Documenting endangered alphabets

Three years ago, acting on a notion so whimsical I assumed it was a kind of presenile monomania, I began carving endangered alphabets. The disclaimers start right away. I’m not a linguist, an anthropologist, a cultural historian or even a woodworker. I’m a writer — but I had recently started carving signs for friends and family, and I stumbled on, an online encyclopedia of the world’s writing systems, and several things had struck me forcibly.  

For a start, even though the world has more than 6,000 languages (some of which will be extinct even by the time this article goes to press), it has fewer than 100 scripts, and perhaps a third of those are endangered.

Working with a set of gouges and a paintbrush, I started to document as many of these scripts as I could find, creating three exhibitions and several dozen individual pieces that depicted words, phrases, sentences or poems in Syriac, Bugis, Baybayin, Samaritan, Makassarese, Balinese, Javanese, Batak, Sui, Nom, Cherokee, Inuktitut, Glagolitic, Vai, Bassa Vah, Tai Dam, Pahauh Hmong, Tifinagh, Mro, Chakma, Dongpa and Maldivian. These have been shown at colleges, universities and libraries across the United States, and later in 2012 will be displayed in England, Spain, Thailand and Australia.  

The Endangered Alphabets project has raised a series of fascinating questions and dilemmas about language, culture and the forces that act on each of them. I can’t pretend to have solved any of these riddles, but it may at least be worthwhile passing them on as a series of items for consideration and discussion. For example, what does a written language — any written language — look like? The Endangered Alphabets highlight this question in a number of interesting ways. As the forces of globalism erode scripts such as these, the number of people who can write them dwindles, and the range of examples of each script is reduced. My carvings may well be the only examples of, say, Samaritan script or Tifinagh that my visitors ever see. 

At once we’re faced with the fact that what written language looks like and means now is very, very different from what it looked like and meant in its infancy. When I saw Tifinagh on the Omniglot website, it looked weird and cool. When I tracked down photographs of it in its natural habitat, I realized I was looking at the most extraordinary writing in the world.

The natural habitat in question is the wall of a cave deep in the Sahara desert, at a site called the Wadi Matkhandouch Prehistoric Art Gallery, near Germa in Libya. It’s startling to find any evidence of human presence in such an inhospitable place, so far from what we think of as civilization. And, frankly, the Tifinagh didn’t look much like what we think of as writing. It was a meandering string of simple symbols (Figure 1), some of which looked more like mathematics than writing. There was no attempt to include pictograms, though in fact the same set of rocks and caves has an incredible array of carvings of animals: giraffes, lions, crocodiles, elephants, ostriches and two cats apparently fighting. Or perhaps it represented a kind of code, for this twisting strand of language looked so old and so deep it might just be the DNA of writing. Did I mention that the symbols or letters were in such a strange and vivid red pigment that they looked as if they’d been written in blood?

To me, it wasn’t just a series of symbols intended to convey sound and meaning, though in fact these fantastical scraps of writing are actually messages from one caravan to another, giving directions, passing on the location of water. It was, however, like a missing link, the verbal equivalent of the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France. Written language was here, it said, long before anyone thought to write in straight and level lines. 

The individual letters had the same combination of angular purpose yet prehistoric crudity that challenge the sense at Stonehenge. Something was being born. That writing was a defining moment in human intellectual history: not just a representation of a panorama of hunting, but early, early, unbelievably early symbolism. It was like the invention of meaning itself.

If I sound as if I’m in danger of being carried away here, it’s because those photographs also showed two vital aspects of written language. One, that writing is steeped, as if in blood, in the history, geography, hydrology, technology, politics and economics of its writers. These symbols on the cave wall were not words abstracted onto a page. These were words, as I say, in the full and complex entanglement of their natural habitat. And two, that writing shows how profoundly we are pattern-seeking and pattern-making animals. Nearly everyone who looks at my own lame representation of Tifinagh, which I carved on an especially distressed piece of maple, and for once allowed the text to meander like the text on those Saharan walls, is transfixed by it. Again like Stonehenge, it clearly exhibits pattern, which in turn represents meaning — but what the hell does it mean? And our need to identify and understand pattern is so strong that people will stand looking at my carving for five, even ten minutes, saying how it looks Greek, how it looks alien, how it looks both ancient and futuristic at the same time, trying to puzzle it out. 

Parsing out scripts

When I started the project, though, the question of what a script looks like never even occurred to me. I could download the representative sample of text from Omniglot, which in many cases was Article One from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.” I could simply print this out, take it to Kinko’s, blow it up to an 11×17 sheet, trace the lettering onto my wood using carbon paper, and start carving. That was de facto what the writing system looked like, and as I am no linguist and could neither speak nor read any of these languages, I was simply following orders.

Omniglot didn’t have Article One in every single script. As I wanted each board to say the same thing, I started with the scripts I could just pull off the web, meanwhile starting an e-mail campaign all over the globe to track down people who could still read and write Balinese, Sundanese or Bassa Vah.

The first script I carved was Inuktitut — because it was available, and also because it looked easy. Within minutes I sensed I had fallen into a trap, possibly several traps. First of all, Inuktitut is actually a language; the script is more correctly known as Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics. Second, it wasn’t easy at all. I cursed my way through my carving (Figure 2), wondering why on Earth any culture would have a written language so inimical to the movement of hand and wrist, so dependent on perfect equilateral triangles, circles and straight lines, none of which occur in nature. You try drawing a perfect equilateral triangle some time. As an act of writing, it just doesn’t make sense. Much later, I would come to think of this syllabary (the creation of James Evans, a missionary) as a fascinating and unusual manifestation of a particular impulse to globalism. By basing his script, originally created for the Cree, partly on geometrical symbols, and in particular by using the conceit that the same symbol would be pronounced differently when pointing in different directions, Evans was relying on a kind of Euclidian globalism. 

Certain ideal shapes, he seems to have believed, were universal, an idea pursued much more recently by Stanislas Dehaene in his book Reading in the Brain. But whereas Dehaene was associating primal visual forms with the firing of individual neurons, Evans was creating a script that had more in common with musical notation or mathematical language than with writing systems that have been invented collectively, evolving over time. Each of his syllabic symbols had its own logic, a foundation so strong that even 150 years later Inuktitut still has its sharp edges, unmodified by time and use. And while its users were, by all accounts, delighted to have their own script, it was a script that owed almost nothing to indigenous cultural elements and almost everything to the ideal forms of classical Greece and Rome.

By the time I’d finished the Inuktitut board, which took me a month or more, I was dying to work on a script that really was a script — that is, was written. I had enjoyed carving Chinese so much because the stroke of the brush obeyed the same laws of physics and the structure of the hand as the movement of the gouge. To cut a little deeper, I loved Chinese because the very act of writing was visible, and was thus commemorated, in the characters themselves. Even a casual glance could tell where the brush had first touched the paper (or silk), where it had pressed more or less forcefully, where it lifted off the surface. It was utterly unlike the mechanical stamp of the printing press: the shape of a line suggested the writer’s personality, even his mood. Every character was, in effect, an autograph.

So I looked through my list of available endangered scripts and went for Baybayin (Figure 3), certainly one of the world’s more sinuous and wristy scripts. Here was a perfect example of the battle between the forces of imperialism and the forces of nativism: when the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, they were surprised to discover that the Tagalog already had their own writing system, and though Spanish, in the Latin alphabet, inevitably dominated the islands to the virtual extinction of the indigenous script, the Spanish were nevertheless interested enough to create a number of (differing) Baybayin typefaces in the seventeenth century, and some of those printed documents survived.

Carving Baybayin provided me with an entirely different set of problems. The script didn’t make the slightest effort to incorporate the Greek virtues of symmetry or Euclid’s ideal forms, but its snaky curves were just so damned thin. Why would anyone create an alphabet that demanded my narrowest gouge and my tiniest paintbrush? The answer is a wonderful illumination of the role of technology in the development of writing systems: the Tagalog incised their letters in bamboo using the point of a knife, and then, to make this ultra-skinny writing more visible, grabbed a handful of ash from the nearest fire and rubbed it into the etched lettering. I was lucky enough to strike up a correspondence with a Canadian, Paul Morrow, the creator of the Unicode Baybayin font, and he made it clear what an approximate business the creation or revival of scripts is bound to be. His font, which has come to be called Tagalog Stylized, is a composite, he explained. “My Stylized font was not based on a single historical example . . . I just wanted a Baybayin font with a consistent size and weight from character to character, so I designed my own font based on the way I write the characters, which is, more or less, a combination of the traits of many Baybayin typefaces from the 1600s. Some characters have very different shapes in different old typefaces. I chose the shapes that seemed to be the most common.”

The imperial attractions of the Latin alphabet were so powerful that by the twentieth century, anyone in the Philippines with education and ambition wrote in our global script; Baybayin had become so associated with ignorance and the past that it had in effect retreated into the hills, to such an extent that various authorities stated flatly that it was no longer in use. Yet the forces of globalism tend to provoke an opposite, if not always equal, force of nativism, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century it had become cool among young Filipinos to use the characters of Baybayin. They were not the ones writing Baybayin, though: they were the medium on which Baybayin was written. Baybayin had become the graphic of choice among tattoo artists. In the process, language had become art. According to tattoo artist Christian Cabuay, most of the people getting tattoos have little or no knowledge of the original meaning or pronunciation of the characters. Yet within the past two years, Philippine bank notes now carry, below the Latin numbers indicating their denomination, the Baybayin equivalent, printed from Paul Morrow’s own stylized Baybayin font. The twisting point of the knife in the bamboo has finally returned, by circuitous routes that suggest how strongly we value the written embodiment of our own history and culture, even if we haven’t the foggiest idea what it once meant. 

Something similar seems to be happening with Glagolitic, also once thought to be extinct. Tomislav Bali, a Croatian historian, explained that the last priests to write in Glagolitic might have recently died, but that Glagolitic was paradoxically enjoying a revival, especially in Croatia. The breakup of the former nation of Yugoslavia seems to have created an opportunity for the new emerging countries to forge their own cultural identities. If this holds true, we may see the revival of all manner of apparently moribund scripts, especially in areas where a sense of ethnic identity, long suppressed by a colonial, ideological or religious authority, struggles to the surface and looks for symbols of its identity and traditions. 


The case of Cherokee

As is fairly well known, Cherokee was the first Native American language to have its own self-invented writing system, created laboriously (and against the wishes of his tribal council) by Sequoyah between about 1810 and 1821. The syllabary Sequoyah created was cursive, well suited to the human hand. Once he had successfully demonstrated it to the tribal council and the Cherokee were achieving literacy, a missionary named the Reverend Samuel Worcester invested a great deal of his own time, energy and money in creating a Cherokee typeface that he then put to use to turn out Bibles, hymnals and prayer books, as well as a newspaper in English and Cherokee called the Cherokee Phoenix

Worcester’s type differed considerably from Sequoyah’s cursive: ornate with serifs and dignified with the Greek virtues of uprightness and symmetry, it looks to European eyes simultaneously oddly familiar and unfamiliar, like Cyrillic. It’s another example of the ways in which the assumptions about what is “proper” or “correct” in writing are almost always the embedded assumptions of a dominant culture.

At this point history intervened. On the one hand, Sequoyah’s achievement was hailed in some quarters as a mighty intellectual achievement, and a sign that the Indian could indeed be educated and civilized. On the other hand, in 1830, the Indian Removal Act drove most of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands, and the Georgia Guard seized the printing press, destroying the Cherokee type. For the next 150 years, Cherokee more or less reverted to being a spoken language once more. Sequoyah’s original script all but vanished, and the only visible manifestation of Cherokee was the assortment of Christian printed materials. Cherokee was spoken in the home but forbidden in schools, and with the advent of radio and television, an entire generation of young Cherokee abandoned even the spoken language of their ancestors.

Starting perhaps in the late 1970s and gaining momentum over the next two decades, a native-rights movement grew simultaneously in a number of tribes, the Cherokee included. Unlike every other tribe, though, the Cherokee had the opportunity to revive not only their own spoken language, but their own script, by going back to Worcester’s heritage and learning from the printed version.

Relearning a nearly extinct script sets some unexpected traps. I took my text from the Cherokee Nation’s own website, enlarged it, used carbon paper to transfer the syllables to my wood and carved it. It was a massive pain. I never wanted to see a serif again as long as I lived. A few months later I had the chance to visit the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and took my board with me.

The first thing I wasn’t expecting was that almost nobody, even in the Cherokee Heritage Museum, could read it. They recognized the writing as Cherokee, and as such they liked it, for the Cherokee nowadays tend to take great pride in their syllabary and have even created exhibitions of art based on its characters. But the percentage of Cherokee who can actually read and write the script is in the single digits. 

The second thing I wasn’t expecting was that I had made two mistakes. The version on the website was so low resolution that when I enlarged it, the text pixilated and broke up, and I carved glyphs that simply don’t exist in the Cherokee language. This is one of the ironies of my project, and frankly of many well-intentioned linguistic projects: the product is in the hands of outsiders like myself who have no innate sense of direction. When for the first time someone sent me Article One in handwritten form, I was ecstatic: an endangered alphabet live and in the wild! Yet when I set to carving it (the script in question was Bassa Vah, Figure 4) I realized that he wrote one particular syllabic character in such a range of ways, none of which corresponded exactly to the Unicode version, that I had no idea what to do. Today I would simply copy all his variants and let the chips fall where they may, but back then I was still thinking in my Unicode-consistency terms, and I wanted a “right” version. Following the Paul Morrow Principle, I created a sort of unhappy medium that had consistency, but neither the range nor expressiveness of the original.

The third thing I wasn’t expecting was that when I finally found a Cherokee woman who could read the syllabary, and when she reached my two errors, she didn’t say, “Oh, these are wrong.” She said, “I don’t know these letters.” That’s when it struck me that without a certain consensus, and without regular communication between people who maintain that consensus, a language can simply disintegrate. Just as in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, then in the land of the endangered alphabet, the typo may become gospel.

While I was in Oklahoma I was determined to find out if the Cherokees’ efforts to revive their written language included the creation of a cursive, hand-friendly version of their syllabary. I asked one of the Cherokee translators named Ed Jumper (himself a re-learner of Cherokee) if he’d mind copying out my two sentences by hand. When Jumper finished he checked his work several times, and then showed me. I was stunned. He had copied every base-and-capital serif with the utmost care, had made every syllabic character upright, crisp, perfectly articulated. It looked printed. Amalia Gnanadesikan, author of The Writing Revolution, told me she wonders whether the printing history of Cherokee may have been as much of a hindrance as a salvation: it has created a language that, because of all the serifs, is incredibly laborious to write. Those two sentences took Jumper fourteen minutes.

It’s too soon to say whether the Cherokees’ efforts to revive their language and script will be successful, or even what success might mean. Is it a success, for example, when a number of the street signs in downtown Tahlequah are written in both Latin and Cherokee, even if almost nobody can read them and their principal purpose is to stimulate cultural tourism? 

But I’m interested in a broader question raised by Jumper’s diligent copying. What makes written language so interesting is that, except in unusual cases like Cherokee, we don’t have to copy it slavishly. A written language needs tending, and the fewer people who write it, the more skilled attention and tending it needs. In my project I’ve come across scripts that are so endangered that only a few dozen people still read and write them, and when that’s the case, they all read and write them (to some extent) differently. And that’s because we all write (and speak) our own languages differently anyway. When doing presentations on the Endangered Alphabets I sometimes ask the audience to pick up a pen or pencil and write the word rag. Not only does everyone write each letter slightly differently, but nobody writes the initial r in the copperplate way I was taught to write it in elementary school, and nobody writes either the a or the g the way they appear in most typefaces. But that’s the remarkable thing about language and the way our brains work: for some reason we can deal with a huge margin of error. There’s as much skill in imagining what is not there as there is in interpreting what is. In a way, then, every language represents on a micro scale what we see happening to language globally on the macro scale.

In recent years the Cherokee Phoenix has been revived as a monthly newspaper, under the editorship of Bryan Pollard. A remarkable man in many ways, Pollard has conducted a great deal of his own research to try to reconstruct Sequoyah’s original cursive Cherokee script, and has then tattooed certain totemic words on his arms and legs. At present, most articles in the Cherokee Phoenix are in English because most Cherokee don’t even speak Cherokee, let alone read and write it. But each issue has half a dozen articles translated into Cherokee, just to show, or pave, the way.

Pollard’s goal — his own personal measure of a successful revival of the language — is one day to run equal column inches in English and Cherokee. Yet, as I said before, one sign of a dying script is that there is no consistency, there are no guardians, and individual nonce words, idiosyncrasies or flat-out mistakes have the same weight as everything else. By this token, perhaps the most encouraging sign of the revival will be when someone writes a letter to the editor, in Cherokee, pointing out a typo. And in fact the Cherokee revival shows that there may well be opportunities for professional translators (and the language industry in general) in the Endangered Alphabets field, even in languages and scripts that almost nobody can read. As with Baybayin and Glagolitic, any emerging sense of a national or cultural identity may well result in a growing interest in the traditional language or script. As such, I foresee a modest but fascinating growth industry, not in conventional translation work, but for specialist items associated with tourism, special events, signage, cultural tourism, museums and so on.