In “A Dying Liberian Language – The Bassa Va-chede” on the 1847 Post, writer Pianapue Early bemoans the disappearance of the Bassa writing system, an alphabetic system also known as Vah or Va-Chede. The Va-Chede is being replaced by a system based on the Latin alphabet.
According to that article and History of the Bassa Script, tradition holds that the Ve-Chede was invented by a man named Dee-Wahdayn who would evidently use his teeth to make imprints on leaves—”va” means spit or throw, referring to the action of Dee-Wahdayn “throwing” the words out of his mouth. Of interest, the article cites Abba Karnga in the out-of-print “My People, the Bassa Tribe” as saying this script was in use when Hanibal visited the area around 520 BCE. During the slave trade era, Bassas would use the Va-Chede to avoid capture.
Most other Internet sources, however, do not give credence to this traditional explanation. A more common explanation is that Va-Chede was invented perhaps in the 1830s by the missionary William Crocker or in the early twentieth century by Dr. Thomas Flo Narvin Lewis. In “A Brief Summary of Liberian Indigenous Scripts,” Tim Slager provides a good summary of the history of the Bassa and other scripts in Liberia. See also the Script Encoding Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley for a summary of Va-Chede.
The forms of the Bassa letters are interesting. Examples are provided on “Bassa Alphabet” and pages 38 to 40 of the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems (Amazon). As of November 2010, Bassa is supported by Unicode, though it does not seem to be available for use yet. XenoType Technologies offers a Bassa language kit for USD 19.
Ve-Chede accounts for tones in the language with dots as shown on “Bassa Language,” the only Liberian script to do so. Va-Chede is evidently the only alphabetic script developed in Africa. An alphabet is a writing system where each sound is represented by one letter. This is opposed to a syllabary like hiragana or Cherokee where entire syllables (or moras) are included in a single symbol, and systems like Chinese characters which are more complex yet.