THE RED LIST

Pangea

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

My major Endangered Alphabets carving project for this year — actually the largest carved sculpture I’ve ever done — is finished. That is to say, I have completed more or less what I intended to do, and now it is about to enter a new life in the imagination.

It’s fascinating, the way a piece of art changes when it moves from the creator to the observer, and in this rare instance I was able to see it from both points of view.

When I was planning this sculpture, acquiring the texts, buying and preparing the wood, I thought of it as TR3 — not the sports car but an abbreviation for its three texts: “The right to speak,” written in the Osage script; “The right to read,” written in the Bamum script; and “The right to write,” written in Meitei Mayek.

(David Crystal came up with the phrase, “The right to read, the right to write.” I just added, “The right to speak,” in honor of International Mother Language Day, which coincided with our Kickstarter campaign that funded the making of the sculpture.)

Everything changed when took all three pieces and placed them out on my lawn. Turning each one this way to decide which arrangement looked best, I then lay out the texts so they were all level and parallel to each other.

After much bending, turning, rearranging, and head-scratching (we artists call this “the creative process”) I stepped back, surveyed the ensemble, and immediately knew the sculpture should be called Pangea.

The Pangea sculpture.

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You all know Pangea, right? The supercontinent, some 300 million years ago, that ultimately broke up and drifted apart to form South America, Africa, South Asia, Australia, and Antarctica?

But this sculpture is a Pangea of the mind, a Pangea of writing.

Hold that thought for a moment while we talk about the Tower of Babel.

The Babel myth, recounted in the Book of Genesis, turns out to be by no means the only cultural narrative that proposes a distant past when humankind spoke the same language, only for that unison to be shattered and scattered. Many of the world’s myths about the origins of language likewise involve a kind of Pangea of the tongue, even to the point of recounting separation by water in the form of a cataclysmic flood that left the world’s peoples divided and drifting like continents.

In mythic terms, then, the origins of language are inextricably associated with disintegration and loss.

Mythic origins of written language, on the other hand, are much more likely to depict writing as a divine gift — and, moreover, a gift to a specific culture, rather than to the whole world. In some of these narratives, humans are a bit dim, and the astonishing gift is misunderstood or misused, but not scattered. Curiously, there is no myth I know that recounts the spread of writing.

Pangea is — though I certainly didn’t start out with this aim in mind — my own such myth.

Writing, it implies, began as an idea, a new idea, a great idea, an idea so potent that when those who did not use writing saw it for the first time, they immediately saw its usefulness and copied it, or adapted it.

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Each of the pieces of wood, their edges as jagged as any coastline, is cut from a burl, or growth, bulging from the same species of tree (Western big-leaf maple), but each is fantastically varied in grain, and even the colors vary from one to another: one is mainly wheat-colored, while another has a strong infusion of pink, like a mug of café au lait with a drop of, well, blood.

In this sense Pangea suggests the way writing has spread and changed, adapting or being adapted to local conditions, affected by local tools and materials, aesthetic traditions, social/political/economic/religious history, even climate and vegetation.

Like all myths, my Pangea myth doesn’t stand very close interrogation. In some cases, writing was carried by merchants, or by missionaries; in others, by soldiers or imperial or colonial functionaries. It did not, in fact, begin in one place and spread across the world; it is now believed it started independently in at least three places and possibly more.

In that sense, Pangea is whimsical and perhaps wistful. More allegorical, like the Babel story, than documentary.

But then again, Pangea is, strictly speaking, more of a graphic conception than a piece of writing itself, and as such, unlike conventional writing, it is open to multiple readings. Pangea, it now strikes me, also offers a riddle: Are the writing-continents drifting apart, or coming together?

As the world develops both digitized fonts and editing platforms that enable translation — not only from one language to another language, but from script to script — maybe these writing masses are converging, preparing to welcome distant cousins too long separated? . 

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