The Missing Language Syllabus


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.


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.

Judging by the good folks I’ve met at LocWorld conferences (Montreal, Barcelona, Seattle, San Jose), people working in the language industry come from a linguistics background or a computing background. There’s also the rare twofer breed who have both skillsets, but they are so far beyond my comprehension I just salute them and make for the buffet.

This degree of intimidation might be explained by the fact that, despite being in charge of a tiny but ambitious nonprofit working in the language world, I have absolutely no training in linguistics or computing, and do most of my work with a set of chisels. People come by my stand and ask in bewilderment, “Is that…wood?”

Perhaps this outsider perspective is helpful. Perhaps it made me realize that, amid this double display of linguistic skills and technical excellence, something vast, fascinating, and deeply important is missing.

Like you, dear reader, I’m a fan of language and languages, and as such, I’m constantly impressed by the number of angles from which linguistics comes at the study of spoken language.


Here are just a few of the linguistics courses offered at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst): phonology, phonetics, prosody, field work, syntax, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, prosodic annotation, speech processing, historical sociolinguistics, first language acquisition, morphology, eyetracking, neurolinguistics — and my favorites: deep learning and topics in sluicing.

But where, in all this specialization (that reminds me of a deli operator shaving ham more and more thinly to the point of transparency) is the study of written language?

Fact is, in the 20th century, the most influential linguists decided that writing was so secondary to spoken language that the two were barely related. Writing wasn’t a poor cousin or even the family dog — it was more like the family Roomba. The only aspect of writing that merited attention, the academics asserted, was the typology of script families. Hence the little sidebar in any Wikipedia script entry that shows its ancestry, as if that were the sine qua non of writing.

No, the people who study writing nowadays are not academics but professionals. Some are type designers, who often have very subtle and profound understandings of the relationships between a people and their writing; some of them are the people you know, dear reader, who are doing amazing technical things trying to yoke together digitization and script recognition so as to enable cleanhands machine translations — an extraordinary ambition, to be sure, but one that is in danger o missing as much about the nature and meaning of writing as the linguistics course does.

So now you may be getting irritated and demanding, “Wait? What are we missing?” Because the hardest thing to see is the thing that is not there.

What is missing, dear readers, is the richness, range, and multiangled consideration of writing that we see at work in even relatively small linguistics programs. The courses that are not taught, the questions that are not asked.

Endangered Alphabets carvings.


So I recently spent an hour coming up with a hodgepodge list of courses in writing I’d like to teach, or to take, or just to see somewhere in a catalog. And what is fascinating about this list is how not-dull they all are. Every one of them hints at stories untold, research not conducted, questions rarely asked.

Here we go:

• Writing as art, art as writing
• Writing as art, art as writing
• Forbidden scripts
• Writing as a sacred act
• What makes writing look right? Geometry, proportion and design in world scripts
• Directionality
• Upper and lower cases: Who needs ‘em?
• Writing and gender
• Graphology: science or quackery?
• Who writes first? The acquisition of writing in the world’s unwritten cultures
• Writing materials, substrates, and surfaces
• Is cursive writing endangered? The rise and fall of ligatures
• The fall and rise of the ideogram
• The fall and rise of the ideogram
• The illiterate author: the non-writer innovators who have created writing systems
• Bone and sinew: writing as a function of anatomy
• Scribes and scribal traditions
• Post-colonial script reform
• The influence of print on letter formation
• The influence of digitization and digital devices
• Writing beyond writing: the world’s non-phonetic, non-lin-ear meaning systems
• Writing and class: a Marxist approach
• Missionary orthographies
• Shamanic symbol systems
• The rise of punctuation
• Secret writing systems
• Script creation and revival as an act of revolution
• The village reader, the village writer
• Teaching writing: best practices, worst practices
• Send lawyers, guns and presses: writing as an extension of empire building

Some of these are more like individual lectures than whole courses, and to be clear, I don’t know enough to teach most of them. I’m not sure anyone does. That’s the whole point.

But, dear reader, if you’re interested in knowing more about any of these topics, contact me through this magazine, and I’ll be glad to chat.

And if you’d like me to teach any of them — well, you know where to find me.




Inventing New Scripts

By Tim Brookes

As you read this, someone, somewhere (statistically, most likely in India) is inventing an alphabet. We’re not talking about alphabets created for sci-fi novels, TV…

→ Continue Reading

Antiquated Premiere

By Tim Brookes

Inspired by the narration and closed captions of a soccer game played between the US Women’s National Team and New Zealand, Tim Brookes takes a…

→ Continue Reading


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Subscribe to stay updated

MultiLingual Media LLC