The Endangered Alphabets’ European Tour, Part IV: Barcelona!

After their brief but memorable appearance in Cambridge, the Alphabets rose before dawn and took a taxi to Stansted Airport, where despite a savage attack by Ryanair’s excess baggage fee policy, they cruised down to sunny Barcelona and the Tenth International Conference on the Book.

Admittedly, the Alphabets were coming at books and publishing from an oblique angle. To be sure, there is an Endangered Alphabets book, and carving texts on wood is a form of publishing, but still, I expected to be something of an odd duck at the conference.

Far from it. What became very clear is that a lot of writers, editors and publishers (and others associated with publishing, such as artists, papermakers, calligraphers and whatnot) are reacting to the hasty rise of digital printing and internet publishing by asking what kinds of book might be created if haste were not a goal. All these various approaches, converging on the conference from all over the world, coalesced into what might be called the Slow Media Movement.

I plan to write about the Slow Media Movement in some detail in my Publishing in the 21st Century blog, but in brief what is happening echoes the rise of the Slow Food Movement: people are asking what is lost when the main aims are efficiency, speed and/or quick profit, and what might be gained by slowing the whole process down and thinking in terms of quality and value.

This is not the narrow books-or-eBooks debate. Many of the participants and presenters were engaged in making one-of-a-kind or limited-edition artist’s books, and in some instances actually trying to make the production process as demanding as possible with the aim of immersing themselves to such an extent that they learned from the very difficulties they created. One artist (and please forgive me for not including names: I’m in the process of moving houses, and everything important is now lost or buried) became fascinated with the concept of justification, and decided to justify her text both left and right while composing on a typewriter. (Manual typewriters, by the way, are becoming the LPs of the two-thousand-and-tens: I’m hearing of all kinds of people who find them cool or create performance works involving that distinct clack, that charismatic ping!) In other words (a phrase I use advisedly) she had to work with her text in such a way that each line ended up with exactly the same number of characters. Very tricky, but also very thought-provoking. And if the aim is to reintroduce the element of deep reflection into the writing/printing/publishing process, then the intent is not all that different from the goal of reintroducing flavor and nutrition into the cooking process.

Among this slow, deliberate company, the Alphabets fitted right in.

The big surprise for the Alphas in Barcelona had nothing directly to do with an endangered alphabet. It had to do with a very-much-alive language: Catalan.

Quite by chance I was in town for the Euro 2012 final between Spain and Italy, and being a Barca fan, I made sure I was downtown in a bar when the game started. That scene is a story in itself, but let’s move on to the headline in the newspaper El Periodico the next day: LES DUES ESPANYES.

Almost the entire paper was devoted to the rivalry between Catalonia and the rest of Spain (excepting, perhaps, the Basque country). Focusing on the soccer, article after article pointed out how indebted Spain was to Barcelona–that in effect Barcelona had won the trophy. The players from the Barcelona team who represented Spain were quoted in vivid Catalan (you’ve never seen so many repetitions of the letter X in your life), and after a while it struck even a non-linguist like myself that Catalan is in some ways closer to French–in fact, closer to the old southern French known as Languedoc. It makes perfect sense that language should be regional and cultural rather than strictly obedient to national borders–and in fact many of the Alphas are endangered precisely because they are the script of a culture that within any given set of national borders has no official status. Catalan and the Catalans are clearly utterly determined not to let their language fall into that trap, and El Periodico had the headlines to prove it.

This was food for thought. (Sorry: I can’t resist extending a metaphor from one part of an essay to another.) As soon as I got back to the U.S., I was due to give the graduation address from the candidates of the Masters of Arts in Teaching a Second Language degree at Bennington College–a great honor–and it struck me how foolish and old-fashioned my own education in languages was, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies. I was taught French and German, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that just as the forces of globalization are trying to erase cultural identities, so on a local level people such as the Catalans are fighting back. When I gave the address, in fact, a Belgian faculty member agreed with me vehemently, arguing that he didn’t think of himself as Belgian, and in fact it is possible to travel a dozen miles within the country and find he couldn’t understand what the locals are saying. To speak of Spanish as a language not only insults the Catalans, it threatens them. We should find new ways of describing languages, and of teaching them.

Likewise, at school I was offered the choice of learning modern languages or ancient languages, or both. (I did both, with Latin as my ancient.) Yet my recent experience with Glagolitic and Baybayin (click here to see what I mean) shows that a language can be considered not only ancient but extinct and yet be revived in a variety of ways, some of which involve comprehension, some a more graphic kind of cultural branding. Again, the way we think of and teach languages needs to change to reflect that language changes, and probably is changing more swiftly now than at any time in history.