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.


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.

As many of you know, my current book-in-progress is called Writing Beyond Writing, and right now I’m winding it up with a section on the future of writing. As if to help my thinking, a cluster of news events arrived over the past week to throw light on this complicated topic from several angles, all useful, all unexpected, all of relevance to folks interested in multilingual computing.

The first was a Discord message from my friend and colleague Olgierd (Olès) Uziemblo of the University of Warsaw, reporting to others on our team that he had a conversation with one of the latest generation of AI-driven chatbots, currently residing at

This bot, as it happens, was the subject of a Wired column a few days later, in which Steven Levy described it as “a lightning-fast, logorrheic gadfly that spits out coherent essays, poems, plays, songs, and even obituaries at the merest hint of a prompt. Taking advantage of the chatbot’s wide availability, millions of people have tinkered with it and shared its amazing responses, to the point where it’s become an international obsession, as well as a source of wonder and fear. Will ChatGPT kill the college essay? Destroy traditional internet searches? Put millions of copywriters, journalists, artists, songwriters, and legal assistants out of a job?”

Well, yes. But I’m interested in slightly different questions that arise from this concurrence of news events — questions about the nature and value of writing itself.


Olès started by asking it a loaded question: “What do you think a writing system is?” The bot gave the standard dictionary definition, that writing is a series of symbols that represent the sounds of speech. This is, of course, a crock. Writing has far more dimensions, meanings, and values than mere phonetics, and Olès pushed back. The bot immediately clicked, whirred, and broadened its definition as though the previous answer had never happened. 

As the conversation went on, the topic turned to endangered alphabets, and it claimed there had been an attempt to write the Aymara language (spoken by the Aymara people of the Bolivian Andes) in the Tifinagh alphabet (developed by the Amazigh or Berber people of North Africa) — and then once again rewrote its own past.

Olès (astonished): Where did you get the Tifinagh attempt from? 

AI:  I apologize for any confusion caused by my previous response. It was not my intention to provide incorrect information. The Aymara language does not have a widely used or recognized writing system, and it is not traditionally written using the Tifinagh script. Some people have attempted to develop writing systems for Aymara using the Latin alphabet, while others have attempted to adapt other scripts to the language. However, these efforts have not gained widespread acceptance or usage, and the Aymara language is primarily transmitted orally. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. If you have any further questions about the Aymara language or its writing system, please don’t hesitate to ask.

When asked to give a list of endangered alphabets, the bot confidently listed off N’Ko, Sylheti Nagri, Osage, Lepcha, Mandaic, Tirhuta, Wancho, Yi, Kpelle, Naxi … and Korean and Thai.

Now I come to think of it, given that I coined the phrase “endangered alphabets” and am more or less the only person using it, the bot may have raided my own work, in the form of my Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, to offer this list. Though how it came to include Korean and Thai is an algorithmic mystery.

In short, Olès’ encounter with the future, like most encounters with the future, was in equal parts fascinating and disturbing. Its ultimate message, though, was: This is coming, and you’d better start thinking in these terms. 

Okay, let’s put a pin in that and move on.


A couple of days later I sent out a social media inquiry about revitalization of the Javanese script and got a delightful response via Facebook from Mitha Wunikha describing a new trend of returning to tradition, with the once-endangered Javanese script showing up in restaurants, coffee shops, and street signs. 

“I am Javanese and live in Java,” she continued. “I got the Javanese lesson in junior high school. Unfortunately, I am not quite sure to read the Javanese script because I never use it in my daily life. … A few months ago, I found my grandpa’s journal books written in Javanese script, but I forgot where I put them. The content of his journal books look interesting because it written in full Javanese script. I guess the contents were about the war before Independence Day, since he was a veteran soldier.

“Thus, as a Javanese, I would like to express my gratitude for your hard work. Thank you so much.”

Gerry Leonidas, co-director of the groundbreaking school of typography, type design and communications at the University of Reading, points out a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern thinking about progress: the Western approach is based on innovation, the Eastern on continuity. 

Java is progressing by rediscovering its past, offering with it connections between generations, even between centuries.

Right on the heels of these messages came an article in the New Scientist proposing that a recurring series of 32 geometric symbols discovered on cave walls and Ice Age objects across Europe might be an early form of writing.

The article unwittingly quoted Olès in asking the question “What is writing?” and hedged its bets, suggesting that the symbols might be numerical and/or calendrical rather than phonetic — evasion as intellectually slippery as that of any AI chatbot. 

“Instead, the team refers to them as a ‘proto-writing system’ — predating other token-based systems that may have emerged during the Neolithic period by at least 10,000 years.”

Leaving that aside, the researchers evidently carried out some extraordinarily thorough and perceptive research — which discovered that our ancestors, too, were carrying out some extraordinarily thorough and perceptive research.

“By using the birth cycles of equivalent animals today as a reference point, the researchers were able to work out that the number of marks associated with Ice Age animals were a record, by lunar month, of when they were mating. [The researchers] previously hypothesized that the ‘Y’ sign stood for ‘giving birth’ and the work of the team was able to confirm this theory.

“Their work showed that the sequences record mating and birthing seasons and found a ‘statistically significant’ correlation between the numbers of marks the position of the ‘Y’ sign and the months in which modern animals mate and birth respectively.”

This is, frankly, far more interesting than a chatbot that seems to think Korean is an endangered alphabet, or to put it another way, seems to think. 

Anyone who has seen the astonishing, roughly 30,000-year-old artwork of the Chauvet cave in particular is inclined to doubt that human history is a steady march from the primitive to the sophisticated, or that our ideas, being modern, are therefore likely to be right.

More importantly, these ancient, widely-used symbols illustrate one of the most valuable qualities of writing, one that in the West we are all too likely to overlook — its ability to give us information about, and even to illuminate, the past.

The Adinkra symbols of Ghana weren’t inscribed on deer teeth or painted on cave walls; they developed between 300-500 years ago, and were used as meaningful, emblematic, or proverbial decorations for ceremonial robes and other cultural artifacts. 

One of the most famous of these is Sankofa, a stylized image of a bird apparently walking in one direction while looking back in the other. The word “Sankofa” literally means “go back and get;” proverbially it is taken to mean “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

The future of writing may be to ride on new technologies that not only leave the past behind but actively rewrite and obliterate it, cutting us off from previous stores of knowledge and dividing the generations.

Or it may be to give us access to tens of thousands of years of wisdom, an act of reunification across both time and space. The future may be the sankofa bird.

And in fact, our friend the bot, when asked to sum up writing, came back with a very Sankofa-like poem that saw writing in its full range across time rather than simply as data and content:

Writing is magic, 

A spell woven with ink and pen, 

Words that come alive. 

Myth and alphabet, 

A tapestry of stories, 

A history of man. 

Religion and script, 

A connection to the divine, 

A path to enlightenment. 

From cuneiform to runes, 

From hieroglyphs to abjad, 

The power of the word. 

So let us honor, 

The magic of writing, 

And all that it affords.




Subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Subscribe to stay updated