Dear Friend of the Endangered Alphabets:
We’ve just completed one of our most ambitious projects yet: the Mother Tongue project.
The plan was to carve the phrase “mother tongue” in four alphabets of Bangladesh (where International Mother Language Day was born): the national language of Bangla and three indigenous endangered languages: Mro, Marma and Chakma.
Thanks to supporters like yourself, we succeeded beyond our hopes or expectations.
First, the Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to send the carving for exhibition in Bangladesh met its goal of $1,000 within the first 24 hours. I’ve run several Kickstarters, but none that has achieved so much so quickly.
Next, thanks to photographer Tom Way and designer Alec Julien we created a poster, based on the Bangladesh carving, for International Mother Day. The poster went viral on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Students all over the Boston area had themselves photographed holding the poster to show support for cultural preservation and the right of minorities to speak, read and write in their own languages. (See photos at the head of this post.)
All this publicity led to a wide variety of new friends hearing about and being drawn to the Endangered Alphabets. In the past month alone, we’ve made contacts who can furnish me with texts in no fewer than eight endangered writing systems I haven’t yet carved. That’s astonishing. Plans for carvings for International Mother Language Day in 2017 are already under way.
Finally, the Bangladesh carving was recently unveiled at an arts complex in Chittagong to a wonderful reception (see below).
Thanks again for your interest in the Endangered Alphabets. I hope we can continue to count on your support as the range of our activities develops and we get closer to the goal of a world in which everyone has the right to speak, read and write in his or her own language of birth.
Today is International Mother Language Day. Here are photos of Harvard students observing and celebrating the day with copies of our poster, based on my Mother Tongue poster that has been shipped to Bangladesh for display in Chittagong.
Photos by Maung Nyeu, our collaborator on the Our Golden Hour education project. Poster design by Alec Julien. Please share this posting, and message me if you would like a high-resolution image of the poster.
For more information on International Mother Language Day activities, click HERE.
I’d like to note that February 21 is the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, which this year emphasizes the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in early years of schooling. It facilitates access to education – while promoting fairness – for population groups that speak minority and indigenous languages, in particular girls and women; it raises the quality of education and learning achievement by laying emphasis on understanding and creativity, rather than on rote and memorisation.
This event was the focus of the Kickstarter campaign initiated by Tim Brookes to create the carving featured on the poster above, and send it to Bangladesh where it will be displayed at Bistaar (the arts complex in Chittagong) as part of the Mother Language Day festivities. The effort almost doubled its goal (originally $1000), and the excess will be used to foster other goals related to Endangered Alphabets.
I initially became involved with these efforts because of my general interest in language and writing systems. In fact, a major component of anything I teach revolves around the importance of the visual communication of stories, ideas, and the human experience in general. This week’s topic in Art History 1, for example, focuses on illuminated manuscripts, some of the most beautiful objects ever created by human beings.
But we often forget that without language, and without a code in which to communicate that language on a readable surface, many aspects of human experience and history would be lost to us.
I’m frequently reminded that I’m not alone in my interest and concern, even though the linguistic desert in which I live makes me feel that way sometimes. My news feeds in the last week or so were full of information on Genevieve von Petzinger‘s research in caves around the world. She has recorded geometric signs found at 146 rock art sites, and categorized them according to shape in order to begin to understand what they might mean. A handy chart of these is available on the Bradshaw Foundation pages that describe her work. The variety of signs and their contexts may eventually lead to better understandings of why people have made these marks over such a long period (from the Paleolithic on) and over such an immense space. And even though controversy exists (and will most likely persist), it seems clear that early human populations “meant” something by them. They don’t have to be a form of writing in order to communicate somethingto their “readers.” But in essence, because we’ll probably never really understand them ourselves, that something is lost to us.
English speakers in general, and Americans in particular, seem to be confident that our own mother tongue is so pervasive that it won’t suffer meet its demise in the foreseeable future. It’s precisely because of its ubiquity that it will no doubt remain one of the most-spoken and most-read languages in the world. But the history of language is abrim with examples of languages and/or writing systems that have been lost to one extent or another–from Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mycenaean Linear B, and now Mayan (pretty well entirely deciphered) to Etruscan and Minoan Linear A (either only partially understood or completely undeciphered except for sound values).
Decipherment of not-yet-understood scripts is a tricky business. One must have a large enough collection of samples in order to establish a frequency of signs, and the underlying language must be recognizable. So with the Rosetta Stone, Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young had a “crib” via Greek, and when Champollion realized that the third script must be Demotic (related to modern Coptic), the code could be broken. (The BBC article on the decipherment provides a nice summary of the process.) After Mayanists such as David Stuart, Linda Schele, Yuri Knorozov, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff (among many others) had collected various bits and pieces of how the Mayan language worked from many different discoveries, Mayan was fairly rapidly deciphered. And when Michael Ventris realized that Linear Bmight be Greek (a notion dismissed by most at the time), he was able to figure out that the script did indeed record an early dialect of Greek.
Over the past twenty years, the plight of the world’s endangered languages has attracted increased academic and political attention. The figures are sobering. At least half of the world’s more than 6,000 languages are so seriously endangered that they are likely to die out in the course of the present century. (Brookes 7)
Even more troubling, as Crystal goes on to note,
Around a third of the world’s languages have never been written down, and when one of those dies, it leaves no evidence of its existence behind. (Brookes 8)
Efforts like the Endangered Alphabets project and the Endangered Languages Project, and organizations like BASAbali@ARMA,UNESCO, The National Geographic Society, the Endangered Language Alliance in New York City, Living Tongues, and others provide education, language training and/or research into preserving and reviving dying languages.
For an eloquent appraisal of the problem, and more background, see Judith Thurman’s March 30, 2015 article in the New Yorker, “A Loss For Words: Can a Dying Language be Saved?”
As a parting shot, I would like to remind folks that language is one of the major components of being human. It enables us to think and to participate fully in our cultures, as well as to communicate with one another. It’s also our birthright. So if we dismiss the language in which we were educated, and treat it as if it were some throwaway commodity, we will ultimately diminish ourselves. English may be in no immediate danger of disappearing, but its depth and the craft of expressing it are suffering under the weight of modernity.
To celebrate International Mother Language Day, here are some suggestions: visit some of the links above to discover the breadth of the problem and learn about some of the solutions people are developing. And for English speakers who are not yet concerned about diminishing language skills, here are two articles, one I found only recently and that describes the consequences of diminished vocabulary (“The Limits of Our Vocabulary Reflect the Limits of Our World,” by Anna Brix Thomsen for The Hampton Institute), and the other a classic that I’ve used in every critical thinking class I’ve ever taught (George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language“).
Then go out and write something beautiful.
Less than 24 hours to go in our Mother Tongues Kickstarter! Please join in the final push to get us to $2,000. The Mother Tongue carving is done and en route to Bangladesh, the International Mother Languages Day poster is designed and ready, now we need to lay the groundwork for even more ambitious Mother Tongue projects for 2017. Help us get there by pledging at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1496420787/mother-tongues/, or by clicking HERE.
My apologies if you’ve heard this through another channel, but I wanted to let you know what’s happening with my current Kickstarter campaign.
The original goal was for a short, sweet campaign to raise $1,000 so I could do a carving celebrating Mother Tongue Day (February 21st) and send it to Bangladesh, where there are several endangered minority languages.
Support was so great we broke that $1,000 in barely 24 hours.
At this point we’ve been going about 36 hours, and here’s what the pledges have already helped to pay for:
* materials, including a lovely piece of wide cherry, full of color and character, for the Mother Tongue carving;
* cost of high-quality, high-resolution photography that will enable us to create the International Mother Language Day poster based on an image of the Mother Tongue carving (see the image below);
* design fee for laying out and creating the poster;
* shipping cost to send the carving to Bistaar, the arts complex in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where it will be displayed as part of that country’s Mother Tongue celebrations on February 21st.
But here’s the thing: the pledges are still coming in. With every additional dollar we’ll be able to plan follow-up Mother Tongue carvings for 2017. I’d love to make a Mother Tongue carving for Indonesia and the Philippines–and what about the mother tongues of the indigenous peoples of North America! I can just see it, a vast slab of wood tipped up on end, with the phrase “mother tongue” carved in dozens of languages indigenous to North America: Cree, Cherokee, Navajo….
Keep supporting the work of the Endangered Alphabets.
Keep those pledges coming to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1496420787/mother-tongues/. Or click HERE.
Thanks so much.
Last month, I drove down to Cambridge to deliver the latest pieces in our work to help indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
Several carvings have come back from a gallery and my condo is overrun with pieces of wood. I have neither the wall space nor the horizontal-display-space space for them all. So a little housecleaning is in order. Huge savings! Up to 65% off!
The first item, ladies and gents, is the Tibetan for “Inner strength,” carved in stunning bubinga wood and painted in gold. Based on calligraphy by the monk Tashi Mannox, whose work I have recommended to you a hundred times. Dimensions: 24″ tall x 5″ wide. Originally priced at $450, now on sale for a mere $250. SOLD
Now we come to an amazing piece of wood, a highly distressed piece of maple whose grain gave me the idea for the word I carved in classical Mongolian bichig script: Sunrise. Dimensions: 16″ tall x 8″ wide. Original price was $750, now yours for only $350.
This piece reads “Welcome” in traditional Javanese script. Dimensions: 16″ wide x 10″ tall. Once $400, now a mere $200. SOLD
On wood like newly-stirred chocolate (which I’m fairly sure is curly mahogany) the Assyrian inscription, from a poem by St. Ephrem (306-373 A.D.), reads:
Do not acquire gold and silver
A deadly poison is in them
Rather acquire a good education
You will gain the love of God.
Dimensions: 18″ wide x 9″ tall. Original price: $900. Sale price: $350.
INQUIRIES AND ORDERS
I don’t have time to throw a PayPal button together, so please email me (email@example.com) with questions and orders.
NOTE: the above prices do NOT include packing and shipping.
Looking for seasonal gifts you know your friends and family won’t already have? Go to https://society6.com/endangeredalphabets for Endangered Alphabets smartphone cases, wall clocks, throw pillows, tote bags–everything they might want!
It’s even not too late to order an Endangered Alphabets carving at http://timbrookesinc.com/endangeredalphabets/gallery/.
Remember: all proceeds support the work of the Endangered Alphabets Project.
Dear Friend of the Endangered Alphabets:
I hope you recently received my message with the great news that the Endangered Alphabets Project is now officially a 501c3 non-profit. In other words, donations to the Alphabets are now tax-deductible.
I’d like to tell you about the worthwhile and ambitious projects the Alphabets will be taking on in 2016.
Over the past three years, many of you have supported our work in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. As you may recall, this is a region where standard education is in the national language of Bangla, which most indigenous children don’t speak or understand. As a result, fewer than 5% of children survive their education as far as 10th grade. Girls’ education is especially likely to suffer.
At the time of my first Kickstarter appeal we were hoping to make carvings and publish a coloring book for one new K-8 school where some 80 indigenous children could be educated in their mother tongues.
As I write this email, more than 600 children at three schools are using not only the coloring books but alphabet stamps, writing journals, and storybooks (based on tales from the Hill Tracts) through 10th grade. Every classroom door has a carving that shows its grade in the numerals of the region. For more about the project, click HERE.
In 2016 we hope to expand our efforts still farther and create a pictorial children’s dictionary in the indigenous languages of Mro, Marma, Chakma and Tripura. This is a massive undertaking, the first of its kind, and it will be a huge step forward in giving these children a sense of their cultural identity and value, and helping them receive an education that may make the difference between poverty for them and future generations, or stability and self-respect.
I hope you’ll support our work by going to http://timbrookesinc.com/endangeredalphabets/donate/.
P.S. This just in: after five years of searching, I’ve finally managed to contact someone who is working to recover and revive the Bamum language of Cameroon. This tragic-but-inspiring story is so much at the heart of my work that I dedicated my book Endangered Alphabets to King Ibrahim Njoya of Bamum, who called on his people to help him create their alphabet. For the full story, click HERE.