World Endangered Writing Day was born out of a suggestion by David Crystal, the author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and many other books on language topics. He was reading through the manuscript of my new book Writing Beyond Writing: Lessons from Endangered Alphabets, and he came to the passage where I say that in traditional Balinese culture on one day a year — the day consecrated to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom — people revere their books and writing itself.
On that day, nothing written may be destroyed, or even a letter crossed out. Each household takes out its books (which, in Balinese tradition, are oblong pages of palm leaf, written on with a stylus and then bound between wooden slats), dusts them off, repairs them, and places them in a small shrine to Saraswati to act as the representation of the goddess, to whom 18 offerings are made: one for each of the letters of the Balinese alphabet.
I wrote, “This landscape, so unlike our own, is what it looks like when a culture recognizes the value and importance of writing beyond being a mere handy means of conveying information. Do I need to point out that we in the West have no day dedicated to knowledge, learning, wisdom, and books in particular?” David Crystal wrote in the margin, “You should invent one.”
A little background: I created the Endangered Alphabets Project in 2010 after discovering that an appallingly high percentage of the world’s scripts (at the time I thought 30%, but later discovered closer to 90%) of the world’s scripts are close to extinction. I began by carving short pieces of text in different minority scripts, exhibiting them, and lecturing on this crisis of script loss, and how deeply it affects a culture when it is forced to abandon its traditional writing system.
Subsequently, I went to Bangladesh and met people from ethnic groups that had, in fact, been denied the use of their own scripts, and the Endangered Alphabets became more activist, creating games and educational materials to support threatened scripts and partnering with script revivalists. The more I explored and researched, the more I found that not only is each individual person’s handwriting an expression of their character, mood, and even level of energy at the time, but also each culture’s form of writing is equally self-expressive.
Getting people in mainstream culture to pay attention, however, faced three major obstacles:
- Most people in the West use only one script and have virtually no knowledge of or need for other scripts, so they have no sense of the problem.
- The fact that the Latin alphabet is used by so many people — more than every other writing system combined — paradoxically means it has no home, no sense of local identity. We understand minority languages — Catalan, Basque, and Welsh, for example — and their meaning to their user community, but we have no sense at all of the profound connection between a minority community and its writing.
- Scholars of linguistics study spoken language — in great detail — but have essentially exiled written language from serious consideration. Hence, we have seen the growth of a movement to study, then to revitalize endangered languages, but no parallel movement concerned with endangered forms of writing.
The aim of World Endangered Writing Day, then, is to try to cross that bridge by bringing together (the very few) scholars who study writing with community activists who are trying to revive their cultures by reviving their scripts. Interestingly, this also involves challenging the very definition of writing, because the colonial-era definition of writing deliberately excluded a wide variety of non-phonetic written forms out of the belief that they were inferior, childish, or primitive. Recent research shows how wrong (and racist) such views were.
Our goal is to open two doors, just a little, that with luck will in time lead to two outcomes:
- To expand the definition of linguistics to include the study and appreciation of writing and written language
- To fulfill the provisions of the 2008 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 13:
Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.
The online event will involve a series of activities:
- video reports from around the world as various communities work to revive their scripts;
- an awards ceremony for people and organizations engaged in such activities who typically are ignored or even opposed and who deserve recognition;
- a giveaway of books in minority scripts;
- a Second Wave relaunch of our Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, adding profiles of another 100 minority and indigenous scripts; and
- games and puzzles connected to endangered alphabets.
Register now for the first-ever World Endangered Writing Day on January 23, 2024.