Exhibit explores endangered alphabets -- experts say there's hope to save some

Tim Brookes of Champlain College and his Endangered Alphabets Project

This article first appeared in the Aug. 8, 2016 edition of the Orange County Register.

FULLERTON, CALIF. - An exhibit at California State University, Fullerton's Pollak Library is bringing specimens from the endangered list to campus - but these aren't rare tigers, rhinos or wolves. They're alphabets, 15 of the world's most critically endangered scripts, known only to a handful of people around the world.

The Endangered Alphabets exhibit is housed in the Salz-Pollak Atrium Gallery and runs through Sept. 19. Fifteen slabs of maple, mahogany, walnut and cherry are affixed to the gallery's walls; carved into their gleaming surfaces is Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each in a different endangered alphabet.
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," the carvings read, in languages from Cherokee to Samaritan, from Lontara to Syriac. "They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."The exhibit is part of a project started in 2009 by Tim Brookes, a professor at Champlain College in Vermont.
Patricia Prestinary, a university archivist overseeing the exhibit, first heard about Brookes from a friend who'd met him playing cricket. The friend sent her a link to Brookes' website, and Prestinary was hooked.
"I immediately fell in love with the carvings and Tim's commitment to spreading the word, so to speak," she said.
Brookes is an associate professor of communication and creative media at the college in Burlington, Vt., with an enrollment of just over 2,000.
In 2009, he was making Christmas gifts for family members - wooden signs carved from odds and ends he picked up at a hardware store. Brookes wanted to carve something in Malayalam, a script used mostly in the southern Indian state of Kerala. He googled Malayalam and stumbled across Omniglot, an online encyclopedia of alphabets extant and extinct.Brookes was surprised to find that while over 6,000 languages are spoken around the world, fewer than 100 alphabets are used in writing. He was even more surprised to learn that a full third of them are endangered.
An endangered alphabet, Brookes explained, is an alphabet that's no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government and known only to an aging, scattered few.When an alphabet dies out, it leads to a kind of cultural amnesia that can't be reversed, Brookes said.
"All that written material, the record of centuries, quickly becomes incomprehensible to the very people who created it. They lose their history and much of the cumulative knowledge of their culture," he said.
The loss of spoken languages has been studied extensively, he said, but the loss of written languages has received less attention. Often, a culture will retain its spoken language but replace its written system with a more commonly used alphabet like Latin or Chinese.Brookes said five alphabets dominate the world today: Latin, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Cyrillic.
Endangered Alphabet Prestinary said the exhibit is key to understanding the effects of globalization on language - effects that may not be apparent to members of an English-speaking culture. Globalization encouraged - and sometimes forced - non-English speakers to learn the English language and write in the Latin script. English often became the language and Latin the alphabet of commerce and politics.
Franz Mueller, a professor of linguistics at CSUF who researches endangered languages, said languages and scripts usually wind up on the endangered list after being "displaced by larger languages."
"Speakers of minority languages find it to their advantage to take up an economically or politically dominant language," he said.
While children will continue to speak and write in their native language at home, they'll speak and write in the dominant language at school. Eventually, he said, their native tongue becomes the "less useful language."
Mueller believes endangered alphabets can be kept alive if schools in minority language communities commit to teaching children the native scripts. He pointed to the Balinese alphabet - one of the 15 displayed at the exhibit - as an example.
In Bali, an island province of Indonesia, people speak both Indonesian, the national language, and Balinese, the native tongue. Balinese is taught in local primary schools, and Mueller believes this will keep the Balinese alphabet alive.
The problem is there is very little to actually read in Balinese - most print media is only in Indonesian, he said.
When Brookes started the project in 2009, "it seemed as though the change was all downhill," he said. More languages and alphabets were regularly vanishing.
But in recent years, he's seen some changes for the better. The Internet has helped far-flung speakers and writers of little-known languages connect with one another. New font software can digitize non-traditional alphabets. And experts like Brookes can track down and communicate with native speakers through social media.
One such speaker is Tareq Senhaji, a Moroccan man who can read and write in Tifinagh. Tifinagh is an ancient Berber alphabet and one of the 15 displayed in the exhibit. Senhaji, who is of Berber ancestry, learned Tifinagh on the Internet, from a variety of apps, webpages and social media sites.
He discovered Brookes' work on YouTube, and reached out to him online.
Learning Tifinagh has been "a source of pride and honor, and an homage toward my Berber ancestors and a duty toward my own identity," he said.
Brookes will visit CSUF this fall to speak about the project. CSUF faculty from the school's anthropology, history, education and linguistics departments will also present their research on endangered languages and alphabets. Prestinary said she hopes the lectures will offer an interdisciplinary perspective on endangered languages and alphabets.
Saving these alphabets is a race against time, and the stakes are high. When a culture loses its alphabet, it loses more than just its system of writing things down.
Languages and alphabets dictate how their speakers, readers and writers interpret the world around them, Mueller said.
"Each language represents a unique prism through which to see the world," he said. "Languages have many words that are untranslatable, except through some long, unwieldy description."
He pointed to the Brazilian word cafuné as a case in point - cafuné means "to soothingly run your fingers through someone's hair to comfort them."
"What a beautiful concept, and what a shame we have no such word in English," he said.

Learn more about the Endangered Alphabets Project

Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit champlain.edu.