I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before: the way to revive endangered alphabets is through games. And as a start, I want to create a board or tabletop game in which players put down letter tiles in their almost-lost traditional scripts to make words, and in doing so start rediscovering their own language, their own culture and history, and have fun doing so.
Let me back up just a bit to explain what endangered alphabets are, and why they are important.
As many of you know, especially those who have been loyal Kickstarter supports for five years, every culture has its own spoken language, and in many cases its own written language, too—a writing system it has developed to express its own beliefs, its own experiences, its understanding of the world. What the members of that culture have collectively written in that script is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, deeds, letters between family members, poems.
In scores of countries, though, those minority languages are untaught, 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—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.
That’s why I want to create alphabet games.
In some countries with endangered alphabets, the traditional script is actually taught for a few years, usually in elementary school, but is then abandoned and forgotten. Games, on the other hand, are played for fun, by choice, rather than imposed as part of a class—and are played over and over, both inside the classroom and out. They may even be played in the home with other family members, spreading the learning into other generations.
We’re planning card games and jigsaw puzzles, but the first game—the one I’m hoping you’ll support--is simple and familiar: each kid has a random batch of wooden tiles, each of which bears one letter, and aims to combine some of those letters to make a word and place it on a board or a tabletop, connected to other words already on the board or table.
You can see the point right away: the younger kids get to learn the letters of their alphabet, which is no longer taught in schools and may even be suppressed; the older kids learn spelling, and think of letter combinations in more agile ways, helping to develop their brains; and their parents, who likely didn’t learn their own language in school, learn and play together. It’s the beginning of the re-creation of a language community based around their own culture.
We’re starting with pilot groups in Indonesia, which has more endangered alphabets than any other country in the world, and Bangladesh. (You can read more about the work we’ve already done with Bangladesh connection via our sister-non-profit at www.ourgoldenhour.org.) You may already have heard about or even supported our project to create and publish a picture-book dictionary in their own endangered languages, which is at the printers as I type these words.
Now we want to send them games. I’m hoping to raise at least $7,500 not just to create a game—and those of you who are gamers know how much thought and work goes into that—but to create prototypes, ship them out to Bangladesh and Indonesia for kids and adults to try them out, take in their feedback, make changes, and then manufacture a couple of dozen sets and ship them out to where they’ll do the most good. The more money we raise, the more sets we can send—because clearly, the people who most need these games are those who can least afford them.
So please support us during this shorter 3-week campaign. We have sparkling new rewards connected to the Alphabet Games, including beautiful large-scale Alphabet Game tiles that have recently been touring Europe as artwork in their own right.
Thanks so much—and please spread the word!
Founder, the Endangered Alphabets Project
Risks and challenges
This project presents a variety of challenges.
We need to co-create games in consultation with the cultures we're hoping to serve, which involves understanding their values, their iconic images, their taboos. If my description of our prototype game sounds a little incomplete, it's because experience has already taught me that what works in my head doesn't necessarily work halfway around the world. I wouldn't start this project if I didn't already have interested collaborators.
We need to understand the languages we're working with. Not every writing system lends itself to the first-generation make-a-word-out-of-the-letters-on-your-tray kind of game we have in mind, as some modify individual letters depending on pronunciation and position within the word. We are already in touch with language experts who can't wait to help develop the game in such a way that it works linguistically.
We also need to be well aware of the resources, or lack thereof, of our potential players. These games need to work in areas that may not have electricity or cell phones, and even pencils and paper may be in short supply. Replacement parts, pieces or cards may be impossible to come by. So any game needs to be self-sustaining, robust, and come with spares!
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