I had no idea, when I started the Endangered Alphabets Project in 2009, that my greatest asset would be my ignorance, and that what would make this language-and-culture endeavour something new and unusual was that I had absolutely no training or expertise as either an anthropologist or a linguist.
Its beginnings were both humble and accidental. I started carving text in wood because I had no money, and I needed to make my family Christmas presents. My then-wife wanted a sign to go outside her office, and it turned out that everyone on my list needed a carved sign, or could be persuaded they needed a carved sign. After Christmas I switched to Chinese characters, carved like monograms into people’s tables, shelves, even a flute case and then, just because I wanted to try a different character set, I stumbled onto Omniglot.com.
I’ve only recently grasped what a real trained linguist sees when looking at what I saw on Omniglot. Here’s an exchange that recently took place on my Facebook page when I posted a carving of the Balinese word that I’ve been told is pronounced suksma and means “thank you”:
CRM: Doesn’t that read “sukasma”, since the second letter has neither a vowel sign nor a conjunct letter below it?
EL: I believe the conjunct letter is the truncated retroflex <ṣa> immediately to the right of the <k> grapheme, so this would read su-k-ṣ-ma.
CRM: Right on the initial of a conjunct pair here, namely the retroflex <S> (sorry, my phone doesn’t have the needed character), so by virtue of the subscript bound <-m> allograph below it, it is read without an added vowel while the <-m> has the added default /a/ reading. On the other hand, the <k> has no added bound graphemes, so it has to be read with an added/a/. Hence ‘su ka sØma’.
When I read that I felt a sudden terrifying vertigo, as if I had swum three strokes away from the beach and looked down to discover the ocean was now a thousand feet deep and filled with barracuda.
Yet those correspondents are not only Facebook friends but active supporters of the Endangered Alphabets. And that, in a nutshell, is the paradox of my situation. Working with languages I can’t read, carving verbs I can’t conjugate, I’ve stumbled in through an intellectual back door to discover I’m not only tolerated at the language table, I’m welcomed. The Endangered Alphabets carvings have been displayed at Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, the Smithsonian Institution. So how and why did this feat, which still sometimes seems like a con trick, work?
From that first visit to Omniglot two things were in my favor, I think. The first has to do with the nature of writing. Not being able to speak these languages I had no sense of their phonetic component; not being able to understand them I had no sense of their semantic value. That left the purely graphic component, which immediately threw up all kinds of fascinating questions. Why was the Inuktitut script so mathematical? Why was Baybayin so damn thin it was hard to carve and even harder to paint? Why were the letters of Samaritan off balance? Why did Cherokee have serifs on curves—and come to think of it, why did it have serifs at all?
And the more I looked at these unfamiliar scripts, the more I wondered about English. Why were we so smitten with the Latin alphabet—to such an extent that the default academic font was called Times New Roman? Why were we so keen on parallels, right angels, circles, the Euclidean forms that are in fact impossible to write freehand? What does English have against diacriticals, when other languages embrace them to such an extent that some scripts look like a large wet black dog shaking itself?
Everyone with a serious training in language, I assumed, must know the answers to these questions. But in fact I was looking at writing from angles that were so unusual the answers turned out to be very hard to find. So I set to work with the assumption that I would learn something important simply by forcing myself to carve these texts, walking in another culture’s verbal shoes. And in fact I did, and I still do.
The second advantage my ignorance gave me was that instead of specialising in a particular language or language family, I took on writing as a whole. This gave me a curiously broad panorama, a comparative perspective that was literally global. And that, too, led me to ask some odd questions.
How has the development of writing been affected by the physics of the technologies involved? Can you tell which way up an unfamiliar script goes just by looking at it and imagining the natural and unnatural movements involved in the act of writing? What happens when writing is influenced by two contradictory impulses—the impulse toward simplification and the impulse toward elaboration? What will happen to writing when the fundamental act involves not the radius-over-ulna turn of the wrist but the lightning-fast attack of twin thumbs?
In his introduction to my book Endangered Alphabets, David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bangor, Wales, and author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (among other standard but amazingly readable works on language), wrote:
“Endangered Alphabets is one of a growing genre of accounts of work that is steadily humanizing linguistics, exploring the motivation of those who study languages and those who are the subjects of study. Our appreciation of the character of written language has been greatly increased by Tim Brookes’ sculptural odyssey.”
Which is not to say I feel in any way superior to trained linguists—who in addition to actually knowing (unlike me) what they’re talking about, have been uniformly gracious and welcoming to this writer-woodworker-guitarist who has showed up at their conferences and classrooms to show off his wares.
If anything, the fact that people everywhere find the Alphabets interesting argues that language, spoken and written, should be studied by a coalition of all the disciplines involved in its creation. We are all makers of language, users of language, students of language.
And with that lofty sentiment I’ll leave you before Security frisks me and discovers I have sharp carving tools in my pocket, and under interrogation I confess I still have no idea of the difference between a phoneme and a morpheme.
My Endangered Alphabets Project has just launched our year’s most important Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. My aim is to raise $15,000 to create a major exhibition of carvings for International Mother Language Day in February 2017. Each carving will say “mother tongue” in an endangered minority script. When that exhibition is done, I plan to dismantle it and ship the individual carvings to community organizations in the countries of origin that are working to preserve endangered cultures and their languages. Please support us at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1496420787/the-right-to-read-the-right-to-write/.
Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets project (www.endangeredalphabets.com), whose carvings have been exhibited all over North America including at Harvard, Yale, and the Smithsonian Institution. He is also the author of 16 books, details of which can be found at www.timbrookesinc.com.