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.
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 What they have collectively written in those languages is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, letters between family members, knowledge about medicinal plants, poems.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.
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.
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:
Carving of the crucial phrase "Mother tongue" in Mro:
Marma tote bag, designed by Irina Wang:
Marma proverb mugs, based on one of my carvings:
The Endangered Alphabets travel mug:
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.
- (30 days)