Work in progress, featuring my latest piece of hi-tech equipment--the emery board, for taking off the remaining outline marks left when I transferred the image to the wood using carbon paper.

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.

Working on the Kickstarter Rewards

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?

I have no idea what wood this is, or even where I got it...
...but it's amazing stuff.

Ups and Downs of an Endangered Alphabet

Tifinagh, the script of the Berber people
Just because I’m working with endangered alphabets doesn’t mean they are static relics, dry as desert sand. In fact, many are being tugged one way or the other every day: some are being studied by academics, some are the subject of efforts at revival, some are the targets of political repression. Some are all three at once.

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

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
hardened sentiments.

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
machine-gun cartridges.

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
for separatism.

“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.

In the Beginning: Mongolian

The carving, the driveway. Photo by Maddy Brookes.

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.

Support the Alphabets Project via Kickstarter

posted in: Uncategorized | 0

That remarkable arts fundraising organization 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.


TV Scripts (No, Not That Kind of Script)

Curbside advertising in Dhaka. See the small print. Photo by the author.

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.

That Mysterious Alphabet Named, and Other Adventures in Amateur Anthropology


Worth traveling 8,000 miles for

As alert readers of this blog know, I’m in Bangladesh in search of an endangered alphabet. To be specific, any one of the scripts used by one of the indigenous peoples living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in south-eastern Bangladesh, over toward the border with Myanmar.

Straight away, it’s only fair to say that I’ve massively underestimated how hard this field work is. All over the world, anthropologists and field linguists are smiling grimly. Yeah, we knew all along.

So here’s a brief rundown. First of all, the combination of the monsoon and the political/security situation–until recently there was virtual civil war in the area–makes it very hard for me to visit the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the hartals have made it all but impossible for me even to visit Chittagong city. So it’s a question of who is in Dhaka, or who is willing to come to Dhaka.

Several people in Bangladesh and elsewhere suggested my best bet was to meet one of the Mro people, and sure enough I was able to gather several possible contacts.

It doesn’t help that the Mro, as a marginalized people, are not wealthy, so they can’t gad about at the whim of an amateur linguist—who is pretty much unable to gad about himself, as the hartals have shut down almost all forms of public transport, and I can’t get a car and driver from any of my host institutions because they won’t put a foreign visitor in jeopardy.

(By the way, I thought this jeopardy business was exaggerated as usual, and I was told that the main centers of demonstration activity weren’t around me anyway—but this morning’s paper showed graphic photos of the Opposition Chief Whip being knuckled hard by police yesterday morning, and parked right outside the guest house yesterday I was slightly alarmed to see not only a police van but a TV news truck. They were expecting something.)

Of the list of contacts I had built up over the past few weeks, one by one (or in one case, two by two) they were melting away. One was off to Singapore, others were out of town, three were simply MIA, perhaps having thought better of my scheme. And a strange non-replacement scheme was taking place: each day someone would hear of my project, their eyes would light up, and they say they knew someone who cold help—and in every case these phantom contacts, too, would turn to vapor.

But the true depth of my naivete was revealed only when I started getting close to actually meeting an actual Mro.

Utpal Khisa, the most consistently helpful man in the country, put me in touch with Mr Ranglai Mro, and I had high hopes—but then it turned out Ranglai was actually back in the CHT. Once I braved the Bangladeshi phone system, though, he gave me the phone number of Kham Lai Mro, though, and  Kham Lai unhesitatingly said yes.

But what exactly was he agreeing to? It turned out that he was in town for just a few days, staying at a hotel all the way across Dhaka, which is like saying all the way across Los Angeles. (Actually, to my nervous visitor’s eye, all the way across the Los Angeles of Blade Runner.) He asked if I could meet him. Of course I wanted to meet him, but there were no taxis, no buses, no available private cars, and it was out of rickshaw range. (There was a brief suggestion that I might hire an ambulance, as ambulances are usually safe during hartals, but no ambulances were available.)

Could he come to me, I asked timidly. I’d cover the cost of his transport. Yes, he said again, decisively. He would come to me at 10 the next morning.

Got up early. Opened up the right pages on my laptop so I could show him examples of what I’m doing. Set aside a fresh, unopened bottle of water, pretty much all I had to offer by way of hospitality. Got out a legal pad for him to write on.

10 came and went. I called him; he was taking care of errands, and could I call him in half an hour. I gave him an hour and called again. He could come in the afternoon. Wonderful. Did he know where I was?

By now it was becoming clear that we had, surprise, surprise, a bit of a language barrier. When he used mainstream English words, I was pretty much with him despite his strong accent, but anything Bengali, such as a street or district name left me groping. “Is there Bengali man in guest house with you?” he asked sensibly, and we added a translator to the negotiations—Mohammed Abdul Wadud, the guest house manager. Wadud did sterling work, and after Kham Lai tried again to get me to come to him, which Wadud firmly discouraged, it was agreed that Kham Lai would come to me at around 4.

With an hour or so to go, the sky opened and we had a brief but vigorous monsoon shower, which is all it took to turn the road into a shallow river of mud. And I was asking poor Kham Lai to make his way all across Dhaka in this.

The delay, as it turned out, was a blessing, because at long, long last it struck me: I was asking someone of uncertain education who spoke English as a third language at best, to understand and write poetry. What the hell was I thinking? If I could barely communicate map directions and times with him, how could I convey the complexities of script loss?

Brainwave:  went downstairs, found Wadud in his office, and implored him to take my little poem and translate it into Bengali. Then Kham Lai could work from that.

Even someone as educated and multilingual as Wadud blinked and hesitated. This writing business is harder than I give it credit for.

He recovered, agreed a little uncertainly and asked if he might have a few minutes to work on it. I agreed with guilty unease, as if I were a pal of T.S. Eliot’s who has asked him to write, say, the Four Quartets, and would he mind getting a move on as I had a train to catch?

A quarter of an hour later, when I was on the brink of assuming that I was completely out of my depth and should leave all this to real anthropologists with some actual, uh, training, Wadud tapped on my door and showed me his work, a printout in Bengali font so crisp and beautiful I wanted to frame it. He walked me through the script, explaining that he had produced a second version with the word “then” added at the beginning of the last line to make it flow better. It was my Rosetta Stone.

No sooner had he retreated shyly from my room when my phone rang. “Your visitor is here, sir,” said the desk man.

In a state that can only be described as a tizzy, I grabbed legal pad, laptop, glasses, room key, two pens, two bottles of water, my phone and my wallet, and tumbled downstairs.

Kham Lai Mro turned out to be a short, handsome man of about thirty-five in alligator polo shirt and khaki pants. He also turned out not to be alone: his friend, in white short-sleeved shirt, jeans and sandals, was clearly ethnically different from Kham Lai, just as Kham Lai was different from your Dhakan on the street.

Sure enough, once we had settled in the lounge upstairs, Kham Lai drew breath and gave a practiced explanation of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As a Mro, he was one of perhaps 75,000, the fourth largest of the ethnic communities; his friend was Marma. Each of the indigenous peoples had their own language, he said: it struck me as remarkable that there was such genetic and linguistic diversity within a relatively small area. Must find out how that came about.

He already understood the importance of one’s own native script. Five of the communities, he said, had their own scripts—he used the word—and could express everything that was important to them. When I showed him my poem in Bengali, with its text stressing the importance of one’s own written language, he read it and nodded approvingly.

He gave a succinct, articulate and remarkably restrained account of the government’s attitude toward and treatment of indigenous peoples of the CHT area (news articles on the subject can readily be found online, as can details of Amnesty International’s involvement) and then I pulled out my legal pad and Wadud’s translation, and asked him to try writing my little poem in Mro.

“Of course,” he said graciously, leaned forward and concentrated.

For the first time in two and a half years working on this project, I watched someone actually writing in an endangered alphabet. He wrote firmly and fluently, pausing to make sure he had correctly translated each word, even offering me two alternatives for one particular phrase. In some respects the characters resembled a Devanagari script, with their superscribed line, but in other respects it seemed its own species, replete with diacriticals above, below and even between letters. I was already imagining myself carving it, wishing I had the same springy élan with the gouge that he had with the ballpoint.

I thought my geeky excitement couldn’t be much greater, but then he explained that his friend was Marma, and thus had his own language and script, distinct from Mro. I couldn’t believe it. I had hoped beyond hope for one endangered alphabet, and I had been granted two.

They worked together, Kham Lai writing and his friend correcting a word or a pen-stroke here and there. In other words, Kham Lai spoke not only Bengali, English and Mro, he also knew Marma and probably more of the CHT languages. No wonder he seemed to be acting as a representative of the entire hilly district.

Once again, Marma was familiar yet unfamiliar, sharing sme characters with Mro but using others of its own.

When they had finished and checked their work diligently, Kham Lai surprised me all over again by asking if I knew the work of the anthropologist Lawrence Lofler. (Or possibly Laurence Loeffler—I haven’t yet been able to track him down.) “He stayed in my grandfather’s village for five years,” he said. “He wrote a book called The Mro.”

I realized I still didn’t know the other man’s name, and, given my tin ear for local accents, might still not know it if he told me. On my request, he carefully wrote his name beneath his sample of Marma, in a curly and loopy Latin script, like roast beef flavored with Bengali spices: Chasa Thowai Marma, of Thanchi district, Bandarban.

Our time was up: they had a long journey home ahead of them. We said our goodbyes and they walked out, side by side, into the monsoon downpour.


The well-traveled legal pad


P.S. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH! And other cries of despair and frustration.

Okay, I am getting the full anthro experience now–namely, I’ve just been told that everything I believed was wrong, and all the work I’ve done has turned out to be next to worthless.

Just met Shantimoy Chakma (like the Mro and the Marma people, the Chakma use their community name as their last name), a wonderful guy who is working on adapting Sesame Street for Bangladesh television. That in itself is a fascinating exercise in preserving and reviving traditional cultural modes, including scripts, among the young, but that’s another story.

He took one look at my legal pad and told me that yes, Kham Lai and Chasa had translated my poem into Mro and Marma respectively, but they had written it in the Bengali script. It looked sort of familiar to me, but then I’m not used to seeing handwritten Bengali and in any case they added their own dialectical diacriticals, so to speak. But the bottom line is–the Mro and Marma scripts look nothing like Bengali.

Shantimoy had brought with him a history of the Chittagong Hill Tract peoples and their scripts–a history he knows all too well, as his father was a noted writer in the traditional Chakma script, but during the fighting in that region their house was burned down twice, all his works were lost, and Shantimoy and his siblings grew up speaking Chakma but unable to read or write it.

All may not be lost, though. He has taken my poem in Bengali, once more approving of its sentiments, and promised to find someone who can write it in Chakma–and, with luck, another friend who can do the same with Marma.

All I can say is, it’s just as well I hadn’t already started carving.

For more on the issue of endangered languages and alphabets in Bangladesh, click here.


Endangered Alphabets: The World Tour

Arabic--the traditional, handwritten style--in Dubai airport
Arabic--the modern, font style--ten feet away in Dubai

(Double-click on these images to see larger versions.)


Well, here’s stage one of the Alphabets World Tour: a trip to Bangladesh in the hope of tracking down a script that is certainly in tiny-minority usage and may well be endangered: Mro, a tribal language and script used in the Chittagong Hill District. (Thanks to Catherine Young of SIL for bringing this to my attention.)

During the 12-hour flight from New York to Dubai on Emirates, all sorts of interesting clues show up, hinting at changes and developments in scripts, and they catch my attention even though they surface in one of the world’s least endangered alphabets: Arabic.

Emirates is, in many ways, the new global airway. Anyone who has spent any time at the airline’s home hub, Dubai airport, has glimpsed the New Asia, the massive shift eastwards of the world’s wealth and influence. Just as the skylines of Hong Kong and Singapore make Manhattan seem small, shabby and out of date, the elegant Asians make the relatively small number of Americans (and Brits) passing through seem unhealthy and threadbare.

All the more interesting, then, that the signage on board our massive split-level Airbus was in both English and Arabic. English is usually the first or larger text, though this isn’t necessarily in defence to America as a world power. English is the lingua franca of South Asia (I’m sitting between a guy from India and a guy from Pakistan, both of whom speak fluent and idiomatic English), and Arabic-speaking Dubai is the entrepot, the gateway to both East Asia and South Asia. It’s fascinating, in fact, given how many destinations Emirates serves in Asia, that the airline feels in almost every instance it can do effective signage in just those two languages. I’ve seen only one sign so far—the No Smoking instructions in the lavatories—that spells out its warnings in (I think) Hindi and (I think) Urdu as well as Arabic, English and, unexpectedly, Russian.

This is the globalization of language at its most rapid and overwhelming. A cabin announcement at the beginning of the flight told us that the cabin crew could speak, between them, Czech, Polish, French, Italian, German, Arabic, Cantonese and Filipino (I may have forgotten a couple). This recognizes the polyglot nature of Emirates’ passengers, but the signage makes it clear that to get by, any Czechs or Filipinos on board had also better speak some English or Arabic.

So far, though, this is all about languages rather than scripts. But something interesting is going on with scripts, too, especially the texts in Arabic.

I really like Arabic: it’s one of the scripts that still explicitly demonstrates its origins in the handwritten word. The broader-and-narrower swoop of its letters implies a pen at work, and the Emirates logo, a structure of glyphs looking much like a Spanish galleon, speaks forcefully about the great Arabic calligraphic tradition of shaping words so they became works of art in themselves.

Most of the signs around the aircraft used this cursive, traditional Arabic script. So far, so good. But the display monitors giving the pre-flight safety instructions were a different story. The English instructions were in the same white-on-black sans serif type used on the iPhone, and to my surprise, the Arabic text was clearly a simplified or modernized form of Arabic script—a revision that had exactly the same amiably chubby rounded contours as iPhone English. Any sense that this was a handwritten script was completely gone: now it was that collision (or collusion) of printing and advertising—a font. The crisp edges of the penmanship were gone, rounded off into simpler and more upright shapes. It was sans serif Arabic, so to speak. Moreover, the bristling diacritics, which to me always make an Arabic word look like a wet black dog energetically shaking itself, had been simplified and prettified into circular dots. Even some of the running cursive connectedness of written Arabic had been broken down until the text as a whole looked the way my students’ handwriting looks: like a series of individual printed characters rather than flowing words. As if typed, in fact.

As I recall, similar simplification has taken place or are taking place in Chinese and other handwriting-based East Asian scripts. Certainly, the signage I saw in Hong Kong had made the same movement away from the brush and the hand and toward the kind of stylized, user-friendly typefaces that were pioneered by London Transport and British Rail 60 years ago.

In short, even different scripts are becoming more alike. It’s not enough that my 35 or so marginal, traditional writing systems are being replaced by a short-list of global alphabets: even the Big Six writing systems are suffering from the imperatives of global McWriting culture.

This may seem like a strange step sideways now, but stay with me. Before I left Europe, I developed a kind of deep existential dread and hatred of Elf gas stations. The point was, even though they were all clean and efficient and well-run, they all looked the same. If you were driving into an Elf station you could be anywhere in Europe—what Howard Kunstler calls “the geography of nowhere.”

But it wasn’t just the forecourts, the pumps and the buildings. The word “Elf” seemed so unlikely a name for a gasoline company, and the children’s-blocks typeface used on the signs was so far from serious business signage that I began to wonder whether the sign said “Elf” at all, and was not instead some playful arrangement of colored squares that had no semantic or phonetic meaning at all.

Maybe that’s the future of public writing: a universal set of shapes and forms that is semi-comprehensible to everyone but has its roots nowhere and in nothing.

Dubai, July 1, 2011


P.S. Later I brought this subject up with my friend Omar Khan (born in Pakistan), who looked at the issue of the handwritten-based script of Arabic from a different point of view. He said that when he learned Arabic in college, he found printed Arabic harder to read fluently than written Arabic. Somehow the cursive form represents not only the way the hand moves, but the way the mind moves. In particular he said he liked the way the diacritical marks (he said, making little flicking marks in the air) embodied that movement, that energy, the elan of writing matching the elan of thought.

He went on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if the hardwritten Arabic script, the script of the Q’ran, was such a profound part of the identity of Islam that if some publisher took it into his head to publish the Q’ran in a modern, sans-serif Arabic, there would be howls of outrage.

What do you think? If you’re an Arabist, a Muslim, a linguist, a religious scholar–what do you think? Please let me know.


1 17 18 19 20 21 22