Vai language

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Region Liberia, Sierra Leone
Native speakers
120,000  (1991–2006)[1]
  • Mande
    • Western Mande
      • Central
        • Manding–Jogo
          • Manding–Vai
            • Vai–Kono
              • Vai
Vai syllabary
Language codes
ISO 639-2 vai
ISO 639-3 vai
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Vai language, alternately called Vy or Gallinas, is a Mande language, spoken by roughly 104,000 in Liberia and by smaller populations, some 15,500, in Sierra Leone.[2]

Writing system[edit]

Vai is noteworthy for being one of the few sub-Saharan African languages to have a writing system that is not based on the Latin script. This Vai script is a syllabary invented by Momolu Duwalu Bukele around 1833, although dates as early as 1815 have been alleged. The existence of Vai was reported in 1834 by American missionaries in the Missionary Herald of the ABCFM [3] and independently by Rev. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, a Sierra Leone agent of the Church Mission Society of London.[4]

The Vai script was used to print the New Testament in the Vai language, dedicated in 2003.


Vai is a tonal language and has 12 vowels and 31 consonants, which are tabulated below.


  Oral vowels Nasal vowels
Front Back Front Back
Close i u ĩ ũ
Close-mid e o ɛ̃ ɔ̃
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a ã


Labial Alveolar Postalveolar
or palatal
Velar Labial-velar Glottal
Plosives and
voiceless p t t͡ʃ k k͡p
voiced b d d͡ʒ ɡ ɡ͡b
Prenasalized ᶮd͡ʒ ᵑɡ ᵑ͡ᵐɡ͡b
Implosive ɓ ɗ
Prenasalized implosive ᵐɓ ⁿɗ
Fricatives voiceless f s (ʃ) h
voiced v z
Nasals m n ɲ ŋ
Approximants l j w
Trill (r)

[r] and [ʃ] occur only in recent loanwords.[clarification needed from which language?]


  1. ^ Vai at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Ethnologue report for Vai
  3. ^ "Report of Messrs. Wilson and Wynkoop". Missionary Herald. June 1834. p. 215. 
  4. ^ "A Written language in Western Africa". The New-Jerusalem magazine (A. Howard) 23 (10): 431. 

External links[edit]