Bassa is a member of the Kru branch of the Niger-Congo language family. It is spoken mainly in Liberia, and also in Sierra Leone, by about 410,000 people (in 2006). In Liberia Bassa is spoken in the counties of Grand Bassa, Margibi, Bong and Montserrado. In Sierra Leone it is spoken in the west of the country and in Freetown.
The origins of the Bassa alphabet are obscure. Its name in Bassa is Vah, which means 'to throw a sign'. The alphabet fell out of use in Liberia during the 19th century.
In the 1900s, a Bassa by the name of Dr Flo Darvin Lewis discovered that former slaves of Bassa origin living in Brazil and the West Indies were still using the Bassa alphabet. Dr Lewis had not encountered the alphabet before and, after learning it himself, he decided to try to revive the alphabet in Liberia.
Dr Lewis obtained a PhD in Chemistry at Syracuse University, then returned to Liberia via Dresden, where he commissioned a company to manufacture the first ever printing press for material written in the Bassa alphabet. In Liberia he set up a school to teach the Bassa alphabet.
Originally the Bassa alphabet was written on slates with charcoal, and the writing could be easily erased with a leaf known as yan. People began to write with pencils in the early 1940s. The original writing direction was boustrophedon (alternating between right to left and left to right, but the alphabet has been written from left to right since the 1960s.
Today the Bassa Vah Association promotes the use of the Bassa alphabet.
Thanks to Rev. Joseph Gbadyu, Varnie N'jola Karmo and Mattias Persson for information on the Bassa alphabet.
The Latin alphabet is also used to write Bassa.
Hear the pronunciation of Bassa
Ɖé nì-díɖí kè ɓɛ̀ɖɛ̀ìn-dyí múɛ, ɖéɛ̀ nyɔǔn-dyù séín wóɖóɛ ɓɛ́ìn wɔ̃. Ké wa ɓéɖé hwìɖìi poìn hwòɖò-dyùà kè ɖɛ múin wɔ̃́-wɔ̃́ sɔ̀ɛ̀ìn ɖé dyɔún, ké wa ɓéɖé ɓɛ́ waà nyuɖɛ̀ ké gbo muìn ɓó ɖíí kà.
Sample text and transliteration by Peter Gorwor from Liberia
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Information about the Bassa language and alphabet
Online Bassa dictionary
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