A year ago, the Kickstarter community gave a huge boost to the Endangered Alphabets, donating enough funds to allow me to meet my goal of doubling the number of scripts I’d tracked down and carved, and start them on their world tour. They’re even going to the Smithsonian.
Now a new and urgent Endangered Alphabets situation has arisen, in a region of southern Bangladesh called the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This upland and forested area is home to 13 different indigenous peoples, each of which has its own genetic identity, its history and cultural traditions, and many of which have their own language and even their own script.
All these languages and scripts are endangered. Schools use Bengali, the official national language, and an entire generation is growing up without a sense of their own cultural history and identity—very much the kind of situation that has led to the loss or endangerment of hundreds of Aboriginal languages in Australia and Native American languages in the US.
The Endangered Alphabets Bangladesh project is an attempt to provide a creative solution to this issue before these languages and scripts are among the estimated 3,000 languages that by 2050 will be lost forever.
We’re going to be working with an extraordinary young man named Maung Nyeu. Largely self-educated, he left Bangladesh and got into the University of Hawaii, where he studied engineering so he could go back to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and build a school where indigenous peoples could be educated in their own languages. Now (armed also with an MBA from USC), he has come to Harvard to get a graduate degree in education so he can create something unique: children’s schoolbooks in these endangered indigenous languages.
He says, “I'm trying to create children books in our alphabets - Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and others. This will help not only save our alphabets, but also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communications, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”
We’re trying to help him by combining three artistic disciplines: carving, calligraphy and typography.
The first step is for me to create a series of beautiful and durable carved signs in the languages and scripts of these endangered cultures, and add them to the traveling exhibitions of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Each carving will feature a short poem I wrote for the purpose. It goes:
These are our words, shaped
By our hands, our tools,
Our history. Lose them
And we lose ourselves.
I’m also putting together a coalition of educators from Harvard and Yale, a typographer from Cambridge, England and a calligrapher from the Rhode Island School of Design to create some beautiful script forms of these endangered languages, then convert them into typefaces that can be used to print the books for Maung’s school.
At the moment, everyone is putting in their time on a volunteer basis, but my goal is to raise $10,000 to cover material costs, and to go a small way toward paying for the time, work, travel, shipping and printing involved.
If we can raise these funds, the outcome will be the first sets of children’s books ever printed in Mro, Marma, Chakma, and other endangered languages of Bangladesh.
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