An atlas of threatened alphabets could save them from extinction


If something is important, we write it down. It has been like this for millennia. However, as important as writing is, 85% of the world’s alphabets are on the verge of extinction, left out for the most common and popular alphabets. But a man wants to change that.

Mongolian Soyombo script.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you know the Latin alphabet – or at least use a translator who can work with that alphabet. It is probably the most common type of alphabet, used by some 3 billion people on the planet. But there are dozens of alphabets in use around the world. Some are more popular, like Chinese kanji or Japanese hiragana; others, like the Georgian, are geographically isolated, but still have a strong national presence. But others are in danger of disappearing.

In 2009, Tim Brookes founded a nonprofit called Endangered Alphabets, actively working to preserve these endangered writing systems.

“When a culture is forced to abandon its traditional writing, everything it has written for hundreds of years – sacred texts, poems, personal correspondence, legal documents, collective experience, wisdom and identity of a people – is lost. This Atlas is about these writing systems and the people who are trying to save them, ”the project’s webpage reads.

It may sound strange, but alphabets are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Due to globalization, colonization and the stigma sometimes associated with writing in a minority alphabet, many writing systems are in danger of being forgotten. For example, when the settlers arrived in the Philippines, they failed (or didn’t care) to recognize the local linguistic diversity. Tagalog was put forward as the main language, while Kulitan, a script used to write Kapampangan, a local language, was put aside. Nowadays, Kulitan is only commonly used in seals, logos and heraldry – although there is movement to revive its use.

This model is surprisingly common. In Africa, for example, dozens of alphabets are under threat. The Tifinagh alphabet in Morocco, for example, is attested to have been used from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. After a period of gradual abandonment, tifinagh was revived in the 1980s with the invention of “neo-tifinagh” – a modern fully alphabetic script developed from earlier forms of tifinagh. Nubian script is another ancient example, being one of the oldest scripts in human history, used for at least 7,000 years.

But not all endangered alphabets are old; some are surprisingly new. The Bamum script, for example, was developed in 1896 when the 25-year-old King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum kingdom in Cameroon had a dream. Although it was first imagined by one person practically overnight, the alphabet is surprisingly practical. The king invited subjects to send him simple signs and symbols and used them as letters. Over the next few years, the alphabet became increasingly streamlined until 1910 when it became fully functional. Using the script, the king wrote a history of his people, a book of medicines, as well as a guide to good sex. He built schools and libraries which used the script and supported the artists and intellectuals who used it. The first German settlers had no problem with this, but when the French came to power after Germany’s defeat in World War I, they ousted the king and sent him into exile. They also destroyed its printing plants and burned its libraries and books, banning the script. It was not until 2007 that the first efforts began to revive writing, which is now taught to students as part of their Bamum heritage.

It’s this type of resurgence that Brookes hopes to bring.

“In 2009, when I started working on the first series of prints which became the Endangered Alphabets Project, times were dark for indigenous and minority cultures,” he writes. “The meteoric spread of television and the Internet has pushed a kind of cultural imperialism to all corners of the world. Everyone had a screen or wanted a screen, and the English language and the Latin alphabet (or one of half a dozen other major writing systems) were on every screen and keyboard. All other cultures were left with a dark choice: learn traditional writing or type a series of meaningless tofu squares. “

Not all scripts included are technically alphabets. Some are abjads (a writing system in which symbols or glyphs are used only for consonants, leaving readers to deduce an appropriate vowel) or abugidas (systems in which consonant-vowel sequences are used). written as units), but all lack “official status in their country, state or province.” The purpose of the Atlas is to prevent them from being “dominated, intimidated, ignored or actively persecuted by another more powerful ”- before finally disappearing.

The people of Atlas are also researching and assessing the status of these scriptures and working on ways to promote and revitalize them. To learn more about how you can support their work, check out their webpage. To learn more about their work, check out their blog.


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