The Kickstarter For Bangladesh: Funded!

 

HEADLINE NEWS: THE KICKSTARTER FUNDRAISER IS OVER, WITH A FINAL TOTAL OF JUST OVER $11,000.

DETAILS TO FOLLOW. FILM AT 11.

Please visit: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1496420787/endangered-alphabets-ii-saving-languages-in-bangla.

We aim to create beautiful carved signs and the first books ever printed in some of the endangered indigenous languages in Bangladesh.

A year ago, the Kickstarter community gave a huge boost to the Endangered Alphabets, donating enough funds to allow me to meet my goal of doubling the number of scripts I’d tracked down and carved, and start them on their world tour. They’re even going to the Smithsonian.

Now a new and urgent Endangered Alphabets situation has arisen, in a region of southern Bangladesh called the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This upland and forested area is home to 13 different indigenous peoples, each of which has its own genetic identity, its history and cultural traditions, and many of which have their own language and even their own script.

All these languages and scripts are endangered. Schools use Bengali, the official national language, and an entire generation is growing up without a sense of their own cultural history and identity—very much the kind of situation that has led to the loss or endangerment of hundreds of Aboriginal languages in Australia and Native American languages in the US.

The Endangered Alphabets Bangladesh project is an attempt to provide a creative solution to this issue before these languages and scripts are among the estimated 3,000 languages that by 2050 will be lost forever.

We’re going to be working with an extraordinary young man named Maung Nyeu. Largely self-educated, he left Bangladesh and got into Harvard, where he studied engineering so he could go back to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and build a school where indigenous peoples could be educated in their own languages. Now he has come back to Harvard to get a graduate degree in education so he can create something unique: children’s schoolbooks in these endangered indigenous languages.

He says, “I’m trying to create children books in our alphabets – Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and others. This will help not only save our alphabets, but also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communications, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”

We’re trying to help him by combining three artistic disciplines: carving, calligraphy and typography.

The first step is for me to create a series of beautiful and durable carved signs in the languages and scripts of these endangered cultures, and add them to the traveling exhibitions of the Endangered Alphabets Project.

I’m also putting together a coalition of educators from Harvard and Yale, a typographer from Cambridge, England and a calligrapher from the Rhode Island School of Design to create some beautiful script forms of these endangered languages, then convert them into typefaces that can be used to print the books for Maung’s school.

At the moment, everyone is putting in their time on a volunteer basis, but my goal is to raise $10,000 to cover material costs, and to go a small way toward paying for the time, work, travel, shipping and printing involved.

If we can raise these funds, the outcome will be the first sets of children’s books ever printed in Mro, Marma, Chakma, and other endangered languages of Bangladesh.

Again, please support us by visiting http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1496420787/endangered-alphabets-ii-saving-languages-in-bangla.

 

The Latest: Khojki

 

One of the great delights of this project is being sent a script I’ve been trying to track down for years. One of the greater delights is being sent a script I didn’t even know existed.

A month or so ago I got an email from Tazim Kassam, who teaches at Syracuse University. He wrote, “I work on pre-modern (12-18th C) devotional literature in the Indian subcontinent. It was an oral tradition and initially put to writing in a secret script called Khojki. The poetry belongs to Satpanthi Khojas, now known as Ismaili Muslims, and the secret script was developed to hide their identity from Muslims who persecuted them for their open-minded approach to the Indic religious worldview.  The manuscripts were then transcribed into Gujerati, and now there are no khojki versions of these poems, known as ginans. [You can look at my book, Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance (SUNY: 1995) to get an introduction.] There are very few Ismailis who can read this script now, and most likely it will eventually be forgotten.”

A secret and endangered script? How could I resist?

Tazim sent me a sixteenth-century hymn by Pir (that is, spiritual master) Shams,and after some discussion I decided to carve just one verse, which (in Tazim’s translation) reads,

“Maker of water and earth, the roots of Creation,
O ‘Ali! Indeed, yours alone is the [final] command!”

I asked him whether he thought it would work better with black lettering on a light wood or gold lettering on a darker wood. “Gold lettering on darker wood,” he replied. “The poetry is considered divinely-inspired so I think the gold will be a fine choice.  I hope I get a sliver of it?”

Again, how could I resist? So I carved two copies, one for him and one for the Alphabets.

One last observation: I’m trying to get away from slavishly copying some Unicode font (not that I don’t admire the Unicode gang and the vital work they’re doing), so I carve the khojki by examining the pen-strokes. The pen won’t behave the same way on the page as the gouge does on the wood, but I’m hoping to capture the same approach or attack, hoping to get into the writer’s mind: this way, then around with this flourish, using a gouge of the right width so I make almost no corrections, I’m almost writing.

When the whole thing is finished I discover a tiny section where the gold paint hasn’t quite run up the the lip of the cut, and for an instant I think of going through all the stages necessary to fix it—and with black paint on light wood I might have to do that. But in the end there’s no denying—this is a script, not a print, and nobody’s writing is perfect. Small mistakes are what will give it that sense of spontaneity and life.

August 9, 2012

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.

 

 

 

The Endangered Alphabets’ European Tour, Part III: Cambridge University

When I started the Endangered Alphabets Project, I hoped it would take me to many strange places and lead to many unusual experiences. Eating squirrel was not on my list.

Nor was Iceland. My flight paused at Keflavik, the island capital’s airport, and I was looking forward to seeing, if only from the air on approach and takeoff, the fabled ring of volcanoes, the hot springs, the geysers. As it turned out, it was just as well I got a good look at Greenland as we crossed its southern tip (bitter broken mountains, savage glaciers, a landscape fit only for Orcs) because Iceland was spectacularly absent. We skimmed over a flat brown peninsula dotted with a couple of fishermen’s cottages, landed amid a flat sea of flowering heather, waited an hour and took off again–and that was it. Yes, in the distance were shapes that might have been volcanoes, but there were no hot springs, no geysers–and no Reykjavik. Where had they hidden it? Had the Icelandic economy collapsed to the point where they had actually exported their own capital? (There’s a pun hiding in that sentence, which seems only appropriate, given everything else that was hiding in Iceland.)

After a break but wonderful reunion with most of my extended family in London, it was time to wheel the Alphabets Lite up to Cambridge. The conference was entitled “Charting Vanishing Voices: a collaborative workshop to map endangered oral cultures,” which just goes to show how skillful Mark Turin, the conference’s director, is: he threw a conference about oral cultures and endangered languages but managed to include the Alphabets (not oral at all) by redefining them as a kind of map.  

This is not only a cool piece of prestidigitation but also a very provocative idea. Writing, after all, is a means of visually encoding all kinds of information, some of if it readily apparent to the reader, some subliminal, some deeply buried. It’s why both graphic designers and computer code writers find them so interesting: it’s all about the alliance between information and design, and there’s almost no tell how much information can be unpacked from a single word in an unfamiliar script.

What’s more, the very way in which each culture (or the individual inventor of each script) encodes information tells us something. One of the scripts included in the Lite series, Eskayan (from the Philippines), contains a number of characters that look deceptively Western, but many that don’t. There’s a theory, in fact, that it may include some “dummy” characters that have no meaning whatsoever, and are intended just to mess wid’ yo’ head if you don’t happen to be Eskayan.

This is turn leads to the case of a particular chieftain of one of the Solomon Islands, who not long ago decided to create a written version of his people’s language–but now refuses to teach it to outsiders. One version of the story, which I received from an anthropologist who has worked on the island, suggested that he might choose to teach it to individual outsiders for a spectacular fee.

What a provocative idea that is! In an era of globalism and open-source software, we assume it’s a good idea to give everyone access to everything. But what if a people decide that their culture is their own property, not to be revealed to every passing outsider? Or what if an aspect of culture–in this case, a script–is seen as a kind of common intellectual property, and thus a source of communal income? Boy, are these ever good questions for the 21st century.

Back to the conference. I could only be there for the first day, but what a bunch of luminaries were in attendance. Some I had already met by email: Martin Raymond of ScriptSource; Chris Moseley of UNESCO, editor of Ogmios, the publication of the Foundation for Endangered Languages; Lyle Campbell of the University of Hawaii, closely involved in the new UNESCO Atlas of Endangered Languages. Others were luminaries I’d only heard of, or represented organizations and institutions whose attention I had only ever dreamed of attracting such as the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. And best of all, there was a buzz and an excitement in every session and every out-of-session conversation over coffee or sandwiches.

Personally, one of the most interesting outcomes was a series of conversations with Will Hill of Anglia Ruskin University, just across Cambridge from our conference. Will is a typographer, and when he heard about the projected collaboration with members of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (see Episode II of this saga), he was all over it, recognizing at once the need to create a digital typographical expression of an endangered script that remains faithful to its cultural origins, instead of simply looking the way we outsiders think a script should look. Let the plotting begin.

By late afternoon, it was time to remove the Alphabets from their plexiglass display cases, slide them back into their ziplock bags and trundle them off across the medieval sidewalks of Cambridge, first to the remarkable Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and then to dinner at St. John’s Chop House. The Chop House had clearly undergone the volte-face, common in English pubs, which had led it to reject the ghastly pub food of the past century and go back still farther to the true, Pickwickian roots of English pub food.

To the scholars who had assembled from all over the world, this was anthropologically interesting but gastronomically suspicious. How to distinguish, ontologically, between what you can call authentic and what you can call roadkill? Did the menu really vary depending on what was hit that day by the HGV’s on the M11? Boar, maybe, and pigeon, at a pinch, but squirrel?

Surrounded by people whose field work took them to Papua New Guinea or the remotest valleys of the Himalayas, how could I quail (also on the menu) at such a challenge? I plumped for the squirrel, and it was delicious. Just like rabbit, but without the guilt.

Next: Barcelona!

 

 

 

The Endangered Alphabets’ European Tour, Part II: Even Before We Left Boston

 

The Alphabets Lite edition in its London bus-themed wheely-case left Vermont last Sunday, June 24th. The plan was to take a couple of days in Boston so my daughter Maddy could visit some prospective colleges and art schools, and then the Alphas and I’d take off from Logan Airport on the evening of Wednesday 27th.

The Alphabets couldn’t wait, though, and even before I left a remarkable chance meeting took place that may define my next direction in this unfolding project.

As it happened, Maddy was no longer interested in the college we were scheduled to visit on Tuesday 26th, so we had, in effect, a day off. We drove across the river to Cambridge, where Maddy and her mother went shopping and I met someone from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

I don’t think I’m going to reveal his actual name just yet, because his family back in Bangladesh may face retaliation from the government, but the story he told is familiar and well documented. Let’s call him Sri.

Sri is from the Marma Indigenous community of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a remote south-eastern corner of Bangladesh. Thirteen indigenous groups call this mountainous region home–or they would do if the Army were not involved in a steady program of ethnic cleansing. Sri’s village was burned down by the Army when he was a small child, and his family became internally displaced, forced to move on time and again. On the infrequent occasions when he was able to attend school, he couldn’t understand the teacher, who spoke in Bangla, the official national language. This was regarded as a sign of stupidity or inattention, and he was frequently caned or beaten.

Eventually his mother homeschooled him–to such good effect that he became the first of his people to be educated in the United States. He got a degree in engineering from Harvard, and went back to the CHT to build a school for the children of his people.

The building in itself, though, he came to realize, was only part of the solution–so he went back to Harvard to do a graduate degree in education.

“The Bangladesh government gives us no constitutional recognition as indigenous people,” he has written. “As a result, our children are disadvantaged by an education system that does not recognize our language or culture. In Bangladesh, the education curriculum is rigidly centralized and follows a single national curriculum in Bangla only, the majority language. Most CHT children do not speak Bangla at home. As a result, they struggle to understand the language of instruction.

“Moreover, the content is often culturally inappropriate for them. This situation sets up CHT children for failure, leading to the high dropout rate. More importantly, in many communities, we have only few elders alive today who can read and write in our scripts.  These are the few last remaining people on earth with the knowledge to read and write in our scripts. Our languages are on the brink of extinction.

“So, we started a non profit and CHT Oral History Project, an initiative to preserve the local language and culture of CHT people by publishing children’s books based on oral history passed down through generations.”

Publishing children’s books in Mro, Marma and Chakma, that is, which are not only different languages to Bangla but have their own scripts. How can children read their own history, he asked me, if they don’t understand the script in which it was written? Especially when the teacher and the government are giving them the same kind of account of their own history as Midwest teachers and the US government gave the Cherokee for a century or more?

What’s more, this is the kind of project that would be all too easy for the Bangladesh government to discredit or destroy. So there and then I decided to partner with Sri, and over the next few days we pulled in more partners: a linguistic anthropologist from Yale, a typographer from Cambridge (England), and a calligrapher from the Rhode Island School of Design, now working in Barcelona. The theory is that with those big names (especially those big Western names) behind him, it’ll be that much less likely he’ll be shut down or arrested.

So we have two principal aims, and one sub-aim. One is to help him create a calligraphic digital typeface that is authentic to the writing traditions of his people, so he can then use his educational theory to create pedagogically valid schoolbooks for the kids in the school. (Oh, and he plans to add another floor to the school. Yu just can’t stop these teacher-engineers.)

The second is to hold a series of informational talks and meetings, starting in Harvard, to rally contacts and support, so when he speaks, he speaks with the voice of many.

The sub-aim is my own small part in this. One of the interesting things about signage is that it conveys authority. My goal is to create a series of signs in Marma, Mro, and Chakma for display in the CHT so for the first time in decades, the indigenous peoples of the Hill Tracts will see strong, authoritative statements in permanent material prominently displayed in their own communities.

I may also do a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo or Kickstarter to try to raise money to print the books and fund the signage. Please feel free to comment on this page to make suggestions or offer support.

Tim

P.S. Next time I promise to talk about what happened when the Alphabets actually reached Europe.

Free Offer!

And if you think the postcards look great, you should see the business cards she designed…

One of the biggest hits of the just-concluded European Tour was the Endangered Alphabets postcards, beautifully designed and executed by my ace graphic designer daughter Zoe to capture the grain and feel of the wood as well as the text. I put them out on a table next to the carvings and next time I turned around, they were all gone.

Here’s my offer: while supplies last, as they say, email me (brookes@champlain.edu) the name and street address of someone you think might be interested in knowing about the Alphabets, and I’ll mail them one of these gorgeous postcards.

Yes, I know this means I’ll be bearing the cost of the cards and the postage, but if one person every so often orders a copy of the Endangered Alphabets book as a result, it’ll all be worthwhile.

The Endangered Alphabets’ European Tour, Part I: Alpha Lite

The Alphabets have had an amazing week and a half: their first European tour. Many adventures to tell, but the first challenge was simply getting them there. To ship the original exhibition in its trunk would have cost nearly $1,000 each way, so I created The Alphabets Lite: twelve slightly smaller carvings in curly maple, each of which says the word “Words.” Together with the unmissable wheely-case I bought for them, they weighed exactly fifty pounds, which meant I could take them as luggage. At least, that was the theory. That kind of luggage doesn’t go all that well with knee replacement surgery, scheduled within the week after I got back. But that’s another story. Here’s a photo of the Alpha Lite gang lounging around at home, along with their case of many colors. Note the starring position of Glagolitic, my newest acquisition…

Alphas Lite in their natural habitat

Hunting the Dinosaur: Glagolitic

The living dinosaur of scripts?

Let’s face it, even the name sounds like a genus of dinosaur: Glagolyticus paleographus. In fact, showing my usual oceanic ignorance, I didn’t even include the Glagolitic script in the original Endangered Alphabets exhibition because I thought it was extinct.

All this changed because of an intervention from a most unlikely source: Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times and all-round word and puzzle maven. He and I were once colleagues when we both worked for NPR’s Sunday Weekend Edition, but that didn’t turn out to be the connection that led to Glagolitic.

Toward the end of May he emailed me out of the blue:

“Will Shortz here, the crossword editor of the New York Times … to ask if you’d be willing to speak at an annual event I direct on words.

“The event is called the Wonderful World of Words. It takes place each November at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY (south of Albany, about 4 hours from Burlington). This year’s 31st annual event will take place November 16-18.

Each year there are three guest speakers on language-related topics, along with word games, a puzzle treasure hunt, and other activities. Past speakers have included Stephen Sondheim, Dick Cavett, Mary Higgins Clark, Bob Mankoff (the cartoon editor of The New Yorker), Ben Cheever (the writer), Ira Glass (of public radio’s “This American Life”), Tim Long (writer/producer for “The Simpsons”), lexicographers, poets, and other assorted word people.

“I read about you in a forthcoming book by Kee Malesky called Learn Something New Every Day. Then I followed up online. I think the subject of vanishing (and lost) alphabets would be fascinating for this audience. Would you be interested and available to speak?

“FYI, Mohonk is a 140-year-old Victorian castle built on a mountaintop lake — a National Historic Landmark — surrounded by miles of wilderness. Every guest room has a fireplace. The meals are taken in a large communal dining room, with first-class food. (The Words speakers usually eat together.) There is a small library from which you can borrow any book for the weekend. There’s also a brand-new spa and pool, a movie room, tennis courts, a golf course, and 85 miles of hiking trails.”

Needless to say, his words had barely cooled on my monitor before I had replied saying “Yes, yes, hell yes.” In a conversational follow-up email, he happened to mention a slightly different subject.

Will Shortz. Photo by Donald Christensen. Licensed through Creative Commons.

“A few years ago I was touring an old monastery in Eastern Europe (Hungary? Ukraine? Belarus? I can’t remember), which had a display of bibles from 800-1,000 years ago written in an alphabet I’d never seen before. I found this oddly fascinating. Where did this alphabet come from, and why did it die out?”

Knowing (as I say) virtually nothing about anything in the world of paleography but having a velcroic memory for the random lint of information, I suggested it might be Glagolitic. Being a word dude, Will of course shot off and looked it up, and sure enough, yes, the mystery script had been Glagolitic. (From now on I shall refer to ti by the abbreviation “Glag,” which may sound lazy and irreverent but somehow reminds me of one of my few other Balkan words: Vlad, as in “the Impaler.”)

I there and then decided that when I go down to Will’s Wonderful World of Words, I’m going to present him with a carving in Glag.

I knew exactly what the text should say. It should be a text I’ve carved twice before (in Classical Mongolian), a text that has all kinds of interesting meanings but is especially suitable for someone like Will Shortz. It would would be the opening of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word….”

But how would I find that text in Glag? I turned out, as I started burrowing into the labyrinths of the Internet, that the actual language used by the Greek Orthodox church as it made its way north and northeast through the Balkans to Russia was called Old Church Slavonic (OCS).

At least two different scripts were devised to write the gospels in OCS. One, which survived the next 800 years or so, albeit in a variety of forms was Cyrillic, named after St. Cyril. (Who kew? I always thought “Cyrillic” was Russian for “And if you think our script looks warlike, wait until you see our missiles.”) The other was Glag, which according to conventional wisdom had hung around in church services for several centuries, thus proving the incredibly deep relationship between religion and writing, but had finally petered out off the Dalmatian coast on the island of Krk.

But maybe there were still a couple of scholars who could read and write Glag, or maybe (as was the case with Classical Mongolian) someone had translated the Bible into OCS using the Glag script, and I could simply work out where the Gospel of John started and copy the first few words.

Mind you, I use the word “words” rather flexibly, as Glag is an incredibly complicated script. It exists in two versions, a round one and an angular one, and even the round version each letter seems to have been not written but constructed out of tubular Legos. There’s a theory, in fact, that it was created to look deliberately ornate (if that’s the word) to impress the Slavs that the Word of God was intrinsically  superior to, say, the Word of Vlad.

Still, all this dubious knowledge wasn’t getting me any closer to having a carvable text in Glag, so I fired up my LinkedIn connections, joined a listserv of Early Slavists and send out a plea for help. That’s when things started getting even more interesting.

First of all, it became immediately clear that Glag is no more dead than Latin, and perhaps even less so. Several scholars professed great interest in Glag; some sent me links to texts in Glag, reproductions of church wall inscriptions in Glag, and documents in Glag, most of them centuries old. Others sent me the Gospel of John in Old Church Slavonic’s version of cyrillic, which looked distinctly unSoviet and unwarlike.

Moreover, the search quickly zoomed in on the island of Krk (where I actually spent a night in 1973, trapped by an unreliable ferry, though I wasn’t looking for archaic scripts in those days).One sent me to a website which had photos of Glag still in use on Krk, one photo showing a small motorboat with its name in Glag on its side, another showing a restaurant menu in Glag!

But did these images represent Glag in use as a living script? Tomislav Bali, a Croatian historian, wrote: ” Unfortunately, I can not confirm that the Glagolitic is still in use on Croatian islands. In the 20th century, the only ones who wrote and read glagolitic were mostly priests. With their deaths (eg. don Marko Cvitanović on Pašman died 1977, don Vinko Rasol on Silba in 1965), practical usage of Glagolitic disappeared. I am not familiar with the fact that anyone use the Glagolitic alphabet in everyday life. Anyway, it’s still used in educational, touristic and ideological purposes. The reproductions of “classical” glagolitic texts are still printed and there is strong public interest (some tattoo glagolitic letters, other think it should be school subject).”

This in itself was fascinating, suggesting that with the breakup of Yugoslavia its former sub-entities such as Croatia now had a greater need to establish cultural emblems of their own history and identity. As such, it may function like the Cherokee and Baybayin scripts in Oklahoma and the Philippines–as a reminder, a graphic, a totem.

Recent visitors to Krk, though, suggested something more active is taking place. The most detailed account, like the sighting of the first coelacanth, came from Roland Marti of the University of Saarland.

“Dear Colleague,
Just a personal note. I participated at a conference on Glagolitic
that took place in 2002 at Zagreb and the island of Krk.
The usual scholarly structure: papers, discussions …
but one afternoon at Krk there was a meeting with a group of school
children (aged about ten to fifteen) who regularly attended afternoon
courses on Glagolitic. They presented us with clay tablets with
Glagolitic letters incised on them to be worn on a string around the
neck. The group was about 25 strong, all participated in the course in
their spare time and seemed to be very enthusiastic. Whether that school still exists I do not know.”

And though more news is pouring in from all over the world, that’s where I’ll leave it for now. Glagolitic has been sighted; like any dinosaur, Glagolitic is being studied. Whether it still roams the Earth, in Glagolitic Park, on the island of Krk, is still in dispute.

Intrepid Slavists of the world, send me your postcards. In the meantime, I have carving to do.

Endangered Alphabets: The Quiz

Time for a little light-hearted break, I think.

When I first went on Omniglot.com, I was struck by so many things, among them the number of languages I’d never heard of, and the number of languages that either seemed to have been made up recently for intellectual amusement or seemed to be altogether fictitious.

So with that in mind, I offer you this little quiz. Needless to say, you can find the answers on the Internet very quickly. The aim is for you to try to see how far you can get without cheating (i.e. researching via omniglot, wikipedia, ethnologue, and so on). Here goes:

1. Which of the following are writing systems specifically created for films, TV series, works of fiction, as alternatives to existing scripts, or purely for intellectual amusement?

Arahauvarf

Asha’fru’kretobi

Beadscript

Daedric

Elder Futhark

Elvish

Hexahue

Ishirkian

Klingon

Pollard Miao

Qelsh

2. Which of the following are genuine names of existing languages, and which are anagrams of genuine existing names of existing languages?

Hunzib

Lezgi

Lule Sami

Malayalam

Meetei Mayek

Sranan

Tsez

Udmurt

Veps

Wolof

Yaghnobi

 

3. A number of alphabets or syllabaries are thought or known to have been the creation of a single person. Which of the following did NOT create an alphabet? (There may be more than one correct answer.)

Bn’nn’n

King Farnavaz of Georgia

Dr. Flo Darvin Lewis

Sir Isaac Pitman

The Reverend James Evans

Mesrop Mashtots

Momolu Duwalu Bukele

Sequoyah

St. Cyril

George Bernard Shaw

Zog of Albania

Have fun!

Assyrian Wisdom, Syriac Script

If you are wearing shoes,
Step on thorns and open
A path for your children and grandchildren.

–Advice from Ahiqar, sage and advisor to the Assyrian king Sennacherib, to his nephew.

A month ago, George Bet-Shlimon sent me four text fragments from his personal library of Assyrian documents, written out by hand in the Syriac script. This was my favorite, and I was lucky enough to have an astounding piece of flamed mahogany into which I could carve it. My deepest thanks to George, and also to Peter BetBassoo who helped me reach out to the Assyrian community through his online newsletter.

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