Column: The Red List

Learning Multiple Languages: Good.
Learning Multiple Scripts: Better?

By Tim Brookes

H

ey, my linguistic and translating friends, I need your ideas and insights. Let me tell you two quick stories that will help explain what’s at stake, and then I’ll ask for your thoughts.

My first story concerns a French linguist named Iris Auda, who is currently in South Africa studying the extraordinary new writing system called isiBheqe Sohlamvu, or Ditema tsa Dinoko    which, as you can see in Figure 1, looks like no other script on Earth.

It’s an astonishingly sophisticated creation. In appearance, it’s based on highly geometrical Litema art, traditionally practiced by Ndebele women on the exterior walls of houses. One such artist, Esther Mahlangu, has become world-famous for her art, even being commissioned to design the paint job of a BMW concept car.

Despite looking like art, in the isiBheqe Sohlamvu script, each individual sub-shape has a specific phonetic meaning. Labials and dentals are positioned outside the core triangle (which is voiced differently depending on which way it is pointing) at its apex; dentals are indicated by two lines across the triangle from side to side. It has been designed to accommodate all the extremely varied languages of the African continent.

Figure 1. isiBheqe Sohlamvu script

What Iris is studying, though, is not so much the script itself, but how people react to it. And here comes the first point that interests me. She told me that how people react depends on whether they grew up monoscriptal — that is, using only one writing system — or polyscriptal — that is, using more than one.

By the way, the very fact that we don’t have generally agreed-on words for “people who use one script” and “people who use more than one script” is a sign of how the subject has been dominated by those in the one-script West. It’s possible that half the world uses more than one script, though I don’t have solid statistics. The average educated Indian may use three or more scripts every day.

But back to Iris’s study. Those who grew up using only the Latin alphabet, she explained, even if they speak several languages, take one look at isiBheqe and freak out. “That’s just too hard,” they complain. “How do you expect us to learn that?”

Those who grew up using more than one script, though, mentally roll up their sleeves and say, more or less, “This is just like Sudoku. We can work this out.” Because it is in fact, unlike the Latin alphabet, an amazingly logical and consistent script.

My second story is about what it meant to be a linguist when I was at school in England, in the 1960s and 70s, and perhaps what it still means to be a linguist in some circles.

Both in secondary school and later at university, the study of languages was encouraged. I took French, German, and Latin, and I was called a linguist. At university, there was actually a degree (which I didn’t pursue) in “modern languages,” though that phrase really meant “not Classics,” i.e., not Greek and Latin. Modern languages consisted of French and German, with Spanish a distant third, back there in the pack with Italian.

Remember what Iris said? Even if my peers and I thought of ourselves as linguists, we knew only one script.

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I’m ashamed to say that is still true of me. No matter how much I research, carve, and speak about endangered alphabets, I can’t read even widespread non-Latin scripts such as Cyrillic or Japanese. Virtually everyone I come into contact with through the Endangered Alphabets project speaks more languages than I do, and reads and writes more scripts.

How was, or is, that possible? Mostly, of course, because those in the world’s privileged and powerful cultures can typically afford to say, “Hey, you learn to adapt to our ways; we don’t learn to adapt to yours.”

In part, it was because the English still thought of the Commonwealth (a diluted remainder of the Empire) as a major world force, and the Commonwealth countries all used the Latin alphabet. And thus there was a residual vanity among backward-looking Brits that other cultures who used other scripts — including Russians, Arabs, and Chinese — were not only strange, but also didn’t matter. Any forward-thinking Brits were looking ahead to the Common Market, which simply reinforced the belief that French and German were the way to go.

So this is where I finally turn to you, dear reader. Where did you grow up? What languages did you learn as a child, and which script(s) did you use? How difficult or easy was it for you to learn a new script? How many do you use in everyday life and for your own work?

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Does Iris’s observation — that if someone grows up using a single script, it’s hard for them to learn other scripts, and in fact they try to avoid doing so — ring true from your own experience? And if so, is it any wonder we in the West keep saying that it would be more convenient if everyone spoke the same language and wrote in the Latin alphabet?

Please write to me at tim@endangeredalphabets.com (in English, I’m afraid) and let me know. This is a new field of research, and you are providing primary data.

If I’m right, and Iris is right, then we can take a broader view. As I say in my new book Writing Beyond Writing, “as members of the world’s dominant script culture, those of us in the West are in fact the least qualified to talk about and the least able to understand the nature and meaning of writing.”

Are the best linguists, then, those who don’t grow up under the protective umbrella of the world’s most widely used scripts, but rather those who live in not only a multilingual society, but also a polyscriptal one?

I suspect so, but I don’t know. That’s why I need to hear from you — especially those of you who grew up outside the main zones of privilege and whose opinions, languages, and scripts we have been most likely to ignore.

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.

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