The Endangered Alphabets Project


The world has between 6,000 and 7,000 languages, but as many as half of them will be extinct by the end of this century. Another and even more dramatic way in which this cultural diversity is shrinking concerns the alphabets in which those languages are written.

Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

The Endangered Alphabets Project, which consists of an exhibition of carvings and a book, is the first-ever attempt to bring attention to this issue–and to do so by creating unforgettable, enigmatic artwork.

Every one of the Endangered Alphabets challenges our assumptions about language, about beauty, about the fascinating interplay between function and grace that takes place when we invent symbols for the sounds we speak, and when we put a word on a page—or a piece of bamboo, or a palm leaf.

The Endangered Alphabets are not only a unique and vivid way of demonstrating the issue of disappearing languages and the global loss of cultural diversity, they are also remarkable and thought-provoking pieces of art. These two threads interweave to raise all kinds of questions about writing itself: how it developed, how it spread across the globe, how the same alphabet took on radically different forms, like Darwin’s finches, on neighboring islands, and how developments in technology affected writing, and vice versa.

The Alphabets have been exhibited at Yale, Harvard, Cambridge (England), Barcelona, Rutgers, Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Champlain College, Central Connecticut State University, and other colleges, universities and libraries throughout the United States. In June 2013 they will be featured at the Smithsonian.

To read more about the exhibition of carvings, or to get booking information, click here.

To read more about the book, Endangered Alphabets, or to order it, click here.

To read more about my next carving project involving endangered alphabets, click here.

To check out my occasional blog on endangered alphabets and languages, click here.

Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.


First Panel Complete

The first of the four panels that will make up the Endangered Poem Project is now complete! I dragged it out into the winter sunlight (yes, you can tell I’m in Vermont) and shot photos of all five of the alphabets it includes. From top to bottom, they are :

Tai Dam
Syriac, complete with shadow from still-bare butternut tree limb

…and the newest and perhaps the most unusual of all….


As soon as I get a moment I’ll give a little more information about each. The amazingly helpful people who sent me the translations are (top to bottom) Adrian Clynes, Siang Bacthi, Anthony Jukes, Charles Haberl and Wei James Xuecun, though in some cases the translations were the result of a group effort and I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone else who was involved.

In the meantime, please bear in mind that the sole source of funding for my work comes from sales of the book Endangered Alphabets, which you can buy here.



P.S. Thanks to Sarah Hulsey at the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass, for inviting me down to run an endangered-alphabet-carving workshop for her students. Send me photos, Sarah!

P.P.S. Thanks also to Kate Schaal at the Quechee Library for hosting the Alphas. Kate, did anyone take any photos? What is it with the lack of photos, people??

Endangered Library Signage

Work in progress: Baybayin (left) and Mandaic

The Champlain College Library–officially the Miller Information Commons–has done me proud by printing up fliers and creating a web page about the endangered-alphabet signage I created and hung on all three floors. To read all about it (and see images of the work in process) click the link entitled Endangered Library Signage on the upper right sidebar, or simply click here. This was a wonderful side-project for the Alphabets; it’s as if they left off their serious purpose for a while and went off frisking around on their own.

Starting the Poems, and Heading for Connecticut

The first of the four faces of the sculpture begins to take on its texts.

Well, the Endangered Poem Project is finally under way.
A few days ago I drove up to Cambridge, Vermont, where Ernest Krusch had picked out several pieces of curly soft maple and planed them down for me. This afternoon, knowing I’d be starting off with some poems that were taller than they were wide, I picked out the narrowest, laid it on the dining-room table and started the first task: simply getting the texts to line up with the board, and with each other.
Not such an easy task: each text has a different thickness, a different weight, different leading, different kerning–different everything. That’s sort of the point. After half an hour of shuffling pieces of paper around, measuring, using the square and a fair amount of eyeballing, I had what the chiropractors call an alignment. That’s what the photo shows. Top to bottom: Balinese, my personal favorite; Tai Dam, the most recent arrival, about which I know very little and need to do some serious research; Makassarese “bird script,” technically extinct but perhaps undergoing a small revival if only through this project; Syriac (about which Charles Haberl wrote “I used the East Syriac Adiabene script,
which is the ancestor of most East Syriac typefaces. The main reason why I chose this script is that it resembles the Assyrian script you used in the other exhibit, and I was able to festoon it with diacritics”); and, closest to the camera, the oddest of them all: Sui, a Chinese script that is apparently now used only for magical purposes and uses characters that are even written backwards to enhance their magical potency. I really, really want to know more about that one.
The image transfer is nearly finished, which is why I have a sharp pain between the shoulder-blades. I’m have the house to myself this weekend, so I should be well into the carving phase by the time I leave…
…for Central Connecticut State University, where I’m giving a talk on the Phase I exhibition of the Endangered Alphabets on Tuesday at 2 p.m. Click on the event calendar on the home page for more details.
And speaking of more details, I can’t resist adding a closeup of the Sui script, which is utterly amazing. One character (not included in the poem) looks very much like a dead dragon lying on its back. As I say, anyone who can direct me to more information on Sui, or indeed any of these scripts, head straight for the Comment box!

The text in Sui, transferred to the wood with the help of carbon paper.

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.

Handwriting: What Is At Stake?

John Hancock's John Hancock. Photo by Nick Stenning. Licensed through Creative Commons.

The next phase of the Endangered Alphabets Project is to take a short poem I’ve composed, translate it into as many as sixteen endangered scripts (please contact me by email if you’d like to help, as I have need of many collaborators!), and carve these poems into a multi-faceted memorial, the designs for which I’ll post shortly.

After my experience with the original Endangered Alphabets exhibition, I decided that (a) I’d include a version of the poem in English, so people will know right away what all the other versions say, and (b) that rather than copying some font or other I’d use my own handwriting.

Here’s the point: all typefaces or fonts are essentially an amalgamation or median version of the wide range of individual styles. In the name of consistency and legibility they sacrifice all the variation that makes writing so much an expression of the individual character, or even the individual character at an individual moment. With those stirring sentiments in mind, I started to examine this strange skillset I call my handwriting.

The first thing I realized, having never thought to examine it before, was that the handwriting I use is almost nothing like the cursive faux-copperplate handwriting I was taught, like everyone of my generation, back when I was seven or eight. For one thing, I use a Greek lower-case “e.” This is despite the fact that my history teacher at grammar school used a Greek epsilon and delta for his e and d. His method of teaching was to write notes on the board we had to copy. His handwriting was so indecipherable that it might as well have been Aramaic, but anyone who asked him to clarify a word got at best a scowl and at worst a beating. No, I picked up my Greek e from my friend John Jenkins, who at 14 had hand-printing so perfectly formed we referred to it as typing.

I guess at 14 we’re all looking for a personality, and one of the many ways my own search manifested itself was in appropriating John’s epsilon. My writing in general was appalling, a product of haste in execution and uncertainty in personality, made all the worse by the fact that I mostly used a ballpoint. When I wrote with a fountain pen the breadth of the nib and its disposition toward downward strokes had a calming effect on me, and for a while I actually took pride in my script. But my adolescence was inexorably moving toward national exams—four essays in three hours, in every single subject—and under this pressure my fountain pen and my graceful-ish hand was just too slow, and I lapsed into felt tip pen.

At school in general, handwriting was seen as a species of vanity. Our Head Prefect, who admired himself beyond all measure, spent hours practicing his signature—so much so that at least a dozen of us could handily forge it on official documents. Another student cultivated a nifty backwards loop on the descenders of his g’s and y’s, a skill that was roughly 20% admired and 80% despised.

I was already noticing that boys and men were allowed to cultivate personal or even eccentric styles, while girls and women were supposed to stay close to the copybook. My father’s hand was most peculiar: anything but smooth, his writing consisted of a series of clusters or quanta of letters rather than sentences or words. His lower-case r, for example, rose and arched so extravagantly that no following letter could possibly by joined to it, so the word had, in effect, to start again after it. Watching him write was like watching a series of small, silent fanfares. His signature, R.C. Brookes, could have been set to music, three blasts on the brasses followed by muttering in the cellos and basses, punctuated by the rise and fall of the k.

During my adolescence and early adulthood my own signature went through all kinds of experiments, most of them trying to combine the self-importance of my initials with the dashing quality of the rest of my name. It was changed for ever, though, in my forties when one of my books was bought in book club edition and I had to sign 400 bookplates to be affixed inside the front cover. Somewhere between signature 50 and signature 100 everything unnecessary was tossed overboard, and what had been a moderately legible representation of my name was abandoned in favor of a sketch, a gesture that began with a T and a B, and everything after that was a single art nouvean/Alphonse Mucha curl. In art terms, it had gone from representative to gestural.

So much for general observations. But what would it be like to try to write something that not only will represent me as a person but needs to be carved, painted and made permanent? It’s a challenge most writers never have to face, and it disturbed me more than a little.

The poem, intended to be a kind of anthem for endangered alphabets, goes like this:

These are our words, shaped

By our hands, our tools,

Our history. Lose them,

And we lose ourselves.

At first my hand seemed spastic, almost uncontrollable. I’ve noticed that this is a function, apart from anything else, of time of day: when I’ve just woken up, my hand is calm, my writing smooth and orderly, but as the demands of the day pile up it’s as if my hand, as an extremity of my body, expresses and even magnifies the contradictory forces and tensions in me, like a feather tied to the radio antenna of a car.

As I tried to relax into what I was writing, I found that, despite having spent more than fifty years writing by hand, certain letter-combinations came more naturally than others, which behaved as though I’d never written them before. I wrote a single line again and again, just getting used to the feel of the words.

After more than two pages of practice, I noticed something else was happening: my sense of what I wanted the lines to express was beginning to emerge and take over the sheer pedestrian task of putting the wo0rds on the paper.

The initial T began to look more like the first (and only legible) letter of my signature–an emblem, a signet, something written with pride and declarative intent.

Same with the B at the start of the second line: both letters were the visual equivalents of small trumpets, heralding the purpose of the words to follow, and with each iteration the B spread out a little more, beginning a little farther to the left and swooping a little farther out to the right as if the upright represented solidity and caution while the curved horizontals billowed out like sails.

Likewise the Y at the end of “history” went beyond being a mere descender and started to flare out to the left like a fishhook. Interestingly, that degree of expressive flourish made it increasingly hand to follow it with a simple dot as period or full stop.  It was as if I just couldn’t stop the music, and the more glee went into the Y, the more the piece of punctuation that followed looked like a comma  or even a small slash rather than a sedate and punctilious Punkt.

Other problems arose as the tension grew between the need for consistency and the desire to say what I felt. The two O’s in “tools” refused to be the same size. Every R came out differently, depending on what had gone before or what was coming next. Sometimes I found myself crossing the T of “tools” immediately after I wrote it, sometimes after I’d written the whole word, in which case the T-cross was much longer, and acted as a roof-beam for the entire word.

The one problem I never solved to my own satisfaction, though, concerned the final line. Anyone who has seen the signature of Queen Elizabeth I or John Hancock knows that the principal opportunities for ornamentation—in other words, self-expression—arise at the beginning of a word and at the end. The opening T of my poem, as I’ve said, had the same wind-up-and-pitch quality it has in my signature. But the end of the poem consists, quite by chance, of letters and words that are visually tame. All we’ve got, after that initial A, in the way of ascenders and descenders is a couple of L’s, and as the song might as well say, L is the loneliest letter. No character to speak of. And every other letter is caught between those parallel horizontal lines that medieval monks used to develop the uncials and half-uncials that were so restricted that it’s hard to tell where one letter ends and the next starts. Well, perhaps not quite that uniform and characterless, but it was unmistakably true that every time I wrote that last line, especially when I was trying to write the whole quatrain rather than just practicing the line on its own, there was a sense of let-down at the end. What should be a grim, even apocalyptic warning was just one word after the other, with a period shutting it all down at the end.

Anyone interested in supporting the Endangered Alphabets Project can do so in one of two ways. The book is my sole source of income for the Project, so buying a copy (by clicking on the Buy Now button at the head of this page) will be a great help. Just as useful, though, is help in translating the poem into endangered scripts. If you have that expertise or know someone who might, I’d love to hear from you.

The Endangered Alphabets on YouTube

Just to keep things fresh, I’ve added some different YouTube videos from the documentary made by my friend and colleague, the photographer and videographer Dan Higgins.

Here’s the chapter on Tifinagh.

Please feel free to respond, comment, or correct me. For example, Christian Cabuay posted the YouTube clip about Baybayin on his Baybayin site, and several of his respondents have posted updates to what I say on this clip.

Nordenx says that “our Mangyan tribes of Mindoro never stopped using it and still continues to use it for their everyday writing as well as their epic poems,” and goes on to add that  “While the western writing system gradually gained acceptance and popularity among the locals, the use of baybayin script was never discouraged by the colonizers.”

Chris Miller adds: “It’s used mainly as a cultural symbol nowadays and not as an everyday means of exchanging messages, but that doesn’t mean people see it as nothing but meaningless abstract graphic signs. Not only do people who want tattoos want to make sure they spell the name right (even if they don’t always get the spelling right), but Bby is used as a cultural symbol of identity by businesses, government, and other organizations. Maybe a bit like Greek letters in the US: they’re not just meaningless symbols people put up in threes on frat/sorority houses and t-shirts: people have some understanding of what they mean and use them for things like math, but not to read write texts with (unless they’re actually in Greek of course).”

8raysmedia continues the discussion: “Filipinos are beginning to use it in communication via Facebook and Twitter. Baybayin has a lot of meaning to us in the literal and spiritual sense from the Babaylans, faith healers and to even those who get the script tattooed on them. Baybayin as an abstract expression as I do in my artwork is not really prevalent. They buy shirts because of the meaning.”

A few days later, JC John Sese Cuneta added this encouraging news: “While I still haven’t started learning how to write Baybayin with my own hands, I am happy to tell you that we just launched the `Philippines National Keyboard Layout’ which includes a Baybayin keyboard layout. More and more Filipinos are using Baybayin online/digital form, and I hope through this Baybayin keyboard layout, more Filipinos will take time to (re)-learn it and start writing with their own hands.

“Now I wonder, is it Baybayin only that was `resurrected’ from the grave? Or are there other writing scripts (or language even) that is also going through this process today?”

Thanks to all of you for their input, and as always I’m keen to hear from anyone who knows more about the Alphabets than I do.

The Latest Endangered Alphabet: Nom

July 27th, 2010

The latest of the EA family comes thanks to the efforts of the poet John Balaban, who has made a substantial reputation for himself by translating Vietnamese poetry into English, and has continued his work by founding a non-profit organization dedicated to reviving Nom, the traditional Vietnamese calligraphic script that was suppressed by the French in the 1920s.

“Nom keeps a flavor of a culture washed away with the language of the Roman alphabet,” Balaban told the New York Times. “There are real literary treasures, and still a lot of texts that have not been translated.”

He has also helped gather young Vietnamese “font carvers” who have digitized the script and his foundation has compiled a Nom dictionary, a collection of 20,000 characters, which he says can be more difficult to master than Chinese.

Carving it has certainly been more demanding than any of the other EA boards. Balaban himself reads and writes the contemporary Vietnamese script, but in order to get Article One translated into Nom he called on the services of Lê Văn Cường, of the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation in Hanoi. Here’s a glimpse of Nom in progress:

Endangered Alphabets: The Book

Cover photo by Glenn Moody

The Endangered Alphabets Book, with an introduction by David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, is now a reality! Individual copies, signed and inscribed, can be purchased for $29.95 plus $2.50 for packing and mailing below (6.50 for international shipping).  Anyone interested in a review copy should also email me at Copies will also be available wherever the boards are displayed.

I’ll be happy to sign your copy and add a personal inscription to yourself or to whomever you intend to give the book as a gift. Just enter what you’d like me to write here:

Your Personal Inscription

What is the Endangered Alphabets project? The world has more than 6,000 languages, but in every respect that number and that variety is dwindling rapidly. Half are expected to be extinct by the end of this century.

But another and even more dramatic way in which this cultural diversity is shrinking concerns the alphabets in which those languages are written. Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, fully a third are endangered. The Latin alphabet—the ABC of the West—has gone from being the alphabet of military empire to the alphabet of economic empires and, most recently, of the Internet. On a global scale, writing is already dominated by as few as five major alphabets: Latin, Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese and Japanese.

The Endangered Alphabets Project, which consists of an exhibition of carvings and a book, is the first-ever attempt to address this issue. Please click on those links for more information.

To see me talking about some of the Alphabets on YouTube, click here.

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