Vermont Artist Highlights Endangered Alphabets

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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, 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.