Better World: Documenting endangered alphabets II: Art and activism

My first exhibition of endangered alphabets — 13 carvings, each with Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights carved in a different endangered writing system — was held in May 2010, and to my astonishment people began talking about it, writing about it, even filming it. Within nine months it had been exhibited at several colleges, universities, galleries and libraries, it had become the subject of a video documentary and had been written up in the New York Times.

Shortly afterward, I began to imagine a different articulation of the alphabets: a permanent standing sculpture that would present as many of the world’s endangered alphabets as possible.

In my mind, it was something between a totem pole and a war memorial. Once again I’d use local Vermont curly maple, but this time the alignment would be vertical: made of four panels, each five feet in length, it would take the shape of a tall, hollow, wooden box, with each board facing one of the points of the compass.

As for the text that would be translated into each of the endangered scripts, I wrote a short, simple poem about the importance of preserving endangered languages in their spoken and written forms. It went like this:

These are our words, shaped

By our hands, our tools,

Our history. Lose them

And we lose ourselves.


If I was lucky, I thought, I might get this poem translated into 16 endangered scripts, four on each face. In the end I managed to acquire 20 (Figure 1).

Today these four panels act as an installation. They are hung to form a hollow square perhaps ten feet across and lit from above, so they look like an ancient stone circle, but made of slabs of trees. In the background runs an audio track created by Tim Pasch of the University of North Dakota, a combination of electronic music and voices speaking in endangered North American languages. The result is eerie and extraordinarily powerful — a sacred space devoted to time and language.

This poem had an unexpected effect on my overall sense of direction, which at first had purely been about preservation. Shortly after the first panel was finished, I had breakfast with a writer friend of mine, Josh Brown, who used to edit an environmental conservation magazine. We talked about the changes currently taking place in communication and publishing, and where the future was going, and the exponential rate of change taking place. Afterward, I took him across the road to show him the first panel of the Poem Sculpture, which happened to be in the back of the car.

He looked thoughtfully at the panel, with its incomprehensible black letters floating above the golden waves of maple grain. What it made him think about, he said, was something Aldous Huxley once said in an interview years after the publication of Brave New World. The interviewer asked him if there were any changes he would now make, in hindsight, if he could write the novel all over again.

Huxley said yes, there was a change: he would add a Third Way. As the novel stands, the reader is faced with an impossible choice between the futuristic, hedonistic, ultra-controlled society on the one hand, and the primitive, dangerous, unruly pre-society on the other.

“That’s what I think you’re doing here,” Josh said. “You’re offering a Third Way. Faced with all the changes going on in communication and the disappearance of traditional languages and scripts, you’ve found a way to communicate by preserving the old.”

As he was speaking, though, I was thinking of different Third Ways. I was thinking about the internet, and how it was making it possible to research minority scripts and at the same time was marginalizing them faster than ever before.

At that moment it struck me that the  long, narrow, carved plank in the back of my car was like a bridge spanning both ends of time and change, the accelerated and the timeless.

At the hasty extreme was the internet and all the astonishing global connections it had made for me, without which I would never even have thought of this endeavor and could certainly never have carried it out. At the timeless end was the slow, deliberate act of carving and of painting, the even slower rise (and fall) of these writing systems, centuries or even millennia in the making.

I should explain that when I’ve finished carving and painting one of my scripts into a piece of curly maple and then I add the first coat of polyurethane, an extraordinary three-dimensional change takes place. The wood acquires both luster and depth, as if rising and sinking at the same time. Faint shadows become deep currents. Knots becomes cyclones. The grain ripens one way, but in the same instant a different set of ripples will often appear running perpendicular to it. The wood becomes anatomical, muscular. And the black text seems to float both in and above it, as if it is both part and not part of the wood.

Trees have been on this planet for some 370 million years, and the patterns in the grain — well, they illustrate forces that have been acting on matter since the dawn of the universe.

The writing, in a sense, is an imitation of the wood into which it’s carved. And in a way, this is what art is all about: pattern that represents change suspended in time.

For the first time, I began thinking of this combination of wood and writing as art.


Language as art

Over the next two years I experimented with carving individual words, even individual letters, often in combination with interesting or “distressed” pieces of wood, as a way of drawing attention to various aspects of individual writing systems, and of writing in general.

Perhaps the best example is the single letter E in Cham, a minority language of Vietnam (and, in slightly different form, of Cambodia). When showing this carving I invite people to write a Roman capital E on the blackboard as a way of making it clear how unsuited the human wrist is to right angles, parallel lines, or even straight lines. The letter is a mechanical contrivance that implies perfection and requires equipment to execute it as precisely as we have come to expect.

Then I invite everyone to raise a hand and imagine themselves drawing the Cham E in the air. “Look around you,” I tell them. “Look at those wrist movements. That’s the hand of a Thai dancer.”

My point is that we’ve forgotten that writing developed, and developed its character and appearance, as a manual act, and now we enact it largely as a mechanical exercise, forgetting how intimately it connects with other actions of the body. One of the interesting aspects of the Alphabets in general, in fact, is that as minority scripts many of them have remained relatively unaffected by the mechanics of printing and computing. They are still scripts, an expressive and human creation.

One of the most interesting artistic expressions of the Endangered Alphabets is a commission from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon to carve its motto, “Explore, learn, work together,” in three separate pieces of wood, each using an endangered script. The triptych features maple, walnut and cherry, all native to North America, all from sustainably harvested sources.

It seems especially appropriate that the college chose to represent itself and its mission in words drawn from endangered alphabets: in doing so, it invites its students and the world in general to step into a new era of culturally, environmentally and economically responsible exploration, to learn from those experiences, and to work together instead of setting up an inequality between the exploiters and the exploited.


Endangered activism

In 2012, I had the good fortune to hear from a young man named Maung Nyeu, who was from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh. He had stumbled upon my website and seen, to his amazement, that someone not only knew about the languages of the Hill Tracts but had actually carved them — as part of the endangered poem sculpture, in fact.

The Hill Tracts, a forested upland area in the southeast of the country, are home to more than a dozen indigenous peoples, distinct from the majority Bengali population in language, culture and religion. Over the past three decades, the region has become increasingly militarized, and much of the area’s traditional farmlands have been given to Bengali settlers.

“The Bangladeshi government’s failure to address rights to traditional lands in the eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts region,” reports Amnesty International, “has left tens of thousands of…indigenous people landless and trapped in a cycle of violent clashes with Bengali settlers.”

The collapse of law and order has led to well-documented massacres of indigenous people, the burning of villages and temples, and the abduction of women and girls to be sold into the sex trade.

At the heart of this urgent threat to the survival of the indigenous peoples of the Hill Tracts are the related issues of language and education. A report by Oxfam and the European Country of Origin Information Network documented that indigenous children in the Hill Tracts “face discrimination in government-run schools where they are often badly treated by teachers and students from the country’s largest ethnic group, Bengalis” — a mistreatment many could tell you they experienced firsthand as a child.

More than half of all household members surveyed in CHT (55.2%) have no formal schooling, the report continued, and for those who start schooling, fewer than eight percent complete primary education while only two percent complete secondary education.

“Ethnic minority children communicate in their mother tongue in their house,” an Oxfam officer reported, “but in school they are compelled to face Bengali texts while the teachers are also from the Bengali community. The whole teaching method is in Bangla.

“Children from four to six years old soon lose interest in the classroom and drop out when they cannot communicate with teachers or understand lessons.”

These deficits have devastating long-term effects. Experience in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere shows that if indigenous children are educated in a language other than their own, their success rates are low, and dropout rates high. As they grow older, those same grim statistics convert into rates of unemployment, violence and poverty. In a single generation, Maung said, he has seen his people go from being self-sufficient farmers, living on ancestral lands, to being vagrant day-laborers, scattered across Bangladesh and into India and Burma.

Remarkably, Maung survived his dysfunctional schooling. His mother home-schooled him with such success that he went on to the University of Hawaii to earn a degree in engineering, then an MBA from the University of Southern California. Equipped with those skills, he returned to the Hill Tracts to build a residential education center, a school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, so the children of the Hill Tracts could be educated in their own languages.

This turned out to be easier said than done. Most of the children who came to the CHT school could no longer read or write their own ethnic language. So he came back to the United States, to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to learn how to create a culturally relevant curriculum that would revive the dying languages of the region.

For Maung, a culturally relevant curriculum has two related aspects, and two related virtues. The first is that the curriculum needs to be taught in the language the child speaks at home, the language the child is already learning, and is using to learn about the world. The second is that the material being taught needs to be familiar. As an example, he explained that he himself was told to learn by heart William Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils.”

“I had never seen a daffodil!” he laughed. “I had no idea what it looked like. We have all sorts of plants and flowers, but I never saw a daffodil until I came to the United States!”

Maung has collected over 70 stories passed down in the villages of the Hill Tracts. These stories involve mountains and trees and animals the children already know — stories they may already have heard from their grandparents.

He is in the process of writing out those stories, getting them illustrated in a visual idiom familiar to the children, having them translated into Mro, Marma and Chakma, and then getting them published.

To do so, though, Maung faces an additional challenge. The spoken languages of the Hill Tracts are under threat, but the written languages — the writing systems or scripts — are in even greater danger. Most of the Marma, as well as groups such as the Mro and Chakma, still speak their traditional languages, but very few can still read and write their unique scripts.

This project marked the third phase of the endangered alphabets project: in addition to drawing people’s attention to linguistic disappearance and cultural erosion, I’m now trying to do something about it.

In June 2012, Maung and I set up a partnership to create and publish his schoolbooks and, with luck, to help save the languages and support the people of the CHT.

One of Maung’s fellow Harvard students illustrated the first of the children’s books for his school. I recruited Jamie Kutner, a calligrapher at Louisiana State University, to take the handwritten forms of these scripts and turn them into works of art, and Tom Sanalitro, a typographer from Anglia University in the United Kingdom, to make Mro, Marma and Chakma fonts.

In 2013, students of mine at Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont, started producing grade-appropriate books for three CHT schools. Since then, a succession of student groups have raised funds to print more books, designed the first coloring books (using images drawn from photos taken in the Hill Tracts) ever to be seen in the region, created alphabet rubber stamps and alphabet charts, and are continuing to come up with more educational materials in endangered languages and alphabets. 

The first students attended Maung’s school at the residential education center in 2008. The change of attitude was immediately apparent. Children who had seemed destined to be domestics or day laborers announced their intention to be doctors and teachers. To raise funds for the schoolbooks, Maung founded a nonprofit called Our Golden Hour.

“In medicine,” he explained, “there is a window of time, maybe a few minutes to two hours, where if the person can get to the ER, the chance of survival increases. For our children, their golden hour is between the ages of four or five and twelve. If we don’t get them in school during this time, we won’t get them at all.”


Endangered furniture

The most recent and perhaps the most unexpected avenue of development for the Alphabets has been also the most down-to-earth: furniture that is built around carved text, mostly in endangered writing systems.

In a way, I was continuing a tradition that has existed in some cultures for centuries — the idea that in creating something we invest it with energy and attention, making it both an extension of ourselves and a gift to the world. To make that connection explicit, we add writing as a signature and/or a blessing.

The first piece was perhaps the most ambitious to date: a dining table made of exquisite curly maple featuring a blessing I wrote and had translated in Balinese. The legs and skirt were added by the woodworker Nathan Moreau.

It was only after I started carving the top, which had already been cut, planed and glued together, that I realized I’d made a ghastly procedural blunder: if I made a single mistake in carving the Balinese text, the whole top would be ruined. I held my breath for about a month.

Several pieces have followed: bedside tables with the Chinese characters for “man” and “woman” (Figure 2); a hall table with the Chinese character for “family”; a coffee table with text in Javanese (a pun on java) that reads “Everyone should learn a second language”; a smaller circular table with a Tibetan inscription, almost a mandala, that reads “graceful kindness.” And as a continuation of the concept of writing as a form of prayer or blessing, I decided to address the fact that I’m a terrible sleeper by designing a headboard for my bed that includes the classical Vietnamese character for “sleep.” I did the carving and woodworker Tim Peters did the joinery.

As this article goes to press I’m working with Tim Peters to make a unique circular dining table, about five feet across, carved with exquisite Tibetan calligraphy based on the work of the Buddhist calligrapher Tashi Mannox. It will be a repeating design that will run in a ring around the table, perhaps six inches in from the rim of the table and perhaps six or ten inches broad. I’m going to auction it on our website while we’re making it, and as with all my carvings that feature the calligraphy of Tashi Mannox, 20% of the profits will go to Rokpa International, a non-profit that supports sick and homeless children in the Himalayas.