Bassa Vah

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Bassa Vah was largely the creation of yet another of the remarkable series of people associated with inventing, saving or rediscovering writing systems.

Bassa is the name of the people; vah is a Bassa word derived from the word for “sign.” Bassa Vah, then, means not so much “the Bassa alphabet” as “Bassa signage,” especially as its symbols may pre-date the writing system, deriving from signs using the natural environment: teeth marks in leaves, carvings in trees.

Over time, these signs developed into a more complex written language, but during the 19th century, the Vah fell farther and farther into disuse, and might have become extinct but for the efforts of a Bassa named Thomas Flo Narvin Lewis.

The story of his life reads more like a legend, and some authorities have challenged several of the details, but the conventional version goes like this. During his travels, Lewis discovered the Vah in use among ex-slaves in Brazil and the West Indies — a considerable surprise to him, as he hadn’t seen the script in use in Liberia. Determined to do his best to revive both the script and the fortunes of his people, Lewis learned the Vah, headed into the United States, earned a doctorate in chemistry at Syracuse University, and on his way back to Liberia stopped off in Dresden, where he ordered the first-ever printing press adapted for the Vah.

Back in Liberia, he established a school for teaching Bassa people the Vah alphabet. Several of his students passed the Vah on, and by the 1960s an association had been formed to promote the script and a number of students in Christian schools were able to learn the script.

Once again, how endangered it is, or alternatively how healthy it is, depends on whom you ask. One respected source wrote, “It is not used contemporarily and has been classified as a failed script,” yet even as this Atlas is being compiled, efforts are taking place to create a consistent, robust digital version of the script for the 650,000 Bassa speakers. OpenOffice supports Bassa Vah, Google has created a Noto Sans version of Bassa Vah, at least one other working font has been created, and the keyboard software is being debugged.

As for the contention that the script is not used, I was delighted to be introduced to Peter Gorwor, who had learned the script from a teacher who had learned it from a teacher who had learned it from Flo Lewis.

”With my elementary graduation in 1975,” he wrote to me by email, “I moved to Buchanan to attend the Liberia Christian High School. Here, I stayed until 1982, while working with [a Christian missionary couple]; I got my high school certificate. “During my senior year in high school in 1982, I got a part time job to translate Theological Education by Extension (TEE) lessons from English to Bassa, and to duplicate tapes for TEE students. At that time I have had two years’ experience in Bassa writing.

“Originally, the Bassa Vah was written on slate (used from a rubber tree like wood but white). The students used fire coal (charcoal) to write especially in the traditional schools. The writings were easily erased by a rough leaf that looks like sandpaper, known as yan. People began to use pencils on the slate in the early 40s.

“Initially, the Bassa Vah Script was written from right to left then from left to right moving right to left, left to right in parallel rows of letters…but from the 1960s the movement changed to ‘left to right’ only, as the English.”

“I learned the Bassa Vah script from my grandfather who graduated from the Bassa traditional school and have learned the Roman Phonetics while in high school. That gave me the skill in Bassa writing. I was sometimes given contracts to translate and type TEE courses in Bassa at the Production Department of the Christian Extension Ministries (CEM)…. Presently, while doing a part time with the Christian radio station, I have a contract as an interpreter with the United Nations Mission in Liberia.”

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