Endangered Writing Systems

Tim Brookes is the founder and executive director of the Endangered Alphabets Project and the author of Endangered Alphabets, the Endangered Alphabets Word Search Book and the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets at www. endangeredalphabets.net.


In 1964, one of the most important acts in the history of environmental conservation took place: the International Union for Conservation of Nature published the Red List of Threatened Species.

 The Red List achieved four things 

  1. It gathered and presented data. “I haven’t seen many ospreys recently” became “There are only ten nesting pairs of ospreys left in Scotland.”
  2. It drew that data together into an idea, a new way of looking at the world and a new phrase: endangered species. It made people care about something they had never even thought about before.
  3. It established degrees of risk, so people could see where the greatest or most urgent need lay.
  4. It took the first three and identified a call to action: unless we protect its breeding grounds, the Javan lapwing will be gone. 

Just as, until well into the twentieth century, people largely took the world’s species for granted, they also took the world’s languages for granted. Languages, it was thought, were like trees: they sprouted, grew, blossomed, and then died — so what? It was a shame, perhaps, but nothing could be done about it.

It was not until 1992 that the importance of endangered languages was put forward by a group of linguists in an article in the journal Language, which prompted UNESCO to publish the Red Book of Endangered Languages. The outcome was a dramatic growth in the documentation, study and revitalization of minority languages, and in some cases a growing and  undeniable revival.

But there is no Red Book for endangered, minority and Indigenous alphabets. In fact, there is no complete catalogue of all the scripts currently in use in the world, no way of even knowing what minority scripts even exist. Th ere are no good estimates of the number of users of each script. There is no means of knowing which scripts are suffering the most attrition, or are most urgently at risk, and therefore no way to determine where and how to address this global crisis. 

Without a doubt, it is a crisis. When a minority or Indigenous culture, almost always for reasons beyond its control, abandons its traditional form of writing, within two generations that culture’s entire written record, and in many respects its collective wisdom, its sense of unique identity, even in some cases its legal right to its traditional lands—may be lost. 

When I started the Endangered Alphabets Project ten years ago, it seemed to me, from the available sources of information, that maybe 90 scripts were in use in the world, of which perhaps one-third were threatened. But the available sources (with the exception of Simon Ager’s laudable Omniglot) were not trying to find indigenous and minority writing systems, scripts with no political or economic clout, no Internet foot-print. After a decade of research, I now estimate that the world currently uses more than 200 writing systems, of which fully 85% are at some degree of risk. We know of scripts that are used by fewer than a dozen people; we know of centuries-old scripts that can now be read only by a handful of researchers.

This is why the Endangered Alphabets Project, together with a number of expert partners including MultiLingual Media, are setting out on what will certainly be a multi-year project to identify all the world’ s writing systems, to contact community members and consult scholars, to estimate numbers of users and degrees of endangerment, and to lay the entire picture out before the public. 

In this column, I’ll pass along some of the discoveries we make along the way. Perhaps the story of the teenager who created not only a script for his people but a religion and a new social structure — and then vanished. Perhaps the missionary who taught his new syllabary to First Nations peoples by writ-ing it on birch-bark, only to be undermined and sabotaged by his own church. Perhaps the story of the alphabet so intrinsic to it culture and religion that every letter has a secret mystical meaning.