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Saving the world’s endangered alphabets

  • Written by  Tim Brookes
  • Published in Opinions
Chakma, an endangered indigenous language from Bangladesh Chakma, an endangered indigenous language from Bangladesh Endangered Alphabets Project
08 Oct
2018
Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project a non-profit organisation that preserves endangered cultures

By the most widely-quoted estimate, the world has between 6,000 and 7,000 languages, as many as half of which will be extinct by the end of this century. An even more dramatic sign of the rate at which the world’s cultural diversity is shrinking involves the alphabets in which those languages are written.

Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in perhaps 140 scripts. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered – they’re no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, never seen on television, in many cases incompatible with computer keyboards, understood only by a few elders, or used by only a handful of priests or monks.

Why is script-loss important? Because we write what we think is important enough to be recorded. When a culture chooses or is forced to adopt another writing system, everything they have deemed valuable enough to be written – sacred texts, poems, personal correspondence, legal documents, the collective experience, wisdom and identity of a people – is lost.

At least a third of the world's remaining alphabets are endangered

Writing is so important to a culture that there are plenty of examples of people feeling such a deep connection to their letters that they use them even if they can’t actually read them – Cherokee street signs in Oklahoma, Ogham pendants in Dublin, Baybayin tattoos in the Philippines. 

The same importance is demonstrated when a dominant culture tries to suppress the writing of a minority culture. When Shong Lue Yang, born in Vietnam in 1929, invented the first home-grown script for the Hmong, an indigenous people originally from southern China, the sense of dignity and self-respect it provided was so alarming to the governments of the region that he was first arrested and later assassinated in 1971. 

The importance and urgency of saving endangered languages has been recognised for two decades or more, but even so, the question of how to preserve or revive an endangered language is still very much open. Some Native American tribes, for example, are aiming for something close to full-scale revival, with pre-school programmes and training for teachers who have to re-learn their traditional language. Others have decided that challenge is simply too much, and have opted to retain a core vocabulary that speaks to their identity.

Reviving endangered writing systems, however, is a much newer enterprise. Nine years ago, when I started the Endangered Alphabets Project, script revival was essentially an unexplored field. At first, my aim was to document script loss by carving texts in wood and then raise awareness by setting up exhibitions of the carvings and giving talks and workshops. Over time, I’ve turned more activist. The Endangered Alphabets team has partnered with preservation and revival groups in a dozen countries to create tangible items such as endangered alphabet rubber stamps so kids can have fun; packs of playing cards in alphabets from Bulgaria to Bangladesh; an endangered alphabet board game that is a cross between Cluedo and The Name of the Rose; colouring books; writers’ journals; illustrated children’s books based on folk tales gathered and retold by the children themselves; word search puzzles; and what I believe may be the world’s first six-language children’s picturebook dictionary for indigenous schoolchildren in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

It’s still much too early to know which projects will have an effect, or what those effects might be. Our partner schools in Bangladesh, though, report spectacularly improved success rates among their children, who in many cases are learning traditional languages and scripts their own parents were not taught. Research among Inuit children in Canada shows that, contrary to popular belief, Inuit children who first learn their own community language and script often do better in school when they start reading and writing in English than their peers who grew up in English-speaking households.

My current project is to create a digital world atlas of endangered alphabets, with pins corresponding to the locations of cultures with endangered scripts. Click on a pin, and it will identify the script in a small thumbnail. Click on the thumbnail, and a page about that script will open up, with links that explain the script and the culture that developed it. The atlas will include downloadable fonts and keyboards, teaching videos, printed classroom materials, and details of individuals and organisations working to preserve and revive their traditional script. We’re currently in the early stages, conducting research creating designs and fundraising, but if all goes well we’ll launch on 1 January 2019 the first day of the UN-designated Year of Indigenous Languages.

I’m hoping that someone from an indigenous or minority culture will visit the atlas and see how and what their counterparts across the world are doing. Maybe they’ve developed a wiki-based dictionary. Maybe they’ve created a language-learning app. Maybe they’re putting video language lessons online. My hope is that they will discover other organisations and eventually share funding tips and new ideas.

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