Endangered Alphabets

Endangered Alphabets
August 16, 2017
As language professionals we hear a lot about the dangers of disappearing languages. But what about writing systems? What happens to a culture when new generations can't read its ancestral alphabet? Join us for a fascinating—and unscripted—conversation with Tim Brooks, founder of the Endangered Alphabet Project. 
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Michael I’m Michael Stevens.
Renato I’m Renato Beninatto.
Michael And today on Globally Speaking we are talking about endangered alphabets.
Renato Yes, it’s very interesting because we hear a lot about endangered languages, but not so much about endangered alphabets.
Michael Yeah, alphabets. The work that’s being done in this area is really interesting because it combines a bunch of different things, it’s not just language. There is handwriting involved, there’s script.
Renato I met, and I think you met him too, our guest today, at Localization World in Barcelona. He had a booth there with this beautiful hand-carved wooden pieces with scripts from different parts of the world, and he has amazing stories to share with us.
Michael Yes, it’s a remarkable journey, and let’s let our guest introduce himself.
Tim My name is Tim Brooks. I am a writer, a guitarist and the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project.
Renato That sounds like a fun project, endangered alphabets. We hear a lot about endangered languages, but I think this is the first time I hear about endangered alphabets.
Tim Yes, so first of all I should also say by way of introduction that I’m not a linguist; I’m not an anthropologist; I’m not an artist; and I’m not a woodworker. So, I come into this with no background whatsoever which just goes to show there is hope for everyone.
Michael Everyone, the beginners mind-set.
Tim Exactly, and what’s more I did so at the age of 55. So, I started carving just to make Christmas presents for people, I was sort of carving people’s names on pieces of wood and giving to them for Christmas presents, and I discovered that I really enjoyed this and I sort of taught myself as I was going. And somewhere in all of this I stumbled upon omniglot.com, and I’m going through Omniglot, which for those of you who don’t know it is an online encyclopedia of all the world’s writing systems. And as I’m going through these various pages, I’m struck by several things.

One is, I’m a pretty well-travelled guy and I had never heard of most of these languages. The second was how beautiful and exotic to me, and strange, many of these writing systems were. Just some of them looked like a pond full of koi or a series of birds flying across the sky, and I’m thinking ‘this is amazing’. The third thing is that when Omniglot is talking about these writing systems time and again, it was saying no longer taught in schools, no longer used for official purposes, only used by mapmakers, only used by women to write secret love letters.
Renato That’s interesting, there’s a story in there.
Tim Absolutely, and we can get into it if you like, and what I began to realize as I was going through these was how many of these writing systems were on the verge of extinction. And even though I didn’t really understand it at the time because this was all sort of breaking new on me, when a culture either chooses or is forced to abandon the writing system it may have used for centuries, and either use something which is sort of the official script of that country, or a more convenient global script for commerce purposes. Everything that has been written in that script is then lost to the very culture that created it, and even the look of the script is unbelievably deeply embedded in the history of technology, the history of ideas, the aesthetic of that culture, and so there is an extraordinary loss.

And so I decided, what the heck, I would carve article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which as you know, you know, the UN translates into a number of languages in some of these scripts. And I did 12 to start with, and I thought this was kind of a pre-senile hobby, you know, this is the kind of thing, ‘let him do it, he’s not causes any trouble’.
Michael He’s just up there, doing the woodworking thing again.
Tim Exactly, yes, so I did an exhibition, and people say no, no, no… and they said two things that I hadn’t expected. One, this is art because we don’t often think of writing as art, and that’s an interesting discussion we can get into if you like, and the other was this is important, this is really important.
Renato We is a very big term, I mean if you think of Asian cultures, calligraphy in Japanese, and Chinese and many Asian languages is an art, and there are master calligraphists. So, it’s not for us with the Latin alphabet, but for other languages it’s definitely considered art.
Tim That’s very true, but there’s actually other layers to it as well, so writing essentially has three ingredients. So, one of them is a phonetic ingredient, you look at a symbol, and you make a sound associated with it. The second one would be a semantic ingredient, you look at a symbol and it has a meaning, and the third one is the purely graphic ingredient. Because… and this is again, as you were saying, the value of ignorance on my part, because I didn’t speak any of these languages, and I couldn’t read and write them, I was looking at the writing with the eye of somebody who is looking at it as purely graphic element.

And especially as I was then choosing really amazing pieces of wood to carve it into, what was happening was that by… ironically by stripping meaning away, it becomes art because we don’t understand it; it’s actually kind of like Stonehenge. If you got to Stonehenge everybody is walking around, and they’re sort of squinting this way, and they’re cocking their head on their side, and they’re looking at the sun because it’s really clear it means something, but nobody can figure out what it means, which makes it incredibly compelling.
Renato So, how did you find… so you mentioned Omniglot but did you come across any alphabets that were not in Omniglot?
Tim Absolutely, and in fact, I keep saying to people the easy part in what I do is the carving; the hard part is actually finding people who can still read and write in these traditional scripts.
Renato Because it doesn’t take much for something like this, this knowledge to disappear in a couple of generations.
Tim Exactly.
Michael Yes.
Renato You just lose it if it’s not taken care of.
Tim And you’re exactly right, it is two generations. It’s amazing how many cultures I’m working with that are attempting sort of a revival effort, and obviously I’m trying to work with the kids. Their parents typically don’t know their own script, either, it’s the grandparents who do, so two generations, and it’s gone.
Renato So, is there any language that has recently gone through this process because I would automatically think we’re talking about ancient stuff. I remember going to a church in Croatia and…
Tim You saw Glagolitic?
Renato Exactly, what is that, tell me about it, because I couldn’t understand a word, and the person who was with me just said it’s an ancient script, I don’t know what it means. So, tell me about Glagolitic.
Tim Right, so Glagolitic, there’s a rap with every one of these ones that I carve because I start doing some research, and I find out these incredible stories. So, Glagolitic, when the Greek Orthodox missionaries left Greece to spread the word the Roman missionaries had it easy, they want to all the warmer and more civilized places. The Greeks were forced to kind of go up through the Balkans, and they wind up in Russia, etc.

So, they were very scornful of the local writing systems. They said, they are nothing but lines and dots and so they said we need to create a script that is worthy of the word of God, that really represents the glory of God, and they came up with two. One was Cyrillic which ironically becomes the emblematic brand script of the godless Soviet Union and the other is Glagolitic, which is from the Croatian word Glagoljica, which means writing.

So, over the centuries it turned out that Glagolitic was kind of too ornate for its own good. It was kind of hard to write and it also wasn’t very versatile and so more and more for liturgical purposes they would use Cyrillic. And you’re asking so how recently are we talking about this verge of extinction, I’ll tell you.

By the end of the 20th century the only people still actually using Glagolitic on a daily basis were two priests who were on the island of Krk in the Dalmatian Sea. They are so conservative that they don’t even want to use like Latin mass, that’s like too trendy. ‘No, we’re going do everything Glagolitic’ and because it’s the holy script, when a fisherman would buy a new boat, he would have the name painted in Glagolitic because presumably it gives protection.

So, we get to the end of the 20th century, and these two priests get older and older and they die, and so you would think that’s it, it’s gone, and Glagolitic was saved by the most peculiar of circumstances. So, not only did the priests die, but Tito dies, and in the aftermath of Tito’s death of course we have, the Yugoslavs have a war.
Renato Breakup of Yugoslavia.
Tim Exactly, and when the dust settles, there’s a certain kind of PR problem for some of the governments of the new nation states, because it’s not really a great tourism thing to say, ‘come and visit us, we are the country whose former military leader is now on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity.’ So, what Croatia did was to cast around for a visual symbol of their historic legitimacy, and their antiquity, and they started using Glagolitic on their tourism materials. And so Glagolitic is the only script saved from extinction by genocide.
Renato Wow.
Michael Wow.
Renato That’s a story.
Tim I tell you these stories are everywhere; it’s incredible stuff.
Renato No, because I like scripts, it’s something that… I don’t know I’m from a generation that used to use pencil and paper to write, not keyboards, and I liked finding words and so on. But you’re describing amazing situations, but the element of art is important. What is the most beautiful script in your opinion?
Tim So, I sort of change, partly because I’m discovering new ones all the time and partly because I have sort of certain inherent cultural biases. So, when I am giving talks, which I do all the time, on endangered alphabets one of the things that I sometimes do is I say - notice I’m not actually answering your question - I say would anyone like to come up to this whiteboard here and just write me a capital E, and so some… I say I promise not to humiliate you more than necessary. So, someone volunteers and they come up and they standard roman capital E and I say, ‘thanks’, just before you sit down could you just make sure that all of the horizontals are actually parallel.

So, they realize that they’re kind of curvy so they erase them and they do them again, I say thank you. They’re not actually equidistant though, could you just do it again, and they’re also not quite the same length. So, by now this person is feeling really annoyed, and they’re thinking ‘why did I come to this talk instead of staying home watching cable’, you know. Then I say the vertical by the way it’s not really quite at right angles to the…

So, eventually what becomes clear is you can’t do it; the human hand, the movement of the wrist, is not set up for Euclidian forms, those ideal forms. So, if you go back and you say where did these come from? They came from the tombs and the monuments to emperors. The whole idea was that by using a non-cursive form, by using an ideal form which has symmetry, and right angles, and parallels and stuff, you are granting the emperor his divinity, because of emperors were divine, right.

So, we do this, and then I show them the capital E from the Cham alphabet, the Eastern Cham alphabet in Vietnam….
Renato That’s associated with the sound of the letter E.
Tim Correct, Cham, the Cham kingdom used to be roughly where the northern part of Vietnam now is, essentially it got attacked, and broken up and there’s sort of… the Cham have got unfortunately dispersed. But the Cham alphabet is very, very sinuous, and so what I do is I show them this carving of the Cham E, and I say to the people I want you to write that letter in the air with your fingertip right now.

And essentially you start and you kind of curve around, and you swoop down, and you start coming up, and you do like a little twiddle in the middle, and then you curve this. And I say keep going and look at each other as you’re doing this, so everybody is kind of doing this, and I say that is the hand of a Balinese dancer.

So, when you a have a script that is not essentially generated by mechanical processes, it’s not a print-based script but as you say it’s based on the movement of the wrist. Already it has kind of a movement and a flow and a drama to it that makes it halfway toward the calligraphy you were talking about.

So, as I… I didn’t know any of this when I started but I started thinking why does this look like this, why is this so fat, why is this so thin, why are certain shapes repeated? And that’s when you start getting into really odd stuff like the physics of writing. The spiritual nature of writing, you know the history of technology and writing and stuff like that.
Michael I don’t even know where to go with all this, there’s so much here.
Renato I’m fascinated.
Tim Exactly.
Michael It is, there’s so much here.
Renato But you mentioned something about the endangered…
Michael Indigenous, so the example you gave previously was a script brought about by missionaries which it seems unfortunate that that would be lost but it’s a little different than a native group of people who have lost their alphabet.
Tim Correct.
Michael So, can you talk a little bit about the difference between what you described previous in indigenous languages and why the loss of that alphabet may even be a greater loss to us.
Tim Right, and that really kind of goes back to even earlier question which is how does writing arise? So, most peoples in the world have survived quite happily for most of their history without writing anything whatsoever.
Michael They could just talk it out.
Tim Yes, and use hand gestures and stuff so there are a number of theories about the origins of writing. One of my favorites is the commerce theory, which is that as soon as you start transaction goods you need to keep records or else people are going to rip you off. And the Phoenicians therefore were very important in the spread of writing because they’re trading all around the Mediterranean, and keeping accurate records and books, it becomes that much more important.

Writing spreads in large part because of religion. So, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, as the religion spreads, then it’s not only a question of the religion being manifest in writing, although that in itself had, and to some extent still has a sort of spiritual and mystical quality in itself. But it also starts a trickledown effect whereby if you have writing that’s being used either for commercial or religious purposes, then it starts to sort of spread more throughout the culture.

So, in that sense very few writing systems are indigenous because actually writing has only been invented a few times. There are remarkably few alphabets in the world, or writing systems to be more technical; there are maybe 120130 depending how you count them whereas there are 6000-plus languages. Very few of those writing systems can we say, this was actually created by this person or this group of people over this period. Usually they’ve been imported and adapted with commerce or with religion, but there’s a great exception in West Africa.

So, in the last part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century there were several instances when an individual created a writing system for his own people. And what’s really interesting is that there is this kind of creation myth that gets repeated which is that he had a dream in which either (a) God or (b) a white man came to him and said the white men have their own writing, you need to create writing for your own people.

So, it’s like an anticolonial, or post-colonial thing, and so in this relatively small area in West Africa you can actually point to half a dozen or more scripts that were actually created for that particular language at a particular point in time; really a remarkable instance.
Renato And there is this difference that you said between endangered languages and endangered alphabets. What’s that difference?
Tim Okay, so let’s choose…
Renato Mauri.
Tim There are plenty of languages that are endangered that were never written. So, in that sense clearly there’s a difference between an endangered language and an endangered alphabet, but there are also circumstances, like take Bali for example. So, Indonesia, the writing systems in Indonesia arrived with this kind of primeval script called Brahmi which came with Buddhism, as Buddhism moved through the area, but then they became adapted in different islands in different ways. It’s like Darwin and the finches or the tortoises and whatever, and so throughout Indonesia, you have many different languages and many different writing systems.

After the 2nd World War when Indonesia becomes one country and independent, the government thinks how are we going to create any sense of sort of national unity. We have 17,000 islands; we have six major religions; we have the fifth largest population in the world. So, they said okay, we’re going to have one official language which we’ll call Indonesian, and we’ll have one sprit that we write it with, and what that meant was that immediately, the schools in the various islands stopped teaching their traditional script, and they began teaching the Latin alphabet instead.

And so what that meant was in somewhere like Bali, you have people still speaking Balinese, especially in the latter part of the 20th century they’re still speaking Balinese, but the number of people who can actually read and write the traditional script becomes so dwindled that now when I first started this project, and I saw Balinese and I thought is one of the most beautiful scripts in the world, I’ve got to carve this one. It took me literally two years to find somebody who could contact a priest who could write something out that I could then carve. And elsewhere in Indonesia you’ve got other scripts that are even more endangered.
Renato So, when you find a script and you capture that script in your carvings, do you try to get it translated, do you get the pronunciation? What is the process when you try to save… because I’m just thinking out loud here based on what you said about the Glagolitic. I assume that if it religious the bible was translated into Glagolitic and you have the bible into, I don’t know, as many languages as you can imagine, you can just try to get and figure out a translation based on that. But how about these other scripts, how do you recover them?
Tim Right, there’s actually a less polite way of asking the same question which is ‘what the heck good are you doing?’
Renato What the heck good are you doing?
Tim Well, thank you there. Yes, so as I say because I came from a background which had nothing to do with any of these things my sense of my own value and what I might achieve was extremely limited. So, it’s like I’m just carving these pieces of wood, and then I’ll put them up and I’ll talk to people about them. That act has a certain educational value and it does mean that it’s meant… it’s given me various connections with people who are involved in trying to revive their own traditional languages or their own traditional scripts.

But really everything changed in 2012 when I met a guy from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, where you have a number of indigenous languages, none of which is given official status. And the education takes place in Bangla, the national language, and so you have kids who are sitting in a classroom and just not understanding a word that’s going on.

And I thought okay, I’m going to help this guy, and so working with my students at Champlain College in Burlington, we started publishing schoolroom materials. So, alphabet wallcharts and children’s books based on tales that the kids had been told by their grandparents or their village elders. We made up rubber alphabet stamps so the kids could stamp out their letters; they’d never seen anything like that before. Coloring books because art is not taught as a subject, and the things they were coloring in were based on photographs from their own area, so they were familiar, rather than sort of insisting that they leave behind their own culture to get an education.

Then most recently what I’m just starting now is to say, you know, if you’re going to revive or help someone else revive their culture you’ve got to start with the children. If you’re going to start with the children, you’ve got to create games, and so what I’m starting to do now, and that’s why this Kickstarter campaign I’m running right now is going on. Is I’m conceiving a series of word games or letter games in really robust rugged technologies that are really adaptable, that are really kind of usable on site, that don’t necessarily rely on paper and pencil or even electricity or stuff like that.

Because if you think about when we were growing up we played, you know, Scrabble, and Boggle and Hangman all the time, and that fluency with letter recognition, letter combination recognition, pronunciation recognition, spelling, kind of goes more and more sophisticated until eventually we’re thinking in terms of strategy. Some of those games are really strategic games, and so our fluency with and our manipulation of our own writing system is something that… it gets reinforced over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.

It’s one thing to start a revival effort and to say we’re going to put these Glagolitic letters on our tourist materials even though nobody can actually pronounce them or read them. Which you see in Ireland with Ogham, spelt Ogham, nobody knows what most of those letters are even pronounced like but they are… it says something about or writing systems. They are so deeply connected to our identity that you still… people use those symbols in sort of tourist materials.

But I want to go beyond that and say, no we want you to be conversant with… we want this to be something that means you can then re-access everything that’s been written in your own culture.
Renato Well, Israel did that with Hebrew in a certain way, but the question I have, it’s funny because I tried to write something in Chinese, and I showed it to a Chinese person, and was the first time I was presented with this concept, that I didn’t write anything I drew the letters.
Tim Exactly.
Renato Because what I learned then is that we write… we draw the letters in a certain sequence of directions, right, and I was noticing this weekend I have my son and a nephew from Brazil and they’re young, and they’re writing… most of them are not learning how to write cursive anymore they’re just writing in print. I noticed that they draw the letter I from the bottom up, and I always drew it from the top down, and that my son draws the O from the bottom around, and I start from the top.
Tim And do you know why you do?
Renato No, tell me.
Tim So, have you ever tried using a quill pen?
Renato Yes.
Tim You cannot go upwards.
Michael Yes, because it runs.
Renato Yes.
Tim And in fact I did this… I created this quiz game where I took a series of words in endangered alphabets, and I printed some of them upside down and some of them the right way up, and I passed it out. I said which of these is the right way up and which of these is upside down? And it’s a really interesting concept that some of those what we would call technology interface issues are actually based… they have defined the way we understand our script.
Renato But how do you figure that out in these scripts that nobody’s writing anymore? How do you find the right direction to draw?
Tim Yes, I have been the beneficiary of many, many peoples’ kindness and tolerance. When I’m talking to anthropologists in particular, they are very scrupulous about not imposing their values on the indigenous people they’re studying, and so anthropologists will say, ‘well how do you know you’re doing it correctly?’ You’re doing what is convenient for you and your set of tools, how authentic is this because anthropologists are very concerned with authenticity, and understandably so.

And I say what I find is that if I’m corresponding with someone from the Sunda culture, so Sundanese is the language of Sunda, which is the western half of the island of Java. It’s an extremely endangered script. If I’m even making an effort to learn anything about them, even to recognize their existence, they’re so grateful because they’re used to being marginalized and ignored.

So, always what I’ll do is I’ll draw something out, and I’ll send it back and say have I got this more or less right? And they’ll say yes, yes actually, or you should do this a little differently, or whatever, but it really is… in my case, it’s always a best guess and a best effort. And at the moment because of my limitations that’s all I can do, and I’m lucky that the people I’m working with in various places around the world are sort of like nice…
Renato That’s right.
Tim ‘Nice work Westerner, that’s actually pretty good and pretty close’, and the other thing is that these people I’m working with I’m… we’re corresponding in English. I speak English, pretty good French, a little bit of German, little bit of Spanish. These are people who probably speak 12 languages, English is maybe their fourth, and so under those circumstances it’s a very humbling thing.
Michael And with the school children they’re still going to have whatever the dominant culture language… school’s still going to be teaching that. This is a way to give them a place where they can be successful, retain their culture, not feel discouraged by learning.
Tim Exactly, and in fact, when you think about it it’s what everybody does all the time. So, I’m a Brit walking around in the US; I’ve been here 38 years, and I’m still doing translations and there are still things where I say ‘do you say this over here or is it just me’, kind of thing? So, actually the whole concept of a monolingual culture is ridiculous, it’s not how the world works.

So, you know, you’re from Brazil, you probably speak at least four or five languages or you probably grew up speaking I would imagine two or three. The whole notion that there’s Brazilian and there’s English, you know, it’s like a nonstarter.
Renato Well, Brazil is very similar to the United States; it’s mostly a monolingual country. I do speak more languages because I lived in other countries, but this happens also in China, in Russia… well, not Russia. Very, very large countries with few borders, Brazil borders with mostly Spanish-speaking countries so in the country you only speak Portuguese. You don’t interact with other languages; you didn’t; today with international travel it’s essentially you find tourists everywhere, but it’s very different from Europe where you walk 20 miles and you’re into another country.

I used to live in Luxemburg and from the door of my house it was 18 km to Belgium, 25 to France, and 35 to Germany so you have to speak other languages if you live in an environment like that. But this concept of drawing alphabets because the Chinese alphabet is very different from our concept of an alphabet, it’s not… you mentioned one of the roles of an alphabet is being phonetic but the Chinese alphabet is not necessarily phonetic.
Tim And it’s not in fact an alphabet, that’s right. So, yes…
Renato Or script, that’s why you say we shouldn’t be calling it an alphabet, it’s a script.
Tim Yes, and there are other writing systems or scripts that, for example, consist almost entirely of consonants and the vowels are inherent. There are some that are written in syllable form because many languages in the world are very, very syllabic and so it makes perfect sense, you know, you can do that kind of thing. And that’s another illustration of the degree to which the writing system is extraordinarily deeply embedded in the identity of the people.

End of conversation

Tim Brookes

Tim Brooks has written sixteen books, specializing in a combination of personal experience and accurate research. He's been a commentator/essayist for National Public Radio since 1989, and he's also been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, National Geographic and dozens of other publications. All this experience and all these interests culminated in the creation of the Endangered Alphabets Project, an attempt to address the issue of global cultural endangerment by carving artwork (and creating educational materials) in nearly-extinct writing systems.

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