Bassa VahBass

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Development of Bassa Vah
Excerpt from a Bassa Vah manuscript
Possible influence of Cherokee on the Liberian Vai syllabary


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Writing systems that use this script (1)
Name Code Is used to write language
Bassa written with Bassa Vah script bsq-Bass Bassa [bsq]

  • The details of the Bassa Vah script's invention and development are debated. What is known is that the initial attempt to encode the Bassa language - a syllabary invented by William Crocker in the 1830s - was abandoned in favour of the Latin script. Almost a century later, a Liberian chemist, Dr Thomas Flo Narvin Lewis (also known as Dr Flo Darvin Lewis, Dr Thomas Flo David Gbianvoodoh Jidah Lewis, or Dr Thomas Gbianvoodeh Lewis), went to America to study at Syracuse University. He returned to Liberia in 1910 and began teaching the Bassa Vah alphabet, unrelated to Crocker's syllabary, to other Bassa speakers.

    The controversy concerns whether Lewis invented or was taught the script, and, if he was taught it, by whom. Dalby estimates that Lewis himself invented the script in the 1920s, after his return to Liberia. However, he also records a widely accepted account by Dr. Abba G. Karnga that a Bassa man, Di Waɖa, first created the script and taught it to his lover, the wife of a chief, for which he was sold into slavery. In America, he taught it to his son, who met and taught Lewis.

    Other accounts claim that Lewis learned the script while travelling in Brazil and the West Indies, from Bassa speakers displaced by the slave trade.

    By almost all accounts, Dr Lewis is credited with introducing the script to Liberia. In the 1920s he commissioned a printer to print Bassa Vah texts, and enabled the script to be used in schools. Accurate reports on the scale of Bassa Vah usage are not available, and the Latin script has replaced the script in many publications, although it remains highly respected and some use is attested.
    The Bassa Vah Association was established in 1959 to promote the use of the script in schools and for newspapers, books and religious books. The United Bassa Organizations in the Americas (UNIBOA) also exists for the promotion of the script.


    Slager, Tim. “A brief summary of Liberian indigenous scripts”. Paper presented at 2008 Liberian Studies Association Conference in Toledo, Ohio; text hosted at

    ContributorScriptSource Staff
  • A page from a document printed using Dr. Narvin Lewis' printing press, produced in the early 1900s. Courtesy of Varnie N'jola Karmo


    Correspondence with Mr Varnie N'jola Karmo

    CopyrightNo known copyright
    LicenseCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Allows modification and redistribution
    ContributorSteph Holloway
  • In recent years evidence has emerged suggesting that the Cherokee syllabary provided a model for the design of the Vai syllabary in Liberia, Africa. The Vai syllabary is the earliest form of writing devised in western Africa, which emerged about 1832/33. The link appears to have been Cherokee who emigrated to Liberia after the invention of the Cherokee syllabary (which in its early years spread like wildfire among the Cherokee) but before the invention of the Vai syllabary. One such man, Cherokee Austin Curtis, married into a prominent Vai family and became an important Vai chief himself. It is perhaps not coincidence that the "inscription on a house" that drew the world's attention to the existence of the Vai script was in fact on the home of Curtis, a Cherokee. There also appears to be a connection between an early form of written Bassa and the earlier Cherokee syllabary.

    Source Wikipedia
    CopyrightNot indicated
    LicenseCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Allows modification and redistribution
    ContributorScriptSource Staff



Copyright © 2017 SIL International and released under the  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license (CC-BY-SA) unless noted otherwise. Language data includes information from the  Ethnologue. Script information partially from the  ISO 15924 Registration Authority. Some character data from  The Unicode Standard Character Database and locale data from the  Common Locale Data Repository. Used by permission.