Great news!

Dear Friends of the Endangered Alphabets:

Great news! The Endangered Alphabets Project is now officially—I have the letter from the nice people at the IRS—a 501c3 non-profit. In other words, donations to the Alphabets are now tax-deductible.

In a few days I’ll be sending out a personal email telling you about the exciting, worthwhile and ambitious projects the Alphabets will be taking on in 2016.

I hope you’ll take this year-end opportunity to support us.

Thanks, as always.

Tim Brookes

A tragic tale, a hopeful future

shumomSome amazing news. Thanks to the help of Dan Kaufman of the Endangered Language Alliance, I’ve finally managed to contact someone who knows Bamum.

Here’s the backstory. I’ve been looking for someone who can read and write Bamum, a script from one of the many districts of Cameroon, ever since I started the Alphabets more than five years ago, and my book Endangered Alphabets was dedicated to King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum people for reasons I’ll now explain.

Like most kingdoms in colonial Africa, the official writing system of Bamum was the Latin alphabet of the European colonists–until around 1895. At that point King Njoya sent word out to his people that he planned to create a script specifically for their language, Shupamem, using their help.

He asked for them to send him what we might call icons–in other words, glyphs and images, perhaps taken from traditional weaving or pottery designs, perhaps entirely novel shapes–that would serve as letter symbols. In other words, not only was this not a European invention, but it consisted of images familiar to the people who would use it.

By 1903 he had collected some 465 symbols and whittled them down to 73. The administrative map of the kingdom and an impressive amount of administrative records and legal codes were archived using the Bamum scripts. The king created schools in Foumban (the capital of the Bamum Kingdom) and other surrounding towns to teach the writing system and Shupamem to the community. The writing system was used to keep the record of the history of the kingdom, and to write recipes for traditional medicine, cartography, personal correspondence, many folktales and the genealogy of the Kingdom.

The king also collected numerous manuscripts containing the history of his people, and used his script to compile a pharmacopoeia, to design a calendar, and to keep records and for law. He also built schools, libraries and set up a printing press.

All was well while Cameroon was under German colonial control, but at the end of World War I the French took over the country. The French colonial authorities destroyed the libraries and the printing press, many of the books in the Bamum script were destroyed, and the teaching of the script in schools was banned. King Njoya was driven into exile, where he died.

After Cameroon became independent in 1960, Nyoja’s son and heir, Seidou Njimoluh, collected such Bamum manuscripts and other materials that survived and put them in his father’s museum. Even so, nowadays the script is in such decline that according to the leading scholar of the subject only one man, a traditional healer, uses the Bamum script as his first and only means of writing.

King Njoya’s astonishingly far-sighted and surprisingly populist actions led me to dedicate my book to him. But I couldn’t find anyone who can speak Shupramem, the Bamum language, or write its script until two days ago, when I started corresponding with Dr. Abdoulaye Laziz Nchare, a Cameroonian linguist living in New York.

These are early days, but I’m hoping to carve some proverbs in Bamum, to contribute to a conference Dr Nchare is planning, and to play the same kind of role I (and other members of the Alphabets team) have been playing in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

If you’d like to help, or know anyone who might help, don’t hesitate to contact me through this website!



News, and a Request for Suggestions

The Tibetan table
The Tibetan table

Hey, everyone. I come to you with news, but I also want some advice and suggestions about my Endangered Alphabets project (

As some of you know, I was planning to spend my spring 2016 sabbatical Down Under, showing the carvings, giving talks on them and the issue of cultural endangerment, and searching Indonesia for people who can still read and write some of the imperiled writing systems I have not yet carved. Plus a visit to Bangladesh to meet my collaborators in the Chittagong Hill Tracts project.

Well. Turns out that the various colleges, libraries and other institutions in Australia that were planning to host me are not allowed to pay their speakers. Also turns out that Isis chapters in Bangladesh and Indonesia have been dismayingly active, and in Bangladesh in particular several foreigners have been hacked to death with machetes. So the trip is not going to happen, at least for now.

This is where you come in. I’m always up for new ideas and challenges, and I’m not vain enough to believe I have all the answers. So I’d like advice on these two issues.

What shall I do with my sabbatical? Obviously I plan to keep carving and giving talks, but does anyone have any specific suggestions about direction, venue, project?

What shall I do with the incredible Tibetan blessing table made by Tim Peters and myself? It needs a good home, and my place is too small (and I already have my Balinese blessing table. Some lucky friend/relative’s Christmas present?

Thanks for any and all suggestions!


Ted Talking: Tomorrow!

For those who live within an easy drive of southwestern Vermont: I’ll be in Manchester, Vermont this weekend taping a TedX talk on Saturday at SVAC. The event features a slate of speakers, and there is an admission charge, but as the Alphabets and I are not in that neck of the woods often, I’d love it if you’d come by to see the show and grab me for a chat afterwards.

Details at http:/ Swing by!

Alphabets All Over the Place

The Alphabets at the South End Art Hop
The Alphabets at the South End Art Hop

September is always the busiest month for the Endangered Alphabets, and this year is no exception: one successful public show has already happened, one opportunity for you to see me and the Alphabets live is coming up, and at the end of the month I’m launching my most ambitious Kickstarter campaign yet, for my most ambitious new Alphabets project.
Last Friday/Saturday/Sunday a selection of the Alphabets visited Sterling Hardwoods, source of much of my wood, on Pine Street in Burlington. Friday evening was a mob scene, Saturday was brisk and Sunday sedate, but on each day the visitors included not only the interested and the interesting, but some potentially wonderful contacts.
On Friday evening a young exchange student from Burlington High School turned out to be from Sumatra, one of the islands that make up Indonesia, the country that has more endangered alphabets than any other. Believe me, I’m hoping for some follow-up there, especially in light of my upcoming Kickstarter (see below).
Other visitors included a Cherokee, a Tibetan, a developer of language apps–the whole of Art Hop was a field day of possibilities. As the hardest part of my work is finding someone who can send me text to carve, it’s wonderful when those people end up coming to me!Tibetan table with legs1
And coming up, our annual appearance at the Vermont Forest Festival (formerly the Vermont Festival of Woodworking and Fine Furniture), to be held this year in the Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday and Sunday, September 26 and 27. This appearance will include the largest and most striking piece I’ve carved, the Tibetan-blessing dining table. Tibetan table withlegs4Five feet across, it features the blessing/mantra phrase “Graceful kindness” repeating six times around the tabletop. It also has the most graceful and amazing no-nail leg structure that slots together, designed by my collaborator Tim Peters. Drop by if you’re in the neighborhood!Tibetan table with legs5
But the biggest news of all is…roll on the drums… I’m planning to expand the work I’ve been doing in publishing children’s learning materials in endangered alphabets. In February-April 2016, if I can raise the funds, I’ll be traveling to Indonesia and Bangladesh to collaborate with teachers who are trying to reintroduce traditional scripts into the classroom–an endeavor rather like the efforts to reintroduce cursive into schools in the U.S. My students at Champlain College and I have already helped in creating and publishing a wide range of classroom materials for indigenous children in Bangladesh; now I hope to start a similar liaison in Indonesia.

Please consider supporting my campaign when it launches on October 1, and please alert friends and colleagues to what I’m trying to do.


Among the Windmills

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The Alphabets are now installed (and beautifully lit) at the Tilting at Windmills Gallery in Manchester Center, Vermont, and well worth a drive to see them, though I say so myself.

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The show was launched at a poetry reading on Saturday, July 11th, a gracious, humorous, thoughtful affair that was well attended by visitors of all ages.

As always, the Alphabets (in this instance, mostly carvings in Balinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian) prompted a host of interesting questions, as well as a great deal of support for the issues of cultural and linguistic preservation. Several people brought up the possibility of funding for the Alphabets activities in Bangladesh and Indonesia, where we are going beyond simply documenting vanishing writing systems and moving toward creating educational materials that will enable schoolchildren to learn in their own mother tongues.

If you would like to help support these vital activities, which have already affected the lives of hundreds of children, please contact me through the website.



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Tilting at Windmills

Good news: a generous selection of the Endangered Alphabets carvings will be on display (and on sale) at Tilting at Windmills Gallery in scenic downtown Manchester Center in southwestern Vermont.

The opening, complete with poetry reading and talk on the Alphabets, will be on Saturday, July 11, starting at 5 p.m. Please come, if you’re in the area.

The show will include several new pieces, but the centerpiece, without doubt, will be the Tibetan Blessing Table, which has made its appearance in this blog as I have carved the circular mandala-like blessing in the top and my friend The Other Tim (a.k.a. Tim Peters) has made the legs.

And speaking of the legs–what a stunning piece of design, in addition to their delightful lines! Tim made them so they could be dismantled and reassembled without a single nail or screw. They slot together in a way that is both Shaker and Archimedian.

Anticipating that the buyer might want some instruction, we made two videos that show how they come apart, and go together. They’re pretty massive files, though, and I can’t upload them here. Working on a solution….

In the meantime, check out the stills!

Tibetan table with legs2

Tibetan table with legs3Tibetan table withlegs4

The Tibetan Table–With Legs!

Tibetan table with legs1

Spectacular news! My friend and partner in crime The Other Tim (aka master craftsman Tim Peters) has finished the substructure to the Tibetan table. All it needs is several coats of finish and then it’s done, and ready to be taken down to Tilting at Windmills Gallery in Manchester, Vermont, on Monday, July 6, where it will be on show (and for sale) through August.
Tim took several photos to show you the joinery and craftsmanship and general awesomeness of his work. I think it’s just stunning.
Tibetan table with legs2

Tibetan table with legs3

Tibetan table withlegs4

Tibetan table withlegs5



Just as a reminder, the calligraphy is based on work by Tashi Mannox, and if it sells, 20 percent of my part of the profit will go to Rokpa International, a non-profit caring for children in the Himalayas–a vital resource at this time in particular.

The Table, the Flying Saucer

See the resemblance?

Remember the scene in the first Men in Black film where the bug man jams his flying saucer into the exterminator’s van and drives off in search of the Universe?
Well, the good news is that I’ve carved and painted the Tibetan tabletop and my colleague The Other Tim has taken it back to his shop to add beautifully-crafted legs.
But in his pickup, it did look like a flying saucer…

The text, as you may recall, is based on the wonderful Buddhist calligraphy of Tashi Mannox. It reads “graceful kindness,” repeated six times, so it acts as a kind of mantra.
In theory. To be honest I know very little about Buddhism or mantras. But that’s the intent.

Anyway, we had to wait for a break in this rain, which is doing wonderful things for my new plantings but would not be kind to the tabletop. Finally we had a clear, bright, early-summer day, and it was time for me to say goodbye to the item that, like a stylish wooden alien, has been occupying most of my house for the past six weeks.

It's less like a flying saucer from the side. That's the Other Tim.

And one of the great pleasures of that absence is that finally I could see the original Endangered Alphabets table again.
For those of you who don’t know it, it’s maple and walnut, and in the top I carved a blessing I wrote and had translated into Balinese.
It reads:

Bless this food
Bless these people
Bless the table
That brought them together.

My table back

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