Encoding the Bassa Vah script of Liberia

The tale of how the Bassa Vah script came to be encoded into the Unicode Standard winds through Syracuse, Germany, Liberia, France, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and points between.  It begins in fact long before the birth of Unicode, as early as the 1920’s, possibly earlier, with a formalization of the script by Dr. Thomas Flo Lewis, also listed in various sources as having the name Darvin, Narvin, Narveen, Gbianvoodeh, or Gbianvoodoh.   He was a medical student from Liberia studying in Syracuse, New York.  He may have had contact with others, such as Di Waɖa (or Dee-Wahdayn), who taught him the script initially, but Lewis is generally credited with helping it reach its printed form and popularizing its subsequent spread.  He made use of the printing presses at Lyman Brothers in Syracuse.  There is a claim that suggests that one of the presses used was owned by L. Frank Baum, although I haven’t seen corroborating evidence to firmly support this.

Most of the texts that are known in the Bassa Vah script are fragmentary and incomplete, printings of tales, proverbs, or lessons, with uncertain dating.  Lewis is thought to have traveled to Brazil and the West Indies and to have spent some time in Dresden after his time in the US, returning to Liberia in 1910.  Some of the texts exist as photocopies of handwriting or scans of letterpress material, held in private hands by the elder Abba Karnga and the late Joseph Gbadyu.  I was introduced to Karnga’s material by Abba himself when he was on a visit to Breinigsville, Pennsylvania with family in September of 2010, and to Gbadyu’s material by Varnie Karmo of Indiana, with whom I have been in correspondence since 2008.  I have also been in touch with Tim Slager, Don Slager, Peter Gorwor, Jana Bertkau, Bobby Gborgar Joe, and Lawrence Zumo, and each of them have shared their insights in how to interpret and understand the Bassa Vah textual material.


Figure 1. Excerpt from a story about the “spider” and the “rat”, from the papers of the late Joseph Gbadyu, reprinted with permission of Varnie Karmo.  It is not known what time period this printing of the tale is from; it may have originated with Lewis, who died in 1935, but the printing press that was built in Bassa country was active until it was destroyed by fire in 1967.


Figure 2.  Bobby Gborgar Joe and the elder Abba Karnga, at the home of relatives of Abba in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, in September of 2010.

I worked on an early draft of the Unicode encoding proposal while I was visiting Jordan Heffner and other friends at the Villa Ste. Anne, outside of St. Raphaël proper in the south of France in March of 2010.  The historic villa was granted to Georges Leygues in 1904.  Together with Michael Everson’s co-authorship, the draft reached a final stage in October of 2010.  The hardest part was determining with certainty the values for each of the five diacritics, which are placed to combine in the middle of the vowel characters.  A character that had been proposed as U+16AF5, BASSA VAH COMMA, was rescinded in balloting, and the codepoint of the BASSA VAH FULL STOP was moved to occupy that position instead.  The final version of the standardized Bassa Vah character repertoire was voted on and added to the 7.0 release of the Unicode Standard in June of 2014.


Figure 3.  Villa Ste.-Anne, outside of St. Raphaël, France


Figure 4.  Excerpt of photocopied handwritten text in Bassa Vah by the elder Abba Karnga.

In June of 2011, I traveled to Syracuse, New York, to try to trace some of the paths of Dr. Lewis.  I paid a visit to the Onondaga Historical Association and to the addresses on South Clinton Street and Pearl Street where Lyman Brothers had been located in former times.  A more productive result was achieved from a query to Syracuse University that I placed afterward, whereby Mary O’Brien, a reference archivist, was able to corroborate key details of Lewis’ biography from newspaper clippings and a commencement announcement.

Much credit also goes to Jason Glavy, a fellow co-founding member of Athinkra, LLC; Daniel Kai of Xenotype Tech, Tim Slager, Don Slager, and Andrew Cunningham, who have worked out fonts and input methods for various computer platforms.  The Xenotype implementation worked on Macintosh systems, but appears to be no longer available online.  Tim Slager developed a keyboard layout that was working as of Ubuntu 12.04, and Don Slager developed Keyman files.  Andrew Cunningham developed a web-based system linked to above, which seems to be working best with Internet Explorer so far and to a limited extent in other browsers.  More work remains to be done to implement Bassa Vah more widely across platforms and applications.


Barolle, Melvin.  2012.  (Re)Writing Africa:  Thomas Narven Lewis and the Politics of Indigenous Language in Liberia, 1870-1933.  Howard University dissertation.

Bertkau, Jana.  [1975.]  A phonology of Bassa.  Monrovia: The U.S. Peace Corps and Liberian Ministry of Education, Department of Research and Planning.

_______________.  1976.  A comparison of three Bassa orthographies.  Unpublished manuscript.

Dalby, David.  1967.  “A survey of the indigenous scripts of Liberia and Sierra Leone:  Vai, Mende, Loma, Kpelle, and Bassa”.  African Language Studies v.8:  pp. 1-51.

Everson, Michael and Charles Riley, 2010a.  “Preliminary proposal for encoding the Bassa Vah script in the SMP of the UCS.”  N3760.  http://unicode.org/wg2/docs/n3760.pdf.  Accessed October 17, 2018.

_______________. 2010b.  “Proposal for encoding the Bassa Vah script in the SMP of the UCS.”  N3839.  http://unicode.org/wg2/docs/n3839.pdf.  Accessed October 17, 2018.

_______________.  2010c.  “Revised proposal for encoding the Bassa Vah script in the SMP of the UCS.”  N3847.  http://unicode.org/wg2/docs/n3847.pdf.  Accessed October 17, 2018.

_______________.  2010d.  “Final proposal for encoding the Bassa Vah script in the SMP of the UCS.”  N3941R.  http://unicode.org/wg2/docs/n3941.pdf.  Accessed October 17, 2018.

Hobley, June.  1964.  “A preliminary tonal analysis of the Bassa language.”  Journal of West African Languages v.1:no.2, pp. 51-55.

Karnga, Abba.  Undated.  [Bassa orthography of the Bassa tribe of Liberia = Bassa banan wudu mohn Bassa nyohn nin Liberia keh je].  Photocopies of handwritten papers included in personal communication from Tim Slager.

Lewis, Thomas N.?  Undated.  [The spider and the rat].  Introductory fragment of a tale, probably printed between 1920 and 1935, place of publication unknown.

Mafundikwa, Saki.  2004.  Afrikan Alphabets.  New York:  Mark Batty Publishers.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  1948.  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1.  Translated by Donald Slager.

Slager, Tim.  2008.  “A brief summary of Liberian indigenous scripts.”  https://cefliberia.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/IndigenousScripts.pdf.  Accessed October 17, 2018.

Zumo, Lawrence.  “Three aces of spades and a bishop.”  The Perspective, May 13, 2018.  Accessed October 17, 2018.

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