Author Archives: Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes

About Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Born in England, he now lives in Vermont with an outspoken cat, a fearless rabbit and a lot of wood.

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The “Thank You All” Endangered Alphabets project launches

Language, Personalization and Design

Six months ago, when I was starting to plan my next exhibition of Endangered Alphabets carvings — my first in four years, and one that would mark the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Endangered Alphabets Project — I got a Facebook message from Kathmandu.

It was from a type designer named Ananda K. Maharjan, who had been teaching a workshop in non-Latin fonts including a spectacularly beautiful traditional Nepalese script called Ranjana that has largely fallen into disuse. For the final student exhibition, Ananda designed a stunning poster that said, in Ranjana, English and two other languages, “Thank you all.”

At once, three things struck me. One, I was blown away by the beauty of the Ranjana script. Two, I was delighted someone was reviving this endangered alphabet as an art form. But above all, I thought, This is what the world needs right now: not suspicion and divisiveness and bigotry but gratitude and openness to everyone, everywhere.

Not just “Thank you,” but “Thank you all” — a recognition that the world is made up of everyone. Not just those we like, or we do business with. Everyone.

The Endangered Alphabets Project is all about inclusiveness of indigenous and minority people; people who don’t usually get thanked or even noticed. And one way they are denied equality and respect is that their traditional alphabets or scripts are suppressed — not taught in schools, not used on signage, not accepted in a court of law, often not even understood by the culture that created them.

More than 85% of the world’s writing systems are in this sad situation, and when that happens, the entire written record of that culture — sacred texts, poems, personal correspondence, histories, the collective collected wisdom of that people — is lost. And with it goes much of their sense of identity, self-respect and purpose.

So with this, I had my theme. The Thank You All exhibition will consist of ten large carvings (to mark our tenth anniversary), each of which will say “Thank you all” in an endangered indigenous or minority writing system.

But it will do more than that. For each of the ten carvings, I’m going to commission the work of a calligrapher or type designer who, like Ananda Maharjan, is reviving their traditional endangered script. The exhibition then will act as a showcase for their art, and in turn it will show their community and the world that their script is vital, alive, a means of self-expression and a thing of beauty, expressive of their culture and their people.

The Thank You All series will also have a personal meaning. It’s a way for me to thank the thousands of people all over the world who have encouraged me, offered their expertise and wisdom, sent me photos and translations, and given the financial support needed to build the Endangered Alphabets Project and the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets. The first Thank You All carving was finished just before Christmas.

Cree "Thank you all"
"Thank you all" in Cree.

This first piece script is Northern Cree, furnished by Charles J. Lippert, using the vernacular-style Kisiska font designed by Chris Harvey (and available for free download at languagegeek.com).

The wood, sustainably harvested in Vermont, is maple — in fact, it’s an extraordinary slice from a maple tree that for many years was tapped for maple sugaring, leaving a pattern in its heartwood like a starburst.

Native peoples, Charles Lippert pointed out, were sugaring long before Europeans arrived. In fact, he added, “Natives still do sugar. Each Iskigamizige-giizis (sap-production moon), which is about April, tapped maple sap is boiled down, then finished to make Anishinaabewi-ziinzibaakwad, or Indian sugar,” the old name for maple syrup.

Other scripts under consideration include Manchu, Syloti Nagri, Mandombe, Mandaic, Ranjana, Javanese and Nüshu. After ten years of searching, I have managed to get in touch with the one calligrapher in the world who is creating artwork in Nüshu, the secret Chinese women’s script, and I’m delighted to say Nüshu will be included in one of my exhibitions for the first time.

The Endangered Alphabets Project’s Thank You All exhibition is due to premiere at the opening of the new Planet Word interactive museum of language in Washington D.C. on May 31, 2020. For more information about the project, visit endangeredalphabets.com, explore the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets at endangeredalphabets.net or see more carvings at endangeredalphabets.com/gallery.

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Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Born in England, he now lives in Vermont with an outspoken cat, a fearless rabbit and a lot of wood.

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Kicking off the Year of Indigenous Languages with Endangered Alphabets

Language, Travel and Culture

The United Nations has declared 2019 to be the Year of Indigenous Languages, with an official launch event taking place at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on January 28.

The world does not have a great track record on indigenous languages. More than 90% of the indigenous languages of both the United States and Australia, for example, are extinct or endangered.

We don’t even have a great track record on committing to support indigenous languages. In 1996, for example, a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was drafted at a major conference in Barcelona, proposing that all languages should have equal status and rejecting terms such as “official,” “regional” or “minority” languages, but despite widespread support, it was never adopted by UNESCO.

So 2019 represents an opportunity, or perhaps a challenge.

It especially represents a challenge to me as the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project, a nonprofit based in the US state of Vermont — I exhibited some of my carvings at LocWorld in 2016 in Montreal, 2017 in Barcelona and 2018 in Seattle.

As a way of kicking off 2019, I approached the Vermont State House and proposed an exhibition of my work that would run through the month of January, ending February 1. The state’s curator agreed, and I began planning which carvings to include. I’ve carved pieces of text (poems, proverbs, phrases and even individual letters and words) from indigenous and minority writing systems from more than 50 countries, so which ones made the most sense for the Year of Indigenous Languages?

Endangered Alphabets
Article 1 in Tifinagh, a script used to write Berber languages.

Given the fact that this exhibition would be in a venue of lawmakers, I assembled 14 carvings that each quoted, in different languages, Article One of 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.”

Even as I started getting these pieces ready for installation, though, I realized I was about to make a common and serious mistake. I was about to show people what was going on elsewhere in the world, but nothing about what is going on in their own back yard.

The fact is, it’s far easier to complain about someone else’s treatment of indigenous peoples than to do something for one’s own. Virtually every country makes sure its own indigenous population is out of line of sight, out of the news and out of the history books.

Two years ago it struck me that, despite my work on a global scale, I had been guilty of the same partial blindness. I had not carved anything in Abenaki.

The Abenaki are indigenous to Vermont — and in fact to an area spreading from modern-day upstate New York to Maine, and across the border in Canada. Decimated and scattered by colonization, infectious disease, warfare and, in the 20th century, enforced sterilization, they are largely ignored and almost invisible. There are almost no college courses in Abenaki history, language or culture, for example. Their language is one of the most endangered in the country.

I was ashamed to know so little and to have done nothing about what was happening in my own back yard. So over the past two years, with the permission and encouragement of some of the tribe, I’ve done several carvings that are on display in regional tribal headquarters and I’ve done one for presentation to, and display in, the State House.

Even the design of the letters to be carved was an issue. Just as a number of sub-Saharan African nations have developed post-colonial non-Latin scripts of their own, it didn’t seem right to carve Abenaki words in someone else’s graphic tradition.

Luckily, my designer Alec Julien and I were able to work with Elnu Abenaki member Melody Walker Brook, former chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. She in turn reached out to a team of representatives from the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, Mohegan and Elnu, as well as other Abenaki, for input. The result is a font that incorporates Abenaki motifs from traditional artwork and beading — a custom Abenaki font.

“We’re a living, breathing culture — and there’s a message here that we have been able to translate that oral tradition to a script,” Brook explained to our local paper. “Your culture is your language — when you lose your language you lose much more than words.”

indigenous languages
The carving now in the State House exhibition says “W8banakiak” — that is, “People of the Dawn Land,” the Abenaki description of themselves.

The carving now in the State House exhibition says “W8banakiak” — that is, “People of the Dawn Land,” the Abenaki description of themselves.

As the focal point of the exhibition at the Vermont State House, I’m going to be giving a talk there at 4 p.m. about the Endangered Alphabets on January 17, accompanied by members of the Abenaki people.

The event is also going to be the occasion for the unveiling of my online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets. For the past six months, my tiny team has been researching more than 120 indigenous or minority writing systems that are struggling to survive, and the Atlas, at www.endangeredalphabets.net, introduces these scripts and, more importantly, the organizations and individuals working to preserve or revive them.

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Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Born in England, he now lives in Vermont with an outspoken cat, a fearless rabbit and a lot of wood.

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