Endangered Alphabets

The Translator’s Toolkit again sends us down a fascinating rabbit hole. This time it’s the Endangered Alphabets project, in which those that will be lost soon are carved into Vermont Maple by artist Tim Brookes:

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.

(For e)very one of the Endangered Alphabets (Inuktitut, Baybayin, Manchu, Bugis, Bassa Vah, Cherokee, Samaritan, Mandaic, Syriac, Khmer, Pahauh Hmong, Balinese, Tifinagh and Nom)… the text is the same–namely, Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in 1948 at the foundation of the United Nations: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The irony, of course, is that many of these forms of writing are endangered precisely because human beings do not always act towards one another in that spirit.

Apart from the dedication to preserving languages, I quite like the artist’s involvement with language:

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 of 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.

There are some examples of Tim’s work on the site – Balinese, Mongolian, Samaritan.