Bassa (draft)
Bassa Vah

Updated 16 April, 2022

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.


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.

The script is monocameral. Words are separated by spaces.

23 consonant letters are used for Bassa Vah.

There are no special arrangements for consonant clusters.

Syllables are mostly open, but may be followed by nasalisation.

Bassa Vah vowels are straightforward. There are 7 vowel sounds and 7 vowel letters. Vowel letters can be used in standalone positions without any support.

Every syllable must have a tone mark, including standalone vowel sounds, and the mark is positioned in the centre of the vowel glyph.

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

Character index







Combining marks





Items to show in lists


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


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
ɗ dʲ
    c ɟ k É¡
k͡p ɡ͡b
fricative f v   s z     xÊ· ɣʷ h hÊ·
nasal m   n   ɲ  
approximant w   l      
trill/flap     r  


Vowel sounds to characters

This section maps Bassa vowel 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.

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

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. 𖫞𖫦𖫰𖫔𖫧𖫰



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


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

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 dʲ and ɲ sounds.

Similarly, 𖫝 [U+16ADD BASSA VAH LETTER GBU], which is pronounced either É¡Í¡b 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

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).

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



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

This section brings together information about the following topics: writing styles; cursive text; context-based shaping; context-based positioning; baselines, line height, etc.; font styles; case & other character transforms.

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.

Font styles


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

Text segmentation

Grapheme boundaries


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

Punctuation & inline features

Phrase & section boundaries


, [U+002C COMMA]


. [U+002E FULL STOP]



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

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

Parentheses & brackets



  start end



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



Other inline ranges


Text spacing


Abbreviation, ellipsis & repetition


Inline notes & annotations


Other punctuation


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.

Counters, lists, etc.


Styling initials


Page & book layout

This section is for any features that are specific to Bassa Vah and that relate to the following topics: general page layout & progression; grids & tables; notes, footnotes, etc; forms & user interaction; page numbering, running headers, etc.


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