Community Lives: Endangered Alphabets Project

Many years ago I had my first visit to the British Museum in London to confront the Elgin Marbles up close and personal, yet it was my encounter with the Rosetta Stone that became the most memorable. Something of an icon to linguists, this fragment of a stele discovered in Egypt in the late 19th century records a Ptolemaic decree inscribed using the Ancient Greek alphabet, demotic script and, most famously, Egyptian hieroglyphics.

These parallel records allowed Jean-Francois Champollion to unlock the meaning of hieroglyphics, which had been lost since those long-past days of Hellenistic rule. I had studied Ancient Greek for years in school in Athens and am a fluent reader. I started reading the Greek on the stone aloud for my husband, but before I knew it, a small gathering had formed, hanging on every syllable I enunciated. I hasten to admit that I might have disappointed a few eager listeners when I did not continue to speak in Ancient Egyptian or Coptic and they realized that I was not some lofty, academic figure. Nevertheless, I was amazed at the thirst people have for dead languages and their joy when they are made to live again.

Fast forward to the present day, to my encounter with an extraordinary man whose mission is to preserve endangered alphabets using artwork and educational materials. Tim Brookes is presently associate professor of communication and creative media at Champlain University, Burlington, Vermont. We met at LocWorld34 in Barcelona, June 2017, where we occupied adjacent booths and shared lunch breaks. Brookes is a prolific author, well traveled and passionately devoted to the cause of endangered alphabets.

As Brookes tells it, the birth of the Endangered Alphabets Project was somewhat serendipitous: “I began carving endangered alphabets.” His motivation, or, inspiration, was to create handmade Christmas gifts for his family. Their popularity soon scaled up into carving Chinese monograms. There is more than just a personal touch to the appeal of his carvings. As he puts it, “There is a curious advantage to unfamiliar alphabets. If you stare at a letter or word and have no idea even how to sound it out, you start looking at that letter not as an atom of sound or of meaning, but as a design.” Although we are not always conscious of it, the aesthetics of languages, both spoken and written, is constantly with us. When we do pause to savor sounds and shapes, our sensibilities transcend simple meaning and invoke emotions and other physical reactions like pleasure and so on. Brookes’ enthusiasm for the forms of the scripts he works with is infectious. He speaks of their characters being, “fascinating and unusual and fluid and graceful,” and how he relishes, “their shapes for their unfamiliarity, their curves and forms.”

What started as a personal endeavor as an artist and craftsman took on a much greater significance when he chanced upon the Omniglot website. This enterprise is nothing less than an online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages past and present, dead and alive and even invented, constructed ones. For Brookes, it was an Aladdin’s cave. In his time as a travel writer he had visited many countries around the globe, but was startled at how many languages were in fact foreign to him.

A further realization struck him when he was asked how many alphabets are in fact endangered and he had to confess that he didn’t know. In response, he started a Facebook post to initiate community input. He began to accumulate a feeling for why languages fall into disuse and become extinct. The fact is, more universal alphabets facilitate greater communication and supplant more localized character sets. Good examples of this are seen with Arabic, Chinese and Russian. If we think of the preponderant use of Latin characters for numerous languages in use in Western countries, the endangerment to scripts in minority use by force of cultural hegemony becomes clear.

Meanwhile, Brookes continued with his wood carving. Looking for a way of exerting mass appeal in a hugely diverse linguistic world, he hit upon the idea of using Article 1 of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This states that:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Putting this powerful statement to work by means of an artistic medium could not fail to attract attention. The first exhibition of the Article 1 carvings was held in May 2010, and to his surprise and delight people began talking about it, writing reviews of it, even featuring it as an item on TV news shows. Along with this unexpected success, Brookes realized the irony that the alphabets he was popularizing were the victims of something — endangered alphabets are as susceptible to over-exploitation as any fragile ecosystem is.

The life of a threatened alphabet is precarious because its users are usually few in number. While research is stimulating and rewarding, it can be a bit of a headache to validate the accuracy of written forms. Think of your own experience with handwritten material and the problem is quite evident. Give five different people the same word to write and you will get five different results. So which one is right? How do you decide? In short, you proceed with your fingers crossed. It helps when you find an authority in a language to work with you, and that is exactly what happened when Brookes was contacted by a man from Bangladesh called Maung Nyeu.

Building upon the success of the first exhibition of his carved work and continuing research, Brookes had enlarged the number of endangered writing systems he was working on to twenty. He also devised his own Alphabets Anthem:

These are our words, shaped

By our hands, our tools,

Our history. Lose them

And we lose ourselves.

Maung Nyeu had stumbled upon Brookes’ website and was amazed to discover that the languages of his native Chittagong Hill Tracts were not only known to outsiders, but that they were the subject of exquisite carved representations.

Maung had amassed a collection of some 40 traditional stories from local villagers, having them translated into Mro, Charma and Chakma. He also illustrated using visual idioms for children of the region who may be able to speak those traditional languages, but who rarely also read or wrote in their unique scripts. And this is where the Endangered Alphabets Project found an ideal application. What better way of rejuvenating endangered languages and scripts than by way of educating their newest generations? Brookes and Nyeu embarked on an enterprise to record and publish children’s schoolbooks. There was no guarantee of success, but it was a shrewd move to provide teaching materials as a first step that supported both languages and the community of users.

But Brookes has not stopped there. Language learning, as we all know, can be hard work so it is vital to engage students and maybe even to do so with a bit of fun. He told me, “carving is great for awareness, but games are better to help revival.” In other words, putting languages to actual use transforms the learning process. Summoning the powers of his creative prowess, Brookes has four games currently under development and many more ideas for new ones. The first is a Scrabble-type game in which players create interlocking words from the characters they draw. However, he is careful to specify a couple of probable differences. Instead of the geometric layout of the Scrabble board, he will design one that includes familiar geographical and cultural features of the region. He is also aware that not all cultures respond the same way to a game involving accumulation of points.

The second game is a word-based jigsaw game, a form that may well be quite new to kids in these places. The third project is based on dominoes, but using letters or words instead of numbers to match tiles already played. The fourth game uses a deck of playing cards bearing letters instead of values and suits. Given the ubiquity of card games, their huge variety and popularity, imagination will no doubt supplement the six games Brookes already has in mind. It is also his hope that players will be suitably hooked to invent their own games as they engage their own cultural sensibilities and educational needs.

In this digital age, nothing is done in a vacuum. On the one hand, tech developers could bring a new universe of ideas combining languages and games to the platforms that we all take for granted. On the other hand, Brookes’ collaborators from Bangladesh, Indonesia and The Kalmyk Republic will steer the development toward products that work linguistically and practically in their communities.

Each release of Unicode and the 139 scripts it presently covers provides greater and greater coverage beyond the Latin alphabet and the character sets of other power languages. Brookes has friends involved in the Unicode Consortium and he is often in touch exchanging information. Typically, he admits, Unicode people may be better informed than he is, but for good reason they are slower in releasing or reacting to new scripts. For example, he was given a sample of an Indonesian script and when he approached Unicode to include it, they informed him that a proposal was already underway to include it, but they needed to wait to get the full alphabet. Carving a few letters at a time is one thing; developing a full character set is a task on a much larger scale.

A good example of how Unicode and specific languages, working together, can produce good results can be seen in the case of Cherokee. Cherokee is a distinctive language of the Iroquois group that has required intensive work to render its spoken form in writing. A print font was created in the 19th century to facilitate bible printing, but there is no cursive form. Without a written standard, people relied on the print font, now with its own Unicode Block of 96 points. And this is a fine achievement for the language’s use in digital and print forms. However, when Brookes asked two Cherokee translators to write text for a carving, it took them 14 minutes. For all of us interested in the plight of endangered languages, there is no better example supporting the need for education and outreach to the wider language community. The lesson is, languages need to be used or, as Brookes’ Alphabet Anthem starkly tells us, we lose them.

With some 7,000 languages to work with in one capacity or another, our industry is one of the most diverse in the cultural, corporate and academic worlds. I have particular admiration for those of us who work to preserve languages in all their forms as part of a global cultural heritage under threat in so many ways. Tim Brookes epitomizes this. His active involvement with people imperiled by the relentlessness of progress in a networked world is an example to us all. His journey with endangered alphabets began with the simple beauty that unfamiliar characters and scripts possess.

At a time when it can be tough to retain a positive outlook on our community’s future and its rich language resources, we can take heart from initiatives like the Endangered Alphabets Project. Endangered they may well be, but the end is not yet in sight. In fact, thanks to Brookes and his associates, the end might actually be that point receding into the distance.