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.

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.

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