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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