Struck by an idea–and the almost incurable itch to carve endangered scripts into pieces of beautiful wood–I have invented the Endangered Trivet. Intended to keep food and drink stains off our beautiful cherry table, it’s made of mahogany, and I glued a piece of green pool-table-style felt (what in England is called baize) on the underside to protect the table from scratches. The text, in Mandaic, is from my friend the indefatigable Charles Haberl of Rutgers, and it means, “May the name of Life and the Knowledge of Life (Manda d’Hayyi) be pronounced over you, o Good (Food)!”
Give your friends and family presents that are at least unusual and maybe even downright unique, and support the Endangered Alphabets Project in the process. All proceeds go toward the Endangered Alphabets World Tour.
A coffee mug featuring the Endangered Alphabets logo, which in itself features Inuktitut, the Inuit script. A talking point at any breakfast table. $25 including packing and mailing within the U.S.
A copy of Endangered Alphabets, the coffee-table-style book I’ve written to accompany the exhibition. It has stunning photos and a short essay on each script I’ve carved, raising fascinating questions about the history and nature of writing. $32.50 including packing and mailing.
A carving of the Balinese character for Om, in my view the most graceful and remarkable letter in the world. Dimensions will be roughly eight inches by eight inches. I’ll make only three of these, or I’ll never get them done in time for Christmas. Must order before December 12. $200 including packing and mailing within the U.S. (I’m sorry but I can’t guarantee that overseas orders will arrive by December 25th. I could tell you stories about the mail that’d make your hair curl….)
One of the most stunning woods in the world is paduak (pronounced pa-duke, at least in Vermont, and confusingly spelled “padauk” as often as not), an exotic tropical hardwood from central and West Africa and Southeast Asia. In its raw, sanded form it’s a brilliant tigerish orange striped with gold and darker reds and browns. With a coat of finish it can be blood-red, though in time it tends to darken and brown up. Yet as much as I love to look at it, it’s a bear to work with.
And work with it I do, because the final product is so irresistible. At the moment I’m doing a Kickstarter piece for the stellar Toronto guitarmaker Linda Manzer. Needless to say, I was looking forward to this piece with both excitement and a certain amount of dread, and on top of it all I decided I would try to describe exactly why it’s so hard of wood to work.
I set to carving with my smallest and sharpest gouges, and eventually came to the conclusion that paduak, for all its brilliance, just isn’t put together very well. If you carve with the grain, each individual fibre tends to detach, which you really, really don’t want. At one point I found myself working literally one fibre at a time to prevent the wood from splintering away from the curve I was trying to create.
Working across the grain has its own problems. The wood is so brittle that instead of slicing neatly across the fibres, the gouge seems to snap them off one by one. The wood is almost crystalline: instead of leaving a nice clean cut, the gouge snaps off each fibre at a breaking-point that may be a tenth of a millimeter away from the cutting-line. In other words, a jagged edge.
It finally hit me: it’s like carving a thin slab of orange sugar.
Carving season is here: I’ve started the first three of the thirty or so carvings promised as rewards for some of my Kickstarter backers. Oh yes, you say. Where’s the proof? Hmmm. How about these?
Such is the case with Tifinagh, the remarkable script, possibly based on ancient Phoenician, that is used by some Berbers to write their language of Tamazight. The language and its name vary slightly all the way across North Africa, but the situation is generally similar everywhere: though they once were the principal nomadic nation of the desert wastes, they eventually found themselves stateless, and like many stateless people (the Hmong in Southeast Asia being another such example) wherever they went they found themselves marginalized, oppressed, even imprisoned or tortured.
The recent events in Libya have thrown this confusion into even greater upheaval, as the following article from the Times illustrates:
Amid a Berber Reawakening in Libya, Fears of Revenge
By C. J. CHIVERS
YAFRAN, Libya — In the evening, as the searing desert temperatures
subside, the residents who have returned to this rebel-held city near
the front lines appear on the streets. Some of them carry cans of
paint, and begin to decorate murals with the characters of an ancient
language that had been forbidden by the government of Col. Muammar
The language is Tamazight, the tongue of the Amazigh, or Berbers, who,
after decades of oppression in Libya are re-emerging as a political
As rebels have chased the Qaddafi military from much of the arid
highlands in Libya’s west this spring and summer, Yafran has become
the easternmost outpost of a cultural and linguistic reawakening that
has expanded across the map, and it is expected to expand more.
Overlooking the Libyan desert plain, the city shows signs of a nascent
sense of self-determination — a step, the Amazigh hope, toward full
national and regional recognition.
“Before we were in darkness — we were invisible,” said Osama Graber,
36, an Amazigh mechanical engineer who is now an opposition fighter.
“And now we can be seen, and are tasting freedom.”
No sooner had the Qaddafi forces pulled back from this city than its
residents began reasserting their standing, even as the Qaddafi
military lingered just beyond rocket range.
They followed a model seen in other traditionally Amazigh cities —
including Nalut and Jadu — that have already broken free of the
government’s grip. And they hope to build on gains realized by Amazigh
people elsewhere, including in Morocco, which gave official standing
to the language in June.
Classes in Tamazight are being held. An Amazigh security force has
been formed. A local weekly newspaper, called Tamusna, for “wisdom,”
has started to circulate in three languages — Tamazight, Arabic and
And Amazigh cultural and political leaders have framed a set of public
demands for a postconflict Libya. As part of their vision, Tamazight
will have an equal standing with Arabic, and Libya will become a
parliamentary democracy based on a constitution grounded in tolerance
and respect for human rights.
But with these high official aspirations, made possible by force, have
come whiffs of revenge, which raise questions about whether the swift
social reorganization gathering momentum in Libya risks fueling
tensions that could undercut stability in the years ahead, or even
lead to intractable internecine war.
After the Qaddafi military withdrew in early June, the houses in
Yafran of the Mashaashia, a tribe whose members supported the Qaddafi
government, were set upon and burned. Their occupants vanished from
these mountains, apparently having fled. Many Amazigh residents say
the Mashaashia are not welcome back.
The number of houses burned here is in dispute. Some say perhaps 15 or
20, others say more. The Mashaashia had a small presence in the city,
which had a full-time prewar population of about 25,000, and the
remaining residents say perhaps 150 of them were chased away.
The arson followed patterns seen in more densely populated Mashaashia
areas, including the towns of Awaniya and Qawalish. Many Yafran
residents say it was justified.
“These people, they were bad,” said a fighter, who gave only his first
name, Hatam. “When the Amazigh families moved away from the fighting,
they stayed and broke into homes, took things and killed our sheep.”
The Mashaashia households, other residents said, also provided sons
who fought in pro-Qaddafi forces or offered intelligence and
logistical support to government troops that besieged the mountains.
The attacks on the Mashaashia, however, seemed not to be directed only
against the homes of those known to have sons in the military. Among
the ruined houses were those once occupied by families whose
connections to the government would seem of little consequence,
including that of a widow and her children, who neighbors said were 13
and 16 years old.
Reprisals have been a source of embarrassment for the Transitional
National Council, the de facto rebel authority, which has relied on
Western support to survive. Officially, after prodding from Western
diplomats, rebel leaders said that they would investigate the crimes
and try to redress the grievances later.
“They are welcome back to their homes after the war, after we defeat
the Qaddafi forces,” Jalal el-Digheily, the new rebel defense
minister, said in an interview on Thursday.
But such declarations are not often echoed on the lands the Amazigh
consider theirs. Years of oppression and months of bloodshed have
Even public officials are comfortable declaring that driving away
pro-Qaddafi tribes aligns with a popular mood. One prominent Amazigh
official, Gen. Ahmed Ismail el-Gul, who is Yafran’s police chief, was
“We don’t want them,” he said of the Mashaashia. “The government says
they can come back. But the people don’t want them.”
With their enemies now gone from the city, the Amazigh have been
slowly restoring life to Yafran. One resident, Yousef Grada, 35, has
been cleaning the city, block by block.
Mr. Grada ran a small shop before the war. During the two-month
guerrilla effort to chase the Qaddafi soldiers from the city, he was a
fighter. He first went to combat, he said, with a meat cleaver, but
eventually obtained a captured assault rifle.
Once the Qaddafi forces pulled back, he said, he set aside the blade
and the rifle and formed a volunteer cleaning crew. First, he carried
away the accumulated garbage and the city’s carpet of spent
Lately, he has been painting the city’s walls, street by street, which
are then decorated with revolutionary and Amazigh murals. He said he
was waiting for the end of the war, and full legal recognition. “I am
expecting good things,” Mr. Grada said.
A few blocks away, at a former government building that has become a
revolutionary exhibit, the main artist, Abdul Ghassem, said the
Amazigh revival should not harm other Libyans or be seen as a yearning
“We are not looking for our own country,” he said. “We are all
Libyans. All we want is our rights.”
A doctor at the Yafran hospital said that kind of feeling has made the
Amazigh sense that the currents of war and history are now making
long-suppressed dreams feel possible. But his own fears — he declined
to give his name because, he said, he was worried for the safety of
relatives in Tripoli — underscored how treacherous life in Libya
He said he was concerned that tensions between tribes and ethnic
groups, long exploited by the Qaddafi government’s patronage system
and now one of the dividing lines in this war, could create cycles of
resentment and violence that could be hard to calm after an ouster of
the Qaddafi clan.
“Absolutely we are worried. People have to learn that getting our
rights does not mean threatening other people’s rights,” the doctor
said in an interview at the hospital, which is not far from some
charred remains of what, until June, had been Mashaashia homes.
Ever since I started thinking of writing as a spiritual act (see the section beginning on page 136 in my book Endangered Alphabets) I’ve been fascinated by the sentence, from the opening of the Gospel According to St. John, “In the beginning was the word.”
A couple of months ago, thinking ahead to the 2011 edition of the Burlington Book Festival in September, I decided I wanted to create a monumental piece for the festival, something so large it commanded attention, something that would stand at the entrance to the festival as a kind of gateway, something that would challenge the festivalgoers’ thinking from the moment they stepped inside.
Thinking of a tall, monolithic vertical piece led me to think of the world’s vertical scripts, and quite by chance I discovered that the Bible has been translated into Mongolian, the language and script of Genghis Khan, and that the text of John was available online.
As I copied it, drew the characters by hand (the piece of wood being far too large to blow up the text on a copier) and began carving, I kept thinking about the appropriateness of the sentence from one new direction after another.
In a very local sense, the sentence is ideal for a book festival. The beginning of the book is the word; the beginning of discussion of the book is the word. The word is what makes us thinking creatures; it’s what makes the cluster of liberal virtues that are at the heart of writing, and teaching writing, and the free conversation of ideas that is recorded by writing and transmitted via writing.
The sentence also has a great deal to say about the relationship between writing and spirituality. Yes, the sentence is from a Christian text, but in truth Christianity, Judaism and Islam all were and are religions heavily steeped in writing. The word Bible, after all, means “book,” and the word gospel comes from the Anglo-Saxon words meaning “good writing.” In its earliest years Islam tolerated Christianity and Judaism because the Arabs respected that these, too, were people of The Book.
More than that, though: writing was seen by some people (such as the Mandaeans) as having divine origin: it was too great an achievement to have been developed by humans, they believed, and had been divinely created and then given to us. And if that sounds far-fetched, consider the Old Testament. The Jews are simply one of many wandering desert peoples, unsure of their direction, their ethics, their leadership, their religious affiliation, until Moses returns from the mountain with the Word of God written down on tablets. This writing (and it’s easy to see why spoken words alone would not have had the same impact or credibility) became literally the foundation and basis for Jewish society, religion and culture. It is what made them who they would become. In the beginning of their identity as a people was the word.
And it’s worth noting in passing that the act of writing mirrors the divine act of creation: before God there was nothing, we are told; ad in an act of divine creative imagination he converts insubstantial thought into substance. The immaterial becomes material. He spoke, and it was so. In the beginning was the word, and everything else followed from that. And that act of creation is still possible to anyone who writes (or paints, or carves): an idea, the least substantial of all human things, is transformed into something everyone can see, and everything else follows.
Yet there’s one other possible meaning to this extraordinarily pregnant assertion. One of the curious things about the evolution of human beings is that for a very, very long time, for the vast majority of the time between primeval Lucy and ourselves, the human brain remained roughly the same size. It wasn’t until we began to acquire and use language (or so it is now believed) that our brains underwent rapid and radical growth, and we started to look and act less like the great apes and more like what we think of as early humans. In other words, in the beginning of humanity as we understand it was the word.
That remarkable arts fundraising organization Kickstarter.com has accepted the Endangered Alphabets as a fundraising project. In other words, you can now give direct, material, and rewarding support to this project by visiting its Kickstarter page.
The thing is, the Alphabets are not and have never been funded by grants or foundations. I’ve been carving them on my living-room table on my evenings and weekends–which is fine for a hobby, but it means that really working to track down some of the rarest scripts, carving them and then exhibiting them in places where they’ll draw most attention to the issue of vanishing scripts, languages and cultures–well, I just haven’t been able to afford it.
Now you can help, even if your means are as modest as mine. What’s more, every donation, be it $1 or $2,000, will be gratefully rewarded with some product from the Endangered Alphabets project: Endangered Alphabets mugs, copies of the exquisite Endangered Alphabets book, all the way up to custom carvings featuring the Alphabets.
Again visit the Kickstarter page to see all the details. And please tell your friends and colleagues. I’m hoping to raise $6,000 in a month, and if I’m successful–well, the Alphabets in all their glory may show up at a library, museum, gallery or college near you.
Thank you so much.
When I was in Bangladesh last week, meeting members of some of the country’s indigenous peoples and thinking a great deal about endangered alphabets, I found myself thinking about issues of script loss even in my down time—in other words, when I was watching television.
A naïve visitor to a developing country (or, indeed, any country) might assume that the channels on offer speak to that country’s cultural communities, and, by implication, speak in their languages. And even though not many people apart from me think in terms of scripts, the naïve visitor might likewise assume that those same TV channels will offer visual representation of those same local languages, as displayed in the scripts that appear on the screen.
At first sight this seemed to be true, because in flicking through the channels in search of live coverage of cricket matches and the Copa America, I saw a great of Bengali script (which, by the way, I can’t read). A closer channel-by-channel examination, however, even though hardly scientific, showed television to have less to do with the broadcast and expression of local culture and more to do with the forces of cultural and economic globalism.
The television in the guest house where I was staying boasted nearly 100 channels, though several of these were blocked, dysfunctional, or duplicates of other channels. In any case, for the purposes of this exercise I stopped my monitoring at Channel 40 because any developing country has a limited capacity to develop its own programming. Beyond 40, almost every channel was imported, mainly from the UK, the US and Australia. To be sure, these channels demonstrate that almost no country in the world can resist the infiltration of the English language and the Latin alphabet, but that wasn’t my point. I wanted to know to what extent that language and that script had already infiltrated and taken root.
With four channels in the Top 40 apparently duplicates, at least at the time when I was watching, this left 36 separate video/audio streams to examine.
So here’s my question. We all know the process by which one language is eroded and then marginalized by another. I was curious to see whether something similar was happening with scripts. Were the Bengali channels displaying exclusively Bengali script, or was the visual representation of Bengali similarly being infiltrated by the use of Latin script—and if so, under what circumstances?
Even before I started concentrating on the individual channels, I realized that the TV set itself was Latin-centric: when I used the remote to change channels, the channel numbers that appeared briefly were Latin numerals rather than Bengali. (That is to say, English Latin numbers, rather than Roman numerals.) The operation of a TV set, then, had an internationalized quality about it. TV was not only a window on the world, but a window through which the world could get in.
What’s more, the TV stations and channels themselves clearly saw themselves as operating in a broader world where the Latin script is essential: in every case but one, the station or channel ID logo in the corner of the screen used Latin letters and/or words. To be television, it seemed, was to be modern and international and therefore to use the Latin script, the global signifier.
At this point, I confess, I got distracted. (In case it’s not already clear, I have the instincts but not the training of a researcher. I don’t have a Ph.D., and would gnaw off my own leg rather than work through one.) In particular, I got distracted by the commercials—which are, after all, intended to distract.
It was clear right away that commercials as a whole, in appealing to the middle and upper classes with disposable income, almost invariably tried to present their products and services as cosmopolitan and modern, which in the case of imported products meant interjecting the English name (“Head and Shoulders”) and even English terms (“dandruff”) into the voiced-over stream of spoken Bengali, and preserving the names and labels in their original Latin script onscreen. To be hip and worldly in Bangladesh, it seemed, is to be able to speak English and read the Latin alphabet.
This looks unremarkable until you consider how weird it would look on American TV to hear the names of imported Japanese cars, or a thousand miscellaneous Chinese products, pronounced in Japanese or Chinese and with Toyota, say, represented onscreen in Japanese characters. A substantial percentage of the shrimp sold in the U.S. are imported from Bangladesh, in fact, but that doesn’t mean we need to know the Bengali word for “shrimp” to order them. We are clearly the bosses here, and language is simply one sign of that inequality.
The more commercial the content, the more English words appeared. Serious discussion programs on local and national affairs, and religious programs, were entirely in Bengali, from what I could tell. Once the channel broke to commercial, though, the rules changed. A voice on a channel otherwise entirely voiced in Bengali suddenly said “Crown Cement.”
The more upscale and cosmopolitan ads, especially those that seemed to have been made in India featuring Indian models, cricketers and movie stars, switched constantly and fluently into and out of English as a sign of their sophistication.
The same was even more true of texts. A glossy beauty-product or car commercial, voiced over half in English, was likely to present its text almost entirely in Latin script. The name and the label were the brand. Even low-budget ads produced for regional channels tended to have CALL NOW in English, with the phone number in both Latin and Bengali scripts.
Concentrating on the programming itself showed different kinds and different degrees of infiltration. One channel seemed to have audio consisting entirely of Bangla music. Of the other 35, 11 had audio in English (including HBO, which oddly also had subtitles in English). The other 24 had what I will call “regional audio” to disguise the fact that my ear can’t distinguish Bengali from, say, Hindi.
In these 24 channels clearly locally produced for local consumption, English words had certainly infiltrated the local spoken language. In general narrative, conversation or newscasts, it wasn’t unusual to hear “kilometer” or “twenty-eleven.” (The year, that is.) In broadcasts about cricket, of course, technical terms such as fielding positions or equipment were almost all in English.
What about texts? For some stations, their visual identity was entirely Bengali; in some cases, though, they seemed to have decided that a little internationalized pepping-up was in order. On at least two otherwise all-Bangla channels, program names (FRONT LINE, FASHION) were presented in English/Latin capitals.
I found the whole exercise slightly depressing, if unsurprising. At least in theory, television should be perfectly capable of acting in the name of cultural integrity. One of the people I met in Dhaka worked on the Bangladeshi incarnation of Sesame Street, and he was very aware of the goal of teaching children their letters and numbers in Bengali rather than some internationalized form.
In truth, though, TV in Bangladesh in 2011 behaves very much like TV in the U.S. in 1953: earnest local programming was already being edged out by glossier network programming, which seemed to come from a larger, brighter, more exciting world, a world without regional accents or dialects, a world of luxuries and affluence that seemed to have no geographic locus at all. Everywhere and nowhere.