Endangered Alphabets; revitalising endangered writing systems + fighting cultural erosion

‘Each writing system tells the tale of its culture’s history, its evolving technology, even its deeply embedded values’, writes Tim Brookes for National Geographic (2013).

As the founder of the Vermont-based nonprofit organisation the Endangered Alphabets Project, Tim’s work revolves around reviving and protecting scripts and writing systems in danger of extinction. Through creating initiatives, Kickstarters, games, events, exhibitions, artworks, educational materials and more, Endangered Alphabets work with endangered languages and writing systems toward a vision of ‘a world in which all cultures are able to use their own written and spoken languages, as outlined in Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons”’ (endangeredalphabets.com, 2019). The organisation works to amplify the voices of creatives working in endangered writing systems, running monthly features on calligraphers and designers working in their own endangered scripts. ‘My aim is to encourage people from that community in doing that work’, Tim tells us.

Beginning with creating woodcarvings for friends and family, Endangered Alphabets grew into a rich, multifaceted and vital project. While working in Southern India, Tim was intrigued by the signs he’d seen in Malayalam, the language and script of Kerala. Upon further research, he came across omniglot.com, a compendium of the world’s writing systems, and was fascinated by the abundance he found. ‘At the time, it was relatively starting out and wasn’t nearly as developed as it is now, but I’d never seen anything like this and I was just fascinated by just the graphic look of these scripts, and the fact that so many of them were so utterly different from what I thought of as being writing’, Tim tells us. ‘And so many of them in the short piece of text said, “no longer used for government purposes”, “no longer used in schools”, sometimes “banned”, “only used by priests”, “only used by women to write secret love-letters”’. Amongst other projects, Tim’s curiosity about these scripts led him to understand there was a definite need for more work to be done to ensure their preservation and revitalisation. We’ve been chatting with Tim to learn more about the mission behind Endangered Alphabets, and to gain some greater insight into his work.

'Baybayin graffiti'
‘Baybayin graffiti’

Endangered Alphabets; the tools of cultural erosion and violence against indigenous writing systems 

The crushing of writing systems and cultural erosion are tools of colonial violence and violations which remain present today. If you’re coming at this from a position of relative privilege – if your native language and writing system is widely in spoken and in use, is safe to use, is commercial, is profitable to design in even – you’re likely at least partially blind to the severity of these practices’ consequences. But this blindness is a fallacy. In reality, you’re seeing it; it’s in the workings of privilege. As Tim elaborates, ‘For about 100 years or a little bit more, there has been this belief that first of all, alphabetical systems are superior to ideographic or pictographic systems – more advanced and more suitable for abstract thought. And secondly, along with that has been the notion that the ideal writing system is one that does nothing but represent the sounds of spoken language’. Such is an example of the fabrication of westernised objectivity, rationality and righteousness which imposes such fraught consequences upon many under its deeply entrenched power dynamics – dynamics which are vitally important to consider when it comes to practice of type design. ‘The fact that the Latin alphabet is dominant in much of the world and is completely dominant in things like computer coding, for example, is not because it’s the best alphabet, even for English!’, Tim tells us. ‘It’s because at crucial times in history, the people who used it had the most lawyers, guns and money.’

Wood carving in Coptic script
Wood carving in Coptic script

The ramifications of linguistic marginalisation run deep. As a practice, it is used to systemically oppress indigenous communities by limiting their access to the resources we make vital under societal modes of organisation. Not only does the oppression of indigenous writing systems rob communities of funds and resources, but also of their cultural agency and expression due to the intimate ties between cultural identities and their writing systems. Tim illustrates this with numerous accounts from all corners of the world; one of which he frames through the story of a friend from one of the indigenous communities from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Tim tells us of the Mother Tongue Movement and the birth of Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971. When the new government decided upon Bengali as the official language, despite the plethora of languages spoken in Bangladesh (1), he talks of the civil unrest and ‘virtual civil war’ that ensued as a result until the mid-90’s. Those who didn’t speak Bengali were not considered full citizens and so, unable to provide the paperwork to prove their ownership, land was stolen from indigenous communities and given to settlers backed by the army… Tim’s friend, encountering numerous hurdles in his education due to the imposition of linguistic marginalisation, was eventually accepted into boarding school to be taught in English and Bengali. ‘One of the tasks he was set in that school was to memorise William Wordsworth’s Daffodils’, Tim recalls. ‘He had never seen a fucking Daffodil in his life! There are no Daffodils in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. And yet, this is like the classic colonial hierarchy you know “our literature is better than your literature”’. 

Language can be used in abundance to reshape and rewrite histories, narratives and cultural stereotypes and, as Tim points out, this abundance becomes tenfold when that rewriting is done in the very writing system or alphabet of the oppressor – not to mention the power also gained by rapid globalisation and a monopolisation of falsely homogenous global philosophies, narratives and ideals. And so of course, violence against writing systems and their uniquely galvanising abilities is no mistake.

'Suksma' carving - 'Thank you' in Balinese.
‘Suksma’ carving – ‘Thank you’ in Balinese.

The Galvanising Power of Writing

Writing systems do much more than simply represent speech. They create historical archives and artefacts of peoples, places and time as much as they create operational, empowering resources of communication and agency. As Tim highlights, ‘A script will tell you something about the materials that were being used by that culture, it will tell you about trade, it will tell you even about things like climate and vegetation, in terms of what materials were actually used for writing in that culture’. 

Adinkra symbol, 'Bin Nka Bi'
Adinkra symbol, ‘Bin Nka Bi’

Thus, the protection and revitalisation of endangered writing systems is a distinctly pertinent human rights issue. ‘I know of at least four people who have been killed for creating a writing system for their people’, Tim expands. ‘A writing system has such a galvanising effect by proving this sort of iconic visual representation of identity and of thought, so it’s dangerous to a dominant culture’. Writing’s galvanising effect perhaps becomes even more visible when we think about it as something beyond a series of systems to represent, reflect and communicate words. Writing, Tim notes, is a spiritual act. It materialises so much more than what dominant westernised narratives would have you believe; and much more than the often mundane tasks we give it. Tim describes the hierarchies imposed on writing systems as ‘a steady narrowing of the role of writing, and also a steady limitation of the understanding of the richness and importance of writing systems’. 

‘I didn’t really start understanding these things until I went out among the endangered alphabets’, he continues. ‘Because you know, when you’re there, you realise all of the limitations of the Latin alphabet, but also all of the limitations of our sense of what writing is and can be […] I can think of a number of instances around the world where a culture’s writing system is used in a variety of ways even though people can no longer read it. So to give you a couple of examples – the Soyombo script which was created by Zanabazar for the Mongolian language is essentially not used but, the central character of that script – the Soyombo character – is on the Mongolian state seal. It’s the equivalent of being in the middle of the flag. Equally, on the Amazigh flag for the Berber people of North Africa, the central image is the letter ‘Yaz’ from the Tifinagh script… It’s a way of saying “yes we are literate, we are ancestral, this is writing that you can find on pieces of stone 2500 years old, we’ve been here all along”’.

Endangered Alphabets Current Projects – Mongolia Kickstarter 

Recently, Endangered Alphabets have been working on a Kickstarter to fund the production of their game, ULUS. ‘The Mongol lands mostly now exist in parts of Russia, the independent nation of Mongolia and then inner Mongolia, which is a Provence of China. Because of the Soviet influence of the first two, they both use the Cyrillic script, and the only place where the vertical Bichig script of the Mongols – the script of Genghis Khan – is used, is in inner Mongolia. So that’s really been the oasis and the protection of traditional Mongol culture’, Tim explains. The game was sparked in response to the announcement a few months ago that, as the Kickstarter page explains, ‘Mongols living in Inner Mongolia will have to learn, speak, and write Chinese, and there’s evidence the entire history of the Mongol people will be erased or rewritten’ (2020).

‘The Mongols recognise that given the current Chinese administration’s attitude towards the Uyghurs and towards people in Hong Kong, this is very grim news indeed’, Tim continues. ‘Not to mention the fact that it puts Mongolian teachers out of work, plus the lessons that are going to be taught in Chinese are very strategically chosen to rewrite Mongol history […] So, after a lot of discussion with a variety of people including some Mongolian contacts, we decided to create a board game that exists with and celebrates Mongolian culture.’  So far, the Kickstarter has been Endangered Alphabets’ most successful so far. The game creates a wealth of learning opportunities around Mongolian culture and linguistics, and aims to revive and preserve the endangered Mongolian Bichig script. The Kickstarter is running until December 11th.

Mongolian script Kickstarter poster for the game ULUS, aimed at educating players about Mongolian writing systems and culture.

Footnotes

  1.  Previously within Pakistan, the official language had been Urdu, despite the fact, Tim tells us, ‘almost nobody in East Pakistan spoke Urdu and even in West Pakistan, Urdu was a minority language’.

References & Further Reading

Endangered Alphabets., 2019. ‘About Us’, https://www.endangeredalphabets.com/about-us/

TIM BROOKES., 2013. ‘First Person: Save a Language, Save a Culture’, National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/6/130628-endangered-languages-scripts-bangladesh-indigenous-cultures-world/

Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter., 2020. ‘ULUS: a game to save a culture’, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/endangeredatlas/ulus-a-game-to-save-a-culture

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