Saturday, July 2, 2016

Independence and the Right to Read and Write: A Word from Tim Brookes

Pahauh Hmong
In a recent update to the Kickstarter campaign mentioned in my previous post, Tim Brookes wrote the following and asked me to share it; I do so gladly:

As those of us in the United States head into the long weekend that celebrates the country's independence from colonial authority (yes, as a Brit I have to accept my birth country's history!), the Endangered Alphabets' Mother Tongue initiative is especially significant.

Take a look at the attached photo, for example. The Hmong were, and to some extent still are, a disadvantaged minority in many of the countries of their native southeast Asia. The fact that they did not have their own written language was seen as a sign of how uncivilized they were. When Shong Lue Yang, an unlettered farmer, created this script for his people it gave them such a strong sense of identity that the majority cultures of the region were disturbed--so much so that soldiers were sent to assassinate him.

I'd like to suggest we think of Independence Day not just in terms of nations but in terms of people and cultures, and the right of all peoples to their own culture, history, identity and language. That's what our Mother Tongue exhibition will be all about.

Please take a moment to back our Kickstarter this weekend--and then go back to celebrating independence.

Some many years ago (perhaps ten), when I was still asking Humanities and art history students to look up the meaning of their given names and interpret them visually--both with images and in writing systems different than ours, the son of Hmong immigrants from Viet Nam used this alphabet to write his name. It was my first encounter with this very new system (invented only in 1959), and my student (whose name, alas, I cannot remember) told me the story of the script and that its inventor had been assassinated. For a bit more on the story, and for a transcription of the alphabet, see the Omniglot page. This script is so much more lovely and appropriate than the Romanized alphabet popularly used for other dialects that it urgently needs preserving.

One of the saddest elements of my experience is that more recently I had to abandon what had been a creative and thought-provoking assignment because my students knew so little about language in general, and cared so little about their own linguistic heritage, that they couldn't complete it effectively.

To anyone who still reads this blog, I urge you to go to the Right to Read/Right to Write page and make at least a small contribution to help Tim complete this project and to further the Endangered Alphabets goals--for all of us who value languages and writing systems and who fear what their loss would mean to civilization as a whole.

An addendum: for an interesting and extensive commentary on the importance of Tim's work, see this post on Ever Widening Circles. There are also some lovely images of the carvings.