Screen Shot, Mongolian Style

Carving endangered alphabets is a strange combination of old and new, high and low tech, and rarely has this been so apparent as it has during my latest whim–to carve John 1:i in Mongolian.

This particular verse of the Bible must be one of the most profound and challenging statements ever made about language. “In the beginning was the Word.” What does that mean? I’ve been thinking about it for months, and even gave a lecture/homily on the spiritual nature of writing, and I’m still no closer to grasping its full range of potential import.

On the other hand, what a wonderful icon it would make, especially in the lobby or atrium of a major college or university gathering on linguistics! Especially in Mongolian, I thought, always attracted to vertical scripts. It would almost look like the battle-flags in Kurosawa movies–though as I work in wood rather than canvas, it would be sturdier, more resolute, more challenging. I liked that. And as I’m still waiting for as couple of scripts to trickle in so I can start the next face of the Endangered Poem Sculpture, I thought I’d while (or possibly whittle) away the time with a little Mongolian.

Turns out that John has already been translated into Mongolian, but the website wouldn’t display the vertical script for me. It said I had to update my Internet Explorer, but after some wrestling I realized this was Gates-code for “You Mac users are cast into the outer darkness, where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

Undaunted, I cycled over to Kinko’s. I could call up the site on their PC’s, print out the first verse of John and blow it up to carvable dimensions all in one visit.

The first workstation was out of order. The second was working, but the black and white printer was out of order. I’d have to use the color printer. Then the color printer wouldn’t work. The first assistant scratched her head and called for help. The second scratched his head and guessed that the printer wasn’t recognizing the Classic Mongolian vertical font (which I have to say was a small surprise, as their computers have fonts that include East Syrian and other such nifty alphabets).

I tried saving the web page as a pdf. No good. I tried copying the first few verses and pasting them into a Word file. No good, as the Word font book didn’t include Mongolian.

By now all the assistants had taken to hiding in other corners of the building.

I tried saving a screenshot and running a Print Screen command, but both functions were apparently so terrified by the script of Genghis Khan that they froze in horror.

Eventually I thought, dammit, it’s only half a dozen words: I’ll zoom in and copy the text by hand and compare it afterwards with the online Mongolian dictionary to make sure I’ve got the lettering right.

I sat down with blank paper and a pen, emptied my pockets to get comfortable, and saw that I had put on the desktop, right next to the keyboard, my iPhone.

IPhone. I could do a screenshot the old-fashioned way. And then, in an equally clunky and roundabout fashion, I could email the photos to myself, open them in Photoshop and reconstruct the whole text.

The Kinko’s staff were vastly relieved. They even deducted some of the charge from my credit card.

And here, ladies and gents, are the constituent elements of the most gnomic, or possibly gnostic, statement about language ever uttered–in Classic Mongolian. Soon (with a bit of luck) to appear on a flag, or at least a beautiful vertical board, at a conference near you.

Second Panel Finished

Despite the best efforts of global warming, the second of the four panes of the Endangered Poem Sculpture is now finished, and is leaning against my dining-room wall like a shady character outside the National Museum in Cairo, ready at a moment’s notice to step forward and accost the unwary visitor in half-a-dozen languages.

The Endangered Poem Project, you’ll recall, is going to be a sculpture, roughly six feet tall, consisting of four faces, something like a cross between a totem pole and a war memorial. Once again I’m using Vermont curly maple, with each board facing one of the points of the compass and being inscribed with five endangered-alphabet texts.

As for the text, I wrote a short, simple poem about the importance of preserving endangered languages in their spoken and written forms. It goes like this:

These are our words, shaped
By our hands, our tools,
Our history. Lose them
And we lose ourselves.

This second board presented an utterly unexpected challenge. Vermont has had its wettest spring on record, with Lake Champlain standing at its highest level ever, and a constant series of thunderstorms swamping people’s basements. Two weeks ago I came across someone kayaking down our street. The same day, an impromptu surfing competition was held on a street just around the corner. For the Alphabets, the upshot was that the garage, never hitherto wet, flooded by an inch or two, and all my wood, standing against one wall, began to absorb water at the foot end and blossom with mildew. Luckily, I had spaced the Alphabets on each board with a little extra room at the foot, so last Monday saw me staggering down to Sterling Hardwoods and asking them to cut 2″ off the foot of each board. Seems to have done the trick.

In any event, I finished off the last two scripts, and here are the results, top to bottom:

Inuktitut (apologies for slightly blurring of photo)

I couldn’t possibly have done this without extensive help from collaborators all over the world. For N’ko, I am deeply grateful to Christopher Ryan Green and Dwayne Rainwater; for Inuktitut, Tim Pasch and Stephane Cloutier; for Mandaic, the indefatigable Charles Haberl; for Baybayin, Paul Morrow, whose Baybayin font now actually appears on currency notes in the Philippines; and for Tifinagh, Med Amanouz.






Altogether, in recumbent state on my dining-room table, the whole piece looks like this:


A One-Off, Or Maybe A Two-Off

As I work on the Endangered Poem Project I like to take a break now and then, and here’s one such break. Thanks to the kindness of Adrian Clynes, this is the Balinese for “word” or “words,” depending on the context. The wood is the unusual pau amarillo, a vivid yellow wood, ideal for carving.

This may be the only piece I ever make twice. I originally conceived it for the front of the podium from which a number of multilingual readers will deliver Bob Holman’s Endangered Cento (check Bob and the Cento out by running a Search on Facebook) at various strategic locations in New York.

But then it struck me what a perfect introduction-display this would be for a library, something mounted or hung right inside the front door, a welcome sign in a beautiful but unfamiliar script. So I think that, just for once, I’m going to overcome my dread of repeating myself and make a second.

The Alphabets Pop Up in Fairfield and Charlotte

The Alphabets are back home after two weeks in Fairfield, Vermont. The librarian, Kristen Hughes, showed that whatever they teach people in library school these days isn’t all about social media and information technology: she not only did a stellar job of hosting the talk and the exhibition (and getting library patrons of all ages involved in setting up the show and taking it down, thus engaging teenagers in something other than WoW), but she even invented a new way of packing the boards back into their suitably battered steamer trunk. Many thanks to Kristen and everyone else involved.

Tomorrow I’m taking a selection of the Alphas to the weekly interfaith gathering at All Souls in Charlotte, Vermont to give a homily/talk/ramble on the spiritual nature of writing, something that interests me more and more as I work on this project. If you’re interested and nearby, please come along at 5 p.m.


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.

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