖫭𖫱𖫐 sɔ²e²i²n

Vowel absence

Initial vowels in a word can be reduced in rapid speech – see transitional – however, there is no mechanism in the written text to indicate a complete absence of a vowel after a consonant.

Vowel sounds to characters

This section maps Bassa vowel sounds to common graphemes in the Bassa Vah orthography.

Vowel letters are shown here without tone marks, but should always be marked for tone in normal text.

Click on a grapheme to find other mentions on this page (links appear at the bottom of the page). Click on the character name to see examples and for detailed descriptions of the character(s) shown.


Consonant summary table

The following table summarises the main consonant to character assigments.

Consonants are mostly written using straightforward letters. However, with the exception of n, the nasals are produced using letters used for stop related sounds, and take the nasal phonetics when the following vowel is nasalised.

𖫔␣𖫞␣ ␣𖫕␣ ␣𖫘␣𖫝
𖫔␣𖫐␣𖫕␣ ␣𖫝

For additional details see consonant_mappings.

Basic consonants


Ambiguous letters


Three letters each represent either a plosive or a nasal. The alternative sound is normally triggered by whether the syllable is nasalised or not, however there are estimated to be around 30 words which have oral vowels but nasal onsets.

𖫔 [U+16AD4 BASSA VAH LETTER MBE] represents both ɓ and m sounds. The pronunciation is usually m when followed by a nasalised vowel, ie. when the syllable ends with 𖫐 [U+16AD0 BASSA VAH LETTER ENNI].

The same applies to 𖫕 [U+16AD5 BASSA VAH LETTER YIE], which represents both and ɲ sounds.

Similarly, 𖫝 [U+16ADD BASSA VAH LETTER GBU], which is pronounced either ɡ͡b or ŋ͡m when followed by a nasalised vowel.

There is, however, no way to tell the pronunciation when followed by an oral vowel. For example, the following two words are written the same way:b,46

𖫔𖫧𖫴 ɓáà/máà friend/to make a mistake

In all these cases, the Latin script orthography shows the differences, ie. ɓ/m, dy/ny, and gb/gm.



𖫦 [U+16AE6 BASSA VAH LETTER WADDA] was added to the repertoire by Dr. Lewis, but never used by him. It represents the sound ɾ, which is an allophone of ɗ and appears only after t or d in a syllable initial 'cluster', but is generally written with 𖫞 [U+16ADE BASSA VAH LETTER DO].

This letter may also be used to indicate a transitional vowel (see transitional).


See transitional.


Bassa syllables don't normally have codas, but the vowel may be nasalised. See nasalisation.

Consonant clusters

There aren't any real consonant clusters in Bassa. However, in rapid speech the vowel between two consonants in a bi-consonantal morpheme is collapsed, and this may be reflected in Latin transcription. For example, 𖫞𖫧𖫰𖫔𖫧𖫰

When 𖫐 [U+16AD0 BASSA VAH LETTER ENNI] appears before another consonant without an intervening vowel, it is nasalising the preceding vowel (see nasalisation).sr Two ENNI in a row indicates a nasalised vowel followed by an intervocalic n, and is always written this way to avoid confusion,b,46 eg. 𖫣𖫬𖫱𖫐𖫐𖫬𖫱𖫐

Consonant length


Consonant sounds to characters

This section maps Bassa consonant sounds to common graphemes in the Bassa Vah orthography.

Click on a grapheme to find other mentions on this page (links appear at the bottom of the page). Click on the character name to see examples and for detailed descriptions of the character(s) shown.



𖫔 [U+16AD4 BASSA VAH LETTER MBE] before an unnasalised vowel.


𖫞 [U+16ADE BASSA VAH LETTER DO] when initial.


𖫕 [U+16AD5 BASSA VAH LETTER YIE] before an unnasalised vowel.


𖫝 [U+16ADD BASSA VAH LETTER GBU] before an unnasalised vowel.




𖫔 [U+16AD4 BASSA VAH LETTER MBE] before a nasalised vowel.


𖫕 [U+16AD5 BASSA VAH LETTER YIE] before a nasalised vowel.


𖫝 [U+16ADD BASSA VAH LETTER GBU] before a nasalised vowel.



𖫞 [U+16ADE BASSA VAH LETTER DO] in medial position after t or d



𖫞 [U+16ADE BASSA VAH LETTER DO] in medial position after consonants other than t or d



Bassa Vah uses ASCII digits.

Text direction

Bassa Vah text is written horizontally, left to right.

Show default bidi_class properties for characters in the Bassa orthography described here.

Glyph shaping & positioning

You can experiment with examples using the Bassa Vah character app.

Context-based shaping & positioning

There appears to be no particular context-based shaping in Bassa Vah, and the writing is not cursive.

There are, however, some fonts that use slightly variant shapes for some letters. Also, the two-dot tone mark, 𖫲 [U+16AF2 BASSA VAH COMBINING MID TONE], is sometimes written with the dots horizontal, and sometimes vertical.

Tone marks need to be positioned relative to each vowel glyph to which they are attached.

There don't appear to be multiple combining characters associated with a single base.

Case & other character transforms

According to ScriptSource, a lower case was developed in recent years by the Bassa Vah Association in the Americas. This case distinction is not yet supported by Unicode.s


Grapheme clusters


Punctuation & inline features

Word boundaries

Words are separated by spaces.

The sample above shows a number of instances where hyphens are used within a word, eg. 𖫐𖫭𖫱𖫐-𖫗𖫭𖫰𖫞𖫭𖫰 ni²n-di¹ɖi¹𖫕𖫪𖫲𖫐-𖫞𖫫𖫱 dᶯu³n-ɖe²

Phrase & section boundaries


Generally, western punctuation is used, including commas, and periods.


, [U+002C COMMA]


. [U+002E FULL STOP]



Bassa Vah also has a native full stop, 𖫵 [U+16AF5 BASSA VAH FULL STOP], which can be used instead of the period.

Observation: fig_printed_page shows an example of printed Bassa Vah text that uses the ASCII comma and question mark, and western quotation marks. The full stop, however, is a native Vah sign.

It was once thought that a similar symbol was used for a comma, but it was decided that this was actually just a typographic error in one document.rc

Quotations & citations


Bassa texts typically use quotation marks. Of course, due to keyboard design, quotations may also be surrounded by ASCII double and single quote marks.

  start end



Observation: This is based on an excerpt of Bassa text provided by Charles

Line & paragraph layout

Line breaking & hyphenation

Observation: Bassa Vah text appears to be wrapped at word boundaries (see fig_printed_page).

Show (default) line-breaking properties for characters in the modern Bassa orthography.

Text alignment & justification

Observation: The conclusions in this section are largely based on a single piece of printed text in Bassa Vah. It is difficult to draw firm conclusions about Bassa practice without exposure to more content.

Charles Riley provided some provenance for this sample: "The jpg was sent to me by Varnie N’jola Karmo, who I believe got it from the late Joseph Gbadyu. The origin of it probably goes back to Thomas Lewis, but it’s uncertain whether it was produced in Syracuse (early 1910’s), Dresden (late 1910’s), or Liberia (1950’s-1960’s). Whichever period it comes from, it is basically the earliest known sample to survive in some form.".

An example of printed Bassa Vah text. (Click to see larger.) Source e.

fig_printed_page shows printed Bassa Vah text that fully justifies text.

Content is organised into paragraphs that are indented initially.

Baselines, line height, etc.


Bassa uses the so-called 'alphabetic' baseline, which is the same as for Latin and many other scripts.

Page & book layout

Online resources

  1. Bassa-English Dictionary (Latin orthography)


Thanks to the following people for making useful suggestions that were incorporated into the text: Charles Riley, Tim Slager.