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We plan to create a 100-word children's pictorial dictionary in the endangered languages of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
We plan to create a 100-word children's pictorial dictionary in the endangered languages of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
137 backers pledged $10,405 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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The finished version will have the illustration faced by the equivalent word in six languages rather than three, but you get the picture.
The finished version will have the illustration faced by the equivalent word in six languages rather than three, but you get the picture.

A complete dictionary of the English language contains about 400,000 words. It's informative, not very attractive, some might say dull. Mostly it’s an authority—if a word is in it, we can use it in Scrabble. If not, we can’t. It doesn’t have foreign words, or slang words, it has right and proper words. A dictionary represents the authority of the dominant culture.

If our Make 100 Kickstarter campaign succeeds, we’re going to create a very different kind of dictionary, one that turns all those ideas upside down.

Our dictionary will be a work of art. It will have only 100 words—at first. Most importantly, it will give authority and credibility to people who desperately lack and need it. 

And the first 100 of these dictionaries will be for backers of this campaign. This is our interpretation of #Make100: we're making 100 dictionaries, each of 100 important, basic words for kids.

This is how important a dictionary can be for a culture that has never had one. These are Kala, from Papua New Guinea, fascinated and proud of the dictionary that has just been created for them by Christine Schreyer, one of our advisory board members.
This is how important a dictionary can be for a culture that has never had one. These are Kala, from Papua New Guinea, fascinated and proud of the dictionary that has just been created for them by Christine Schreyer, one of our advisory board members.

 

Here’s the story. 

As you probably know, in countries all over the world members of indigenous cultures have their own spoken and written languages—languages they have developed to express their own beliefs, their own experiences, their understanding of their world. What they have collectively written in those languages is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, letters between family members, knowledge about medicinal plants, poems.

In scores of countries, though, even in the West, those minority languages are unofficial, suppressed, ignored, even illegal. Children sit through classes listening to teachers they can barely understand; adults have to speak a second or even a third language to get social services or deal with the law.

Denying members of a minority culture the right to read, write and speak in their mother tongue defines them as inferior and unimportant, and leaves them vulnerable, marginalized, and open to abuse. The extent and quality of education go down, while levels of homelessness and incarceration, and even suicide go up.

On the far side of the world from me is the nation of Bangladesh, and in the southeast of Bangladesh is a region called the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This upland, forested area is home to 13 different indigenous peoples, each of which has its own genetic identity, its history and cultural traditions, and its own language. Some even have their own alphabets.

All these languages and scripts are endangered. Government schools mandate the use of Bangla, the official national language, so entire generations are growing up without any sense of their own cultural history and identity—very much the kind of situation that has led to the endangerment or eradication of hundreds of Aboriginal languages in Australia and Native American languages in the U.S.

We want to give those kids their own dictionary, in their own languages. Decades of research show that children learn best when they start in the language they speak at home.

On one page they’ll see a picture of something familiar: a monkey, a mango, an elephant. On the opposite page they’ll see the corresponding word in no fewer than six languages. Four of them will be indigenous to the region: Mro, Marma, Chakma, Tripura. The others will be Bangla, the official national language, and English, the global language. The first edition will have 100 commonly-used words; each time we come back to it we'll add another 100, or 200.

These are books that we and our partner non-profit, Our Golden Hour, have already created and published for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
These are books that we and our partner non-profit, Our Golden Hour, have already created and published for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Obviously, this dictionary is intended to be a vital learning tool in the three schools in the region where children are actually educated in their own mother tongues—schools founded by our partner non-profit organization, Our Golden Hour.

But it’s more than that.

By documenting their words, we’re protecting them from erosion, even extinction. Even more, though, by publishing a dictionary in their languages, we’re showing them that their language and their culture have value. That in turn will help them find greater self-respect--a sense they are not outsiders, not second-class citizens. 

We’re also making others take them more seriously. These 100 words are the first step to making a more comprehensive dictionary of the languages of the region, but it’s also a first step toward encouraging scholars to study these languages, attracting funding for better education, elevating the statues of those cultures in their own country.

One other thing. As I say, it’s a regional dictionary. Instead of setting up one language as" proper" and pushing the others down, we’re recognizing a language community. It’s a region where everyone speaks one language from birth, but also a little of one or more others.

When you think about it, that’s every country. That’s the world. And we want this dictionary, this work of words and art, to set an example.

Help us gather and illustrate and publish these 100 words and pictures. Help us make a difference in these children’s education, in their lives as a whole. In the world.

Thank you.

This is the face of a student finally allowed an education in her own language.
This is the face of a student finally allowed an education in her own language.

 

Here are some of our rewards:

Marma postcards, designed by Irina Wang. Like the dictionary, these combine words with images familiar to children of the Hill Tracts:

"Storm"
"Storm"

 

"Leaf"
"Leaf"

 

"Mango"
"Mango"

 Carving of the crucial phrase "Mother tongue" in Mro:

Disclaimer: this is the carving, but not the setting! Nowhere in Bangladesh gets this cold! It is, in fact, Lake Champlain.
Disclaimer: this is the carving, but not the setting! Nowhere in Bangladesh gets this cold! It is, in fact, Lake Champlain.

 Marma tote bag, designed by Irina Wang:

The bag features the Marma character for "ta," part of a child-friendly font designed by Irina for the Endangered Alphabets.
The bag features the Marma character for "ta," part of a child-friendly font designed by Irina for the Endangered Alphabets.

 

Marma proverb mugs, based on one of my carvings:

This carving was first displayed at the Smithsonian in 2013.
This carving was first displayed at the Smithsonian in 2013.

 The Endangered Alphabets travel mug:

The mug shows a scene of work in progress on Alphabets carvings.
The mug shows a scene of work in progress on Alphabets carvings.

 Print of work in progress on Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Chakma script:

 Marma proverb carving: "The body of a frog, but the voice of an ox: small men make the best workers."

 

 Marma proverb carving: "Good soil makes good crops: a good wife makes a good husband."

 Handmade crafts from the Chittagong Hill Tracts:

 

 

 

 

Risks and challenges

The challenge in working with endangered languages is, not surprisingly, to find people who can still speak them, or--and this is an even greater challenge--can read and write in their traditional alphabets.
By partnering with Our Golden Hour, which is based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, we have access to a wide range of people from the ethnic communities of the region. We have collaborators standing by to translate our 100 words into Marma and Chakma, and we have good contacts among the Mro and Tripura, so we're confident we can gather our 100 by mid-April.
A similar challenge is to find illustrators who know the region--its flora and fauna, its customs, its artistic idioms. Luckily, thanks to the book projects already under our belts, we have identified several illustrators, we have a stockpile of illustrations, and we have many, many photos from which we can derive illustrations. Again, we think mid-April should be a reasonable deadline.

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    Pledge $10 or more About $10

    Endangered Digital Poster

    A pdf file, suitable for printing, of our poster for International Mother Language Day depicting my carving of the phrase "Mother Tongue" in Mro, Marma, Chakma, and Bangla.

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    Your name in the dictionary

    For a pledge of $20 or more, we will print your name in a special thanks page in our children's pictorial dictionary.

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    Endangered Postcards

    A pack of 5 postcards depicting carvings in languages of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

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    Marma Notebook

    What better way to jot down your thoughts on language as you travel? An elegant, well-made and eminently practical notebook displaying the Marma proverb I carved at the Smithsonian.

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    Endangered Proverb Mug

    A china coffee mug displaying a photo of a carving I did at the Smithsonian of a proverb in Marma.

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    Rollup bamboo pen and pencil holders

    Exactly the handmade item you might use to take your writing implements to school--and see our dictionary!

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    Endangered Fontbook

    A copy of one of the beautiful font books, in either Mro or Marma, created for the Endangered Alphabets and Our Golden Hour by Tom Sanalitro

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    Calligraphy Tote Bag

    A sturdy tote bag displaying the letter "ta" in the endangered Marma language of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, created as part of an endangered calligraphy/typography project by Irina Wang.

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    Princess Monori

    A copy of the storybook Princess Monori, one of a series of traditional stories of the Hill Tracts collected by children from their grandparents or village elders and retold. In Marma and English.

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    Endangered Alphabets travel mug

    Beautiful yet robust, an insulated travel mug featuring the iconic Endangered Alphabets still life photo of carving in progress.

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    Chakma Human Rights print

    One of my first acts to support Our Golden Hour as they began developing the schools where indigenous children can be educated in their own mother tongues was to carve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their languages, for display in the schools. This is the Chakma version in progress, showing the method to my method. Chakma is one of the languages that will be included in our children's picture-book dictionary.

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    Endangered Alphabets--the book

    The expanded second edition of my book Endangered Alphabets, which narrates the creation and growth of the project, with photos of the carvings and stories of the cultures that gave rise to them

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    Handmade Hill Tracts Ladies' Wallet

    The people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are renowned for their handcraft, especially weaving and textiles. This is a ladies' purse, simple but colorful and durable.

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    Princess Monori and The Gift of Water

    A copy of both Princess Monori and The Gift of Water, two of a series of traditional stories of the Hill Tracts collected by children from their grandparents or village elders and retold. In Marma and English.

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    Handmade Hill Tracts Ladies' Purse/Bag

    A colorful handmade item from the very people we are trying to serve with this campaign.

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    Handmade Mro necklace

    The people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts are renowned for their art and craftsmanship. This necklace is made by the Mro, one of the least populous and most endangered of the Hill Tracts minorities.

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    Endangered Dictionary

    A copy of the pioneering Pictorial Children's Dictionary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

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    Endangered Poster

    A poster for International Mother Language Day depicting my carving of the phrase "Mother Tongue" in Mro, Marma, Chakma, and Bangla.

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    Endangered Tiles

    A set of four 4”x4” hand-carved tiles in cherry wood, each featuring a letter/initial of your choice in the Marma language of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

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    Marma Carving: "The body of a frog..."

    A hand-carved version of the whimsical Marma proverb from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, "The body of a frog, but the voice of an ox: small men make the best workers." See home page for photo.

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    Marma Carving: "A good husband..."

    A hand-carved version of the whimsical Marma proverb from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, "Good soil makes good crops: a good wife makes a good husband." See home page for photo.

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    "Mother Tongue" in Mro

    A carving of the phrase "Mother Tongue" in Mro, one of the most endangered languages of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and one of the languages we plan to include in the dictionary.

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    Lexicographic consultation

    For anyone else interested in tackling a dictionary project, Michael Horlick, one of our three (count 'em!) professional lexicographers will offer a 60-90 minute Skype consultation to get you on the right track.

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    Dignity, Fairness, Hope

    A hand-carved wooden plaque depicting the phrase “Dignity, Fairness, Hope” in the Marma language of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

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    Marma Proverb

    A hand-carved wooden plaque bearing a traditional proverb of the Marma people of the Chittagong hill Tracts: "It is only the pupils who become masters."

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Funding period

- (30 days)