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Vermont Artist Highlights Endangered Alphabets

All over the world, languages are vanishing. On average, 10 languages disappear for good each and every year. Many of these are spoken languages only, without an alphabet of their own. However, even languages that are written down are in danger of disappearing, taking their alphabets with them. Tim Brookes, a Vermont travel writer and artist, is trying to raise awareness of this issue with his new exhibition: 13 rare alphabets carved and painted into real Vermont maple. Some of the alphabets featured in the exhibition include Balinese, Inuktitut (used by the Cree and Ojibwa tribes of Canada), Khmer, Manchu and many others.

The Endangered Alphabets project will be on display in Vermont starting May 7-8th. Each of the 14 plaques has the same phrase inscribed on it, albeit in a different script: Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads as follows:

“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 writing samples were collected primarily via email, and once Brookes had a copy of that phrase written out in one of the alphabets, he carved it by hand into sturdy maple and added paint to make it stand out. In an article about the exhibit on TimesArgus.com, Brookes explained why he chose maple as a material, saying:

“These languages are endangered – let’s create something that’s lasting.”

Since Brookes doesn’t actually speak these languages, he had to trust that the information that was given would be correct. There are some mistakes in some of the plaques-but part of the point of the project is to illustrate how easily a language is lost when people stop speaking it, so the inaccuracies actually add to the impact of the art rather than detracting from it.  The accompanying book is set to be published in June. In addition to describing each of the alphabets in the exhibition, the book will also examine the process by which writing develops and the meanings that different scripts convey.

The Endangered Alphabets Project In Bangladesh

Almost a year ago, we had the honor of publishing a guest post from Vermont artist Tim Brookes, of the Endangered Alphabets project. The Endangered Alphabets project aims to bring attention to endangered alphabets through a series of beautiful wood carvings.

Now, Mr. Brookes is starting a new project, this time focused on the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. The Chittagong Hill Tracts are home to 13 different indigenous groups. Their languages have so far withstood military conflict and an influx of settlers, but they are now very much endangered, as children grow up speaking the national language, Bengali, instead.

To help preserve these languages and the alphabets they are written in, the Endangered Alphabets project has set up a Kickstarter project to fund the creation of a set of children’s textbooks in these languages. The books will be created by Maung Nyeu, a native of the area who is building a school for indigenous children where they can study in their own languages.

As he explained on the project’s Kickstarter page,

“I’m trying to create children books in our alphabets – Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and others. This will help not only save our alphabets, but also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communications, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”

The scripts will also become part of the Endangered Alphabets exhibition. In each language, Mr. Brookes will make a copy of the following poem, written for the project:

“These are our words, shaped

By our hands, our tools,

Our history. Lose them

And we lose ourselves.”

Currently, the project has raised $6, 685 out of $10,000 needed, with 16 days to go before it closes.