The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets looks toward expansion

Endangered languages: Boy writing Marma, and Kristian Kabuay Babyin artwork.
Endangered languages: Boy writing Marma, and Kristian Kabuay Babyin artwork.

Endangered languages: Boy writing Marma, and Kristian Kabuay Babyin artwork.

Visitors to LocWorld38 Seattle, in October 2018, got the first glimpse of an idea that was little more than a screen grab and a phrase: the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets.

Less than six months later the Atlas was a reality, at The world’s first catalogue of endangered and emerging writing systems, the Atlas allowed visitors to search alphabetically or by Google-Maps-style pins in a familiar zoom-and-click fashion.

Either route led to a profile of that particular script, photos of the script in use and links to further information — especially information about individuals or groups who were working to revive their embattled script.

“When I gave talks about the world’s indigenous and minority writing systems, and why their loss is a catastrophe for the cultures concerned,” explains Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project, a Vermont-based nonprofit, “people would say, This is fascinating. Where can I find out more about these scripts and these cultures?’ And there simply was no such source. So I had to make it.”

The Atlas, which was officially launched on February 21, 2019, International Mother Language Day, contained 89 scripts on the cusp between survival and extinction, and a further 48 about which so little is known it’s hard to know whether they are even used any more. The total suggests more than 85% of the world’s writing systems are on the shoreline between life and death.

“I had no idea how it would be received,” Brookes says. “I would have been happy with a few hundred visitors, just as long as the word was leaking out.”

In fact, the Atlas already has more than 72,000 page views, and has received universally positive reviews.

“My script loving heart is screaming in delight,” posted Sandra, a Twitter follower. “See you all in 3 months when I’m done dabbling in all those alphabets.”

Responses from the indigenous and minority populations profiled in the Atlas are also positive. Niva Chakma from Bangladesh says that the project is “making us aware how important it is to know our own language.”

Haiv Hmoob, an indigenous Hmong, says that “this project will inspire the global communities and many generations to come.”

For Brookes, though, this is only Atlas 1.0. “In a sense, at the moment the Atlas is at its least interesting and valuable,” he says. “The aim was never to create simply an online reference — it was to play an active part in helping those who are trying to revive their writing systems, as part of a larger ambition to revive their traditional cultures.”

In some respects, that more active role has already begun. He has received requests to add no fewer than 20 scripts to the Atlas: Rejang, Kpelle, Adinkra, Nsibidi, Syriac, Beria, Nubian, Lampung, Loma, Anshu, Coptic, Jhar, Kaithi, Mende Kikakui, Bété, Nwagu Aneke Igbo, Mithilakshar, Chisoi, Kaitheli and Ohùn Odùduwà. “I’m ashamed to admit I’d never ever heard of some of these,” he says.

Even more gratifying is the fact that representatives of several endangered scripts have contacted him asking him for help: advice on how to revive their writing system, help with fonts, liaison with the Script Encoding Initiative, introductions to specialists in non-Latin keyboard development.

“I can’t do any of those things myself,” he admits, “but working on the Atlas has led me to people who can.”

Taking his cue from the Heritage Made Digital department at the British Library, which has begun tweeting a new sudoku in a different non-Latin script each week, Brookes plans to create a tab on the Atlas for endangered alphabet games.

“I’m planning to start with sudoku and word search puzzles, which have several advantages. You don’t need to know a vocabulary or even the entire alphabet, yet they can be played for fun and exploration by Latin-alphabet users but also be used as beginner classroom tools within those language communities.”

Perhaps his longest-range development is to create a handbook, tentatively titled How to Rescue an Alphabet, that shares information, procedures, and hard-earned wisdom from people and organizations across the planet who are undertaking to revive their own writing systems.

Carving of a Cham letter, a Cherokee Bank of America sign and Bugis sudoku.
Carving of a Cham letter, a Cherokee Bank of America sign and Bugis sudoku.
Carving of a Cham letter, a Cherokee Bank of America sign and Bugis sudoku.

A Cherokee Bank of America sign, a carving of a Cham letter and Bugis sudoku.

“Of course, every situation is different,” he says, “but people are having all kinds of ideas that are surely worth sharing. For example: teaching. Inventing or rediscovering a set of glyphs is one challenge; getting them accepted and widely used is, if anything, even harder. Some are using chalk and blackboards in shops or in people’s homes. At the other technological extreme, a group in India is teaching their script via WhatsApp.”

Brookes estimates that to keep the Atlas current and to expand its interactive capabilities will cost between $35,000 and $55,000 a year. He plans to raise the money from a combination of crowdfunding, grants, individual donations and corporate sponsorships, especially from the language service provider industry.

“What I discovered by working on the Atlas is that we’re at an amazing point in history. Ten years ago, when I began the Endangered Alphabets Project, it was routine for academics and bureaucrats to talk in terms of dying languages and failed scripts. Now we’re seeing an astonishing worldwide grassroots movement to reclaim one’s culture and identity.”

It is not yet clear what future is possible for individual scripts or languages, but the sense of what may be possible has changed dramatically, according to Brookes. “I think language services companies are among the first to sense that change and to want to be deeply involved in that movement.”

For example, people have sponsored a particular alphabet that has special significance to them. “We’ve had people who want to sponsor the Atlas as a whole and have their logo right there on the home page, saying yes, we’re part of this.”

Brookes predicts that in ten years, the global landscape is going to be different. “We’re inviting everyone, large and small, everywhere, to take part in making that difference.”