The ten tiles of the Endangered Alphabets Board Game, just needing a few coats of finish and a professional photo shoot. These tiles, each 10″x12″, are for exhibition; the aim is to use them as a springboard to raise $5,000 to make alphabet board games in endangered languages for indigenous schoolchildren in Bangladesh. Watch out for our Kickstarter, coming soon.
If you’re on Facebook, you’ve been seeing hints and clues about my next series of carvings, and here are the first prototypes: Scrabble tiles in endangered alphabets.
Here’s my thinking:
After my very serious and poignant Mother Tongue series, I wanted to do something more playful, but still full of intent. After all, it’s the dominant culture that can afford to be playful, and I wanted to both make use of and undermine that privilege. Hence the Scrabble Series.
The central point is very simple: you’re very unlikely to see a set of Scrabble tiles, or any commercial board game, in an endangered, minority or indigenous language. The makers would deem it just not commercially viable.
But a commercial board game such as Scrabble is not just a game—it’s a means of teaching the language and implicitly underlining its importance. It becomes (and I think I invented this ugly phrase, but someone may have spelled it out before me) culturally self-reinforcing. It emphasizes the rightness of the language, and the writing system, used by the majority. Everyone else, if they want to play, had better learn English.
You can’t make words with these tiles, given that they all in different languages (and some are syllables rather than letters), but that, too, has a point. Minority and indigenous cultures are increasingly disconnected from each other and from their own roots. Most of the western world can play Scrabble with the same set of tiles; likewise, most of the major nations can connect by Facebook. Minority, indigenous and regional cultures can not—or at least, they can only do so by learning one of the world’s major languages and its script. These tiles, like their cultures, are scattered. Easily lost.
I was also interested in this project because these faux Scrabble tiles involve not only letters but numbers. In fact, I chose to include only languages that have their own number systems—a minority of a minority. This is significant but hardly surprising, given that one of the most powerful forces of globalism is commerce. Numbers are the vocabulary of business.
The actual letterforms on Scrabble tiles are traditionally plain and functional; my own work tends to go more for the artistic and expressive. In this project I’ve gone for a balance between the two. Everything I do with the Endangered Alphabets Project tries to show the beauty of the lesser-known scripts as a means of stressing their value and their particular expression of the culture that developed them. By putting these wonderful letterforms on traditionally plan tiles I’m hoping to create a small sense of surprise, and a recognition of how functional and mechanical the Latin alphabet is by contrast.
It will be a fine day, in my opinion, when every culture has a board game that uses the characters of its own writing system. Just to be clear: many cultures don’t even have books in their own scripts, or they only have ancestral books that almost nobody can read.
As a smell step in that direction, my hope is that the Scrabble Series will attract $5,000 in donations to the Endangered Alphabets Project that will enable me, with the help of friends, colleagues, and volunteers, to create Scrabble-style board games in the endangered alphabets of Mro, Marma and Chakma, for the indigenous children of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
If you’d like to support this endeavor, please do so at http://endangeredalphabets.com/donate/. Thanks!
It’s a rare interviewer who asks me questions I’ve never been asked before: https://soundcloud.com/dougarobinson/saving-endangered-alphabets-with-tim-brookes.
David Garrett of Charlotte, Vermont, has donated a piece of this magnificent fallen elm to me to carve into a monument to the Abenaki, the indigenous people of our region.
While alive, it was the tallest elm on the East Coast north of Kentucky. I visited it yesterday at Vermont Tree Goods in Bristol. It’s like the bleached skeleton of a whale, silent but stunning. The base flares out a good eight feet across.
If all goes well, the finished item will be unveiled on the Champlain College campus in October, on what most Americans still call Columbus Day but in Vermont is now officially Indigenous People’s Day.
I’m trying something new and different in the name of helping to support endangered language revival.
Some of you have already seen photos of my recent carving of the word “Java” in the endangered traditional Javanese script—hand-carved and painted in gold.
In an effort to provide direct and tangible support for those working to save and revive their traditional languages (written and spoken) I am auctioning that carving through eBay. The auction will start soon, and will run for a week.
The proceeds from the sale will be split equally between the Endangered Alphabets and Belajar Jawa Kuna, an organization based in Indonesia that is working to preserve the many endangered traditional Indonesian scripts, especially the Old Javanese script.
I’m hoping the opportunity to buy and own this unique carving will attract interest from people interested in languages all over the world. It would even be a great wall sign for a coffee shop, a pun on the word “Java”!
Please share this with anyone you think might be interested. You can visit the eBay page HERE.
The Endangered Alphabets Project is a federal 501c3 non-profit, and as we have no grant funding or institutional support, we rely on donations, commissions and speaking fees for the majority of our income.
To donate to the Endangered Alphabets Project, please click HERE.
To order a copy of the book Endangered Alphabets, please click HERE.
To inquire about commissions or to discuss an exhibition of Endangered Alphabets carvings, please email email@example.com.