Alphabets Pour In From All Over The World

My latest round of appeals for help with the Alphas has brought the most wonderful response from all around the world. I can’t wait to give you an update, and to give credit to all those who have sent me suggestions, contacts, texts or translations.

Here’s the situation. For the next Endangered Alphabets exhibition, I’ve created a short poem:

These are our words, shaped
By our hands, our tools,
Our history. Lose them
And we lose ourselves.

I plan to create a kind of memorial in which I carve this poem in as many of the Alphas as I can find. So last week I put out a call over several linguistics listserves and over LinkedIn, and hoped.

1. The first person to email me was Chris Miller from Montreal, who sent me a hatful of interesting ideas about the origins of Indonesian scripts (“they almost certainly developed out of a 15th century variety of informal Nagari handwriting introduced to Sumatra by Gujarati merchants”), a family tree for the scripts of the region, contacts for Rejang and some recommended reading, which I quote:

“A wonderful book, which I really recommend for your library, is Illuminations: The writing traditions of Indonesia, by Ann Kumar. It is lavishly illustrated and features informative chapters on the various Indonesian scripts (though some minor ones are missing or just mentioned in passing) by the outstanding experts in the field. Although the label price was something like $124 a year ago, I was lucky to snag a brand new copy for just around $40, and I see on  that the price has come down to that for new ones and even less for used ones. I really recommend it to you: it is well worth even the original $124 price!”

My copy of the book, a bargain used copy that I can’t believe anyone wanted to sell, arrived today, and I heartily endorse everything Chris said.

2. Meanwhile, John Balaban, the poet, translator of Vietnamese poetry, and professor of English at North Carolina State, was enlisting the help of Brad Crittenden, a software engineer and fellow-member of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation, who in turn was passing on my poem to a Vietnamese colleague to be translated into Nom, the pre-colonial script of Vietnam. (John was also instrumental in getting me the Nom text of Article One that can be found on this site.)

3. Events were gathering momentum rapidly. Mohamed Ouhraiche (who goes by Amanouz) wrote from Agadir in Morocco–in French–with an open-handed offer of any and all help. I dug my high-school French out from its mental drawer, dusted it off, and (I think) thanked him profusely. But the poem is in English, which he doesn’t speak, and I didn’t trust my French to reach as far as faithfully representing a poetic idiom. Luckily, I’d also been in conversation with Pierre Bancel, an incredibly helpful French translator/interpreter at the UN in New York. Within a couple of hours he had rendered the poem into French, I had passed it on to Agadir, and Amanouz had sent me the poem in Tamazighte, written in the Tifinagh script. (That’s the result, at the head of this posting.) I felt a little breathless.

4. Next up was Liv Bliss, a Russian-English translator who turned out to remember the same Jerry and Sylvia Anderson British children’s TV shows I do. She recommended me to Janos Samu, who runs East-West Concepts in Hawaii and apparently knows every language and script under the sun. More on Janos later.

5. Speaking of the sun: by now it had gone around to the other side of the planet and my old friend Anthony Jukes from Down Under (a.k.a. LaTrobe University in Oz) was renewing his offer to track down Makassarese bird writing for me, and in almost the same electronic breath Piers Kelly was promising to unearth the mysterious Eskayan script on his next visit to the Philippines. Adrian Clynes, who had already demonstrated his credentials by sending a rough translation into Balinese, threw his operation into top gear and brought in his Balinese friends to help. And the great thing about working with Australians is that we can discuss the cricket scores.

6. Over the next twelve hours the flood was becoming a torrent. Ms Siang Bacthi, working on Tai Dam, delivered a progress report from the Tai Studies Center. Jim Stanford of Dartmouth told me about Sui writing from China, which I’d never heard of, and passed me on to Jerold Edmondson at UT-Arlington, who in turn put me in touch with Wei Xuecun in China. Tun Jang, one of Chris Miller’s contacts, agreed to translate into Rejang. Bruce Anderson acknowledged a rusty knowledge of Inuktitut. And late that evening Kevin Stuart, about whom I know nothing, burst in from the darkness and told me he’d translate the poem into Mongghul and Mangghuer, a brief but dense constellation of G’s that left me grateful but slightly dizzy, especially as I’d never heard of Mangghuer.

7. This delirious linguistic tag-teaming was still not over. First thing Friday my inbox turns up Chris Green at the University of Maryland who can speak, read and write N’Ko, one of my rapidly-diminishing list of scripts I never thought I’d be able to get. Dick Watson wrote to tell me about the Loven script, which seems to survive only as annotations in the margins of a Bible. The Canadian Stephane Cloutier and Tim Pasch of the University of North Dakota both offered Inuktitut. The world felt very small, and very full of interesting helpful people.

Speaking of which, the last word deserves to go to Janos, who asked an important question:

“I know that you mentioned that you would give full credit to the person who can do it, but sometimes those people who have the skill and the knowledge may not care about their names being mentioned in a book in a faraway country, because they live in a small community, like a village elder in Mali, or a mountain school teacher in Sikkim and they may consider it to be a service to a foreigner. I am not talking about big monies, just nominal fees, when appropriate (like $40 or $50). I can contribute to the project with my resources and facilitate the translations and transcriptions without adding any charge or fee to that of the translator, but that’s all I can do. I do it only, because I find the project worthwhile and interesting.”

The fact is, the Endangered Alphabets Project is almost completely unfunded. My college has paid for the wood, but all the other expenses and the time have been my own. Yet Janos is right–I’d like to be able to pay people to whom even small sums of money may be very important. The project’s only income is from sales of the Endangered Alphabets book. So my question to you all is–does anyone know of a granting or funding agency that might support this kind of work? Alternatively, I’ve designed an Endangered Alphabets logo (including a nice little piece of Inuktitut) and I’m considering putting it on pens of USB drives or other merchandise that might help raise a little income. What do you think? All advice welcome.

Thanks again to you all,


P.S. In the 48 hours since I posted this, Chris Miller has been back to me with more articles about arcane Indonesian scripts, Charles Haberl of Rutgers has apologized that his Assyrian is a little rusty, Peter Brand has recommended I find out all about Sencoten, the invented script of the Saanich First Nation on Vancouver Island, B.C., my mate Anthony Jukes is back with rough translations into Bugis and Makassarese bird script, James Wei has chimed in from China vowing to apply himself to a translation into Shuishu, and Brad Crittenden has set the Nom process rolling.

Meanwhile Paul Morrow, who admittedly had a head start, has already translated the poem into a 19th-century version of Tagalog using the Balagtasan 12-syllable stanza form. His beautifully liberal translation runs literally as:

Look at our words
Carved in wood by hand and chisel
Etched in the heart by history itself
What becomes of us if we deny (our) language?

But for sheer mavenism, the prize goes to Debbie Anderson of Berkeley, who apparently knows everyone in the world. She offered me contacts who know–count ’em–N’Ko, Mru, Bamum, Buhid, Ranjana/Lantsa, Rejang, Nushu, Balinese, Javanese and Mongolian! And those are only the scripts she picked out of my wish-list! At that rate, she also knows people who can read and write Glagolitic, Byzantine, Klingon and Uggugg, the battle-language of the enraged Chelsea soccer fan.

One Response

  1. Alan Shaw

    Very cool! I have just ordered the Kumar book; for some reason Amazon has it direct from the publisher for less than $50!