Endangered alphabets
Tim Brookes TMAG

Why does it matter if an alphabet is endangered?

  • Carving Marma Fonts into a wooden slate 
    Photo- Courtesy
  • Carving Marma Fonts into a wooden slate 
    Photo- Courtesy
  • Chakma Fonts engraved into the trunk of a tree 
    Photo- Courtesy
  • Mro Fonts engraved into the trunk of a tree 
    Photo- Courtesy
  • Marma inscription on a slate of wood 
    Photo- Courtesy

All over the world, a tragedy is taking place—a tragedy most people don't know about. People are losing their languages, and their alphabets.

The world has between 6,000 and 7,000 languages, half of which are expected to die out by the end of this century. But those languages are written in only about 100 alphabets, and at least a third of those 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.

Sometimes an alphabet disappears because one country is invaded by another. Sometimes it disappears because in an age of computers there isn't a keyboard for it, or a set of fonts. Sometimes a government decides that the entire country should speak the same language, or use the same alphabet, even though minority groups may have their own languages, their own alphabets.

I've found endangered alphabets (some very strange-looking, some very beautiful) from Indonesia, Canada, Iraq, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, North Africa—and Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has at least three endangered alphabets: Mro, Marma, and Chakma. All are still in use, to some degree, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Why does it matter if an alphabet is endangered? Because writing is how a culture gathers and keeps its knowledge, its history, its sense of who its people are, and how they are unique. Take the island of Bali, for example. The people of Bali speak Balinese, which for centuries they wrote in their own graceful, swooping script, as beautiful as a flock of birds. After World War II, though, Bali became part of Indonesia, and the new country decided it needed its own language, and  that language would be written in the Roman script, the one used to write European languages.

Almost at once, school children in Bali were taught the Roman script rather than their own Balinese script. Within two generations, almost nobody could speak Balinese. Hundreds of years of poetry, legal documents, medicinal recipes, sacred texts—the story of the island—became incomprehensible. Now only a small number of priests and scholars can read Balinese.
When the last speaker of a language dies, it is said, a library is destroyed.
When an alphabet falls out of use, the entire story of its people vanishes.

Endangeredalphabets.com

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