Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Right To Read, The Right To Write

I'm devoting this post to an ongoing concern, and one you've seen me discuss numerous times on The Farm: the importance of language, and the danger represented both by the decline of linguistic richness and the disappearance of language systems.

Some years ago I participated in Tim Brookes's Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign, and later joined his advisory board. Both the original project and its sequels, Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh, and Mother Tongues succeeded in helping to raise awareness about the disappearance of indigenous languages by creating astonishingly beautiful carvings in a wide variety of endangered scripts.

The latest effort, The Right To Read, The Right To Write has been launched this week to enable Tim to "create a major exhibition of carvings for International Mother Language Day 2017 to celebrate and support endangered cultures." The goal is larger than the previous ones, $15,000 in thirty days, but its aims are equally lofty:

My goal is to create the most ambitious and significant set of Endangered Alphabets carvings yet—20 separate carvings of the phrase “mother tongue” in the traditional written languages of those cultures, carved in woods native to those cultures. These will make up a major exhibition to open on International Mother Language Day, February 21st, 2017, the largest and most high-profile display of the Alphabets so far. My aim is to spur public discussion and awareness of the importance of inter-cultural respect, and the dangers of language loss.

Keep in mind that these carvings are hand-crafted on gorgeous wood, and have to be carefully packed and mailed to their destinations. The Kickstarter page goes into more detail--and also features the goodies that come with donations--including the newest edition of Tim's book, and an Endangered Alphabets wall clock--which I just may get for myself as a retirement present.

If you were in any doubt about how important the whole question of the disappearance of languages and alphabets actually is, consider the following:

As my students have heard me claim innumerable times, writing is the most important technology ever invented by human beings. Period. We didn't invent fire; we found it. We didn't really invent stone tools; we simply modified found objects. Even weaving (which I consider far more important than stone weapon making as a measure of human achievement) was probably suggested by observations of plants and insects. Other primates can sign, but writing is purely human. No other species does it.

If it weren't for writing,  there is no possible way we would be where we are today. We've been creating and keeping cultural records since Cuneiform, Indus Valley script, Linear B, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and other Bronze Age inventions took us far beyond the simple mark-making we'd been doing since the Paleolithic. Without these records we would have no idea of our history on this planet, no way to record what we discover, no way to transmit ideas.

Even as human culture creates new technologies to communicate, these technologies are themselves language-based. Not all of these are natural (think HTML and other codes), but all are vital. And what's really scary to me is that some of the digital technologies we're becoming so reliant upon are actually diminishing the quality of natural language. Vocabularies are diminishing among the young, and while our visual skills may be improving, critical thinking and analytical skills (language-based) appear to be declining. I wonder if some of this stems from the fact that hand writing (and handwriting) has become less important than producing words on a keyboard. But simply recognizing the potential loss of languages and scripts is an important step toward their survival.

Just this morning the New York Times mentioned a podcast from the New York Public Library on vanishing mother tongues, From Ainu to Zaza (tonight at 6:30 pm; register at the link). The live taping is sponsored by The Endangered Language Alliance and World In Words (PRI).

It's fairly clear that concern over the loss of languages and writing systems is growing. Only recently I discovered The Rosetta Project, "a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages."  The Rosetta Disk is a palm-sized digital collection of information on over 1500 languages, and promotes the long-term preservation of world languages by building the "largest open, publicly accessible collection of resources on the world's languages."

One of the best ways we can help to preserve these languages, though, is to foster their use among the people who developed them in the first place. This is where I think the Endangered Alphabets projects are especially important. They tie the beauty of the scripts to tangible art objects that can be displayed publicly to promote their preservation.

Even a few bucks will help, Folks. And if you pony up some serious change, you could snag yourself a work of art and help save a culture. 

Related posts: Losing Languages (2011); Endangered Languages Revisited (2013); Revisiting Endangered Alphabets and Languages and International Mother Language Day (2016)