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A free online atlas that locates and identifies cultures with writing systems in peril, and resources dedicated to saving them.
A free online atlas that locates and identifies cultures with writing systems in peril, and resources dedicated to saving them.
215 backers pledged $17,263 to help bring this project to life.

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The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets

Dear lovers of language, supporters of human rights, and Kickstarter allies past, present and future:

When I give exhibitions and talks on the Endangered Alphabets Project, everyone is fascinated. They want to know more about the scripts I carve, where they come from, the cultures that have created them and, above all, they ask, “How can we help?” 

But here’s the problem: there’s no one source for such information. And when information remains scattered and hard to find, both the problems and the solutions seem vague, distant, over the horizon.

So I’m in the process of creating a free online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, and I need your help. But first I need to explain why endangered alphabets are so important.

Every culture has its own spoken language, and many have their own written languages, too—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 What they have collectively written in those languages is the record of their cultural identity: spiritual texts, historical documents, land deeds, letters between family members, poems.

In scores of countries, though, those minority languages are untaught, unofficial, suppressed, ignored, even illegal, and everything is transacted in the alphabets of the dominant cultures, even the conquerors. And when that happens, within two generations everything important enough to be written down becomes incomprehensible, and is lost.

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.

It’s my aim to help reverse that global loss, and the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets is my most ambitious and far-reaching effort in that direction.(You can hear me talking about the Atlas and the Endangered Alphabets Project, by the way, in a public radio interview HERE.)

The home page is a familiar world map…

The home page at endangeredalphabets.net will look like this, but with less Latin. And (with luck) a few sponsors.
The home page at endangeredalphabets.net will look like this, but with less Latin. And (with luck) a few sponsors.

…and when you zoom into a particular region, you’ll see pins. Click on a pin and you’ll see a thumbnail about that particular culture and its endangered writing system…

This is what you'll see if you zoom in on Indonesia, and then hover over the pin on Bali.
This is what you'll see if you zoom in on Indonesia, and then hover over the pin on Bali.

…and clicking on that thumbnail will take you to a dedicated page for that script that will offer you links to all kinds of resources: information about the culture, the script, available fonts and keyboard software, language lessons, a gallery of photos showing the script in its natural habitat…

Early days on the Bali page. We'll have a lot more photos, and (as you can see) a Links tab.
Early days on the Bali page. We'll have a lot more photos, and (as you can see) a Links tab.

…and above all, individuals or groups who are working to preserve or revive their traditional script, and with it the dignity and identity of their culture. And that’s my principal goal: to answer the questions “How can we help, and who can we help?”

All kinds of people will find the Atlas valuable: everyone who is interested in languages and cultures, everyone who recognizes this is a human-rights issue, and everyone who is working to preserve or revive their own culture and its language, written and spoken. My fondest hope is that people all over the world who are struggling to preserve their own languages will be able to help each other by sharing information, skills and experiences through the Atlas.

My little team has already started work, and I estimate that to build and populate this site, and to maintain it for the first 12 months, will cost $30,000. My goal is to raise $15,000 of that in this Kickstarter campaign, with a stretch goal of $20,000. And I hope to launch the site by January 1, 2019—the first day of the UN Year of Indigenous Languages.

We have all kinds of interesting and unique rewards, including Endangered Alphabets carvings, posters, merch, and—the latest and most fun rewards—decks of Endangered Alphabets playing cards and our new board game Glagolitic Abbey. Scroll down to see some photos!

It’s our most ambitious Kickstarter campaign yet, but it’s also our most ambitious project, and I think our most important and far-reaching. Please support us, and then tell your friends and encourage them to support us. That’s what it will take.

Thank you.

Tim Brookes

REWARDS

Yes, they have to be seen to be believed. Here are a few of them...

The Endangered Alphabets poster. Download it! Display it with pride!
The Endangered Alphabets poster. Download it! Display it with pride!
You'll have the choice of eight different endangered alphabet playing card decks, and we'll also send you suggestions of games you can play with them.
You'll have the choice of eight different endangered alphabet playing card decks, and we'll also send you suggestions of games you can play with them.
Not just any old tote bag, but an attractive and sturdy item featuring the Endangered Alphabets logo, which in turn features the word "sky" or "heaven" in Manchu, one of the world's most endangered writing systems
Not just any old tote bag, but an attractive and sturdy item featuring the Endangered Alphabets logo, which in turn features the word "sky" or "heaven" in Manchu, one of the world's most endangered writing systems
The Endangered Alphabets Travel Mug, featuring the Balinese word "Suksma," or "Thank you."
The Endangered Alphabets Travel Mug, featuring the Balinese word "Suksma," or "Thank you."
The Endangered Alphabets Wall Clock
The Endangered Alphabets Wall Clock
One of the pages of our picturebook dictionary in endangered languages for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh
One of the pages of our picturebook dictionary in endangered languages for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh
My carving of the word "Words" in the Glagolitic alphabet, enjoying a little fresh air. If this gives you the impression the porch is slanting, your eyes do not deceive you.
My carving of the word "Words" in the Glagolitic alphabet, enjoying a little fresh air. If this gives you the impression the porch is slanting, your eyes do not deceive you.
The word "words" in Balinese.
The word "words" in Balinese.
"Word" in Makassarese, one of the ancestral scripts of what is now Indonesia
"Word" in Makassarese, one of the ancestral scripts of what is now Indonesia
"Word" in Mandaic, a script whose very letters are mystical.
"Word" in Mandaic, a script whose very letters are mystical.
"Word" in Chakma, one of the embattled languages of Bangladesh and northeastern India.
"Word" in Chakma, one of the embattled languages of Bangladesh and northeastern India.
This is what the hand-carved coasters look like, though your reward will consist of a set of four, and you can choose a different writing system.
This is what the hand-carved coasters look like, though your reward will consist of a set of four, and you can choose a different writing system.
The Endangered Alphabets board game: Glagolitic Abbey!
The Endangered Alphabets board game: Glagolitic Abbey!
"Anit"--"Love"--in Cham. No, that's not crushed velvet. It's maple.
"Anit"--"Love"--in Cham. No, that's not crushed velvet. It's maple.
The word "La," or "Be," in Chu-Nom, the classical Vietnamese script
The word "La," or "Be," in Chu-Nom, the classical Vietnamese script
"Prosperity" in Tibetan, based on the calligraphy of Urgyen Gyalpo, carved in flame mahogany
"Prosperity" in Tibetan, based on the calligraphy of Urgyen Gyalpo, carved in flame mahogany
Purwapada--the Javanese glyph that indicates the beginning of a poem
Purwapada--the Javanese glyph that indicates the beginning of a poem
The Manchu word for "sky" or "heaven," carved in walnut, which forms the basis of the Endangered Alphabets logo
The Manchu word for "sky" or "heaven," carved in walnut, which forms the basis of the Endangered Alphabets logo
Well, all right--this is in Elvish, which is an endangered alphabet in a different sense, though Tolkien obviously had a keen sense of the fact that vital cultures could be lost. The inscription of the Ring of Power, carved in applewood.
Well, all right--this is in Elvish, which is an endangered alphabet in a different sense, though Tolkien obviously had a keen sense of the fact that vital cultures could be lost. The inscription of the Ring of Power, carved in applewood.
The beautiful, sinuous letter E of the minority Cham alphabet from Vietnam.
The beautiful, sinuous letter E of the minority Cham alphabet from Vietnam.
The Balinese character meaning "Here begins a sacred text."
The Balinese character meaning "Here begins a sacred text."
Yes, this is the big one, the epic: seen here at the Vermont Woodworking and Fine Furniture Show, the Tibetan Table, constructed without a single nail or screw by woodworker Tim Peters, carved by the other Tim, Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets. People who see it gasp.
Yes, this is the big one, the epic: seen here at the Vermont Woodworking and Fine Furniture Show, the Tibetan Table, constructed without a single nail or screw by woodworker Tim Peters, carved by the other Tim, Tim Brookes of the Endangered Alphabets. People who see it gasp.

Risks and challenges

Some of the language communities we're planning to include are small, poor, remote, and may not feature on the internet at all, so comprehensive, up-to-date information is going to be hard to come by. Plus the amount of data we might want to include is literally infinite. But every day we reach out through social media, academic listservs and local Facebook groups to cultivate contacts all over the world who can tell us what is happening right now in their communities, and the Atlas will be updated and expanded constantly. That's one of the reasons we are asking for the funds not only to create but to *sustain* the Atlas as it grows and becomes more and more useful.

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Support

  1. Select this reward

    Pledge US$ 10 or more About US$ 10

    Endangered Alphabets--the Poster

    A digital pdf edition of our 11" x 17" poster promoting the right to read and write in one's own traditional script. Print it out and display it proudly!

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    Endangered Alphabets Playing Cards

    One of the best ways to revive traditional writing systems that are in danger of falling into disuse is to create games that use them. The Endangered Alphabets Project has created decks of playing cards that show the letters of indigenous or minority languages and can be used as teaching tools or just for fun. The languages we've created so far: Cherokee and Abenaki from the US, Cree from Canada, Baybayin from the Philippines, Mro and Chakma from Bangladesh, Tifinagh from the Berber countries of North Africa, Glagolitic from Eastern Europe. (You will be asked to indicate which set you want.) Check out examples at www.endangeredalphabets.com.

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    Our children's picture-book dictionary

    The first edition of a book that is a first in many ways--the Children's Picture Dictionary of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Designed for indigenous children in Bangladesh, this is almost certainly the world's first multi-language pictorial dictionary of endangered languages. Only three copies left!

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    Endangered Alphabets Tote Bag

    A sturdy tote bag featuring the Endangered Alphabets logo--the word "sky" or "heaven" in Manchu, one of the most endangered scripts in the world.

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    Endangered Alphabets Travel Mug

    A stylish insulated travel mug featuring the Balinese word "Suksma," or "Thank you."

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    Endangered Alphabets--the book

    The expanded second edition of my book Endangered Alphabets, which tells the story of how the project developed almost by accident, explains why writing and writing systems are so important to the cultures that developed them, and asks penetrating questions about the technology, aesthetics, psychology and even spirituality of writing.

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    The Endangered Alphabets Wall Clock

    A handsome battery-powered wall clock featuring the logo of the Endangered Alphabets Project--the word "sky" or "heaven" in Manchu, one of the most endangered writing systems in the world.

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    Sponsor a page of the Atlas

    The Atlas will have a page for each of the world's endangered alphabets (more than 110 so far, and we're discovering more each week), and a pledge at this level will sponsor a page of your choice (depending on availability) and allow you to honor at the foot of that page a friend, family member, loved one, mentor--anyone who seems suitable. (There will be a word limit.) Perfect for loves of language, and human rights.

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    Glagolitic Abbey, the board game

    Surely the first board game designed to help reintroduce an endangered alphabet, Glagolitic Abbey is a four-player game set in an abbey in Bulgaria in the year 1200. Four competing characters race to the monks' cells to learn the secrets of the Glagolitic alphabet, find the treasure rumored to have been hidden by King Boris I of Bulgaria, and escape with their lives.

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    Balinese "words"

    A carving of the word "words" in the beautifully fluid (and endangered) Balinese script.

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    Makassarese "Word"

    Carved in curly Vermont maple, the word "Word" in Makassarese, one of the ancestral scripts of Indonesia. An ideal gift for teachers, translators, and writers.

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    Mandaic "Word"

    Mandaic is one of the world's most fascinating and mystical scripts. For the Mandaeans, the act of writing is such a powerful force of Gnostic enlightenment that in a sense each person is a Word, a bearer of truth.

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    Chakma "Word"

    A hundred years ago, the Chakma were one of the more numerous and sophisticated peoples of northeastern (British) India. Since Partition and the subsequent bloody birth of Bangladesh, they have increasingly been denied their identity and status to the point where many Chakmas can no longer write their own script or read their extensive literature.

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    Set of Coasters

    A set of four cherry coasters, 4" x 4" x 1/4", each with an initial of your choice in an endangered writing system of your choice.

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    Glagolitic "Words"

    The Glagolitic alphabet was once one of the two scripts used by the Greek Orthodox Church for sacred texts in the Slavic countries, but by the end of the 20th century only two priests were still using it. This carving, which says "Words" in Glagolitic, is the perfect gift for anyone of Eastern European Christian heritage--or anyone who finds writing endlessly fascinating.

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    Manchu "Sky" or "Heaven"

    A carving in walnut of the Manchu word for "sky" or "heaven," which forms the basis of the Endangered Alphabets logo.

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    Javanese "Here begins a poem"

    One of the fascinating aspects of the Endangered Alphabets is the ways in which they show us things about our own alphabet we didn't even know we are missing. This Javanese glyph, or symbol-cluster, is called "purwapada," and it indicates the beginning of a poem. What a remarkable invention--and how wonderful to regard poetry so keenly as to feel the need to identify it, to highlight its significance.

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    "Be" in Chu-Nom

    For centuries, Vietnamese was written in a Chinese-style script called Nom or Chu-Nom--a heritage that included the work of an amazing woman poet, Ho Xuan Huong, who was writing at a time (the early nineteenth century) when few women wrote at all. She is now considered one of the greatest Vietnamese poets--but as soon as her poetry is translated into the Latin script it necessarily loses something in the process. This carving, on amazing quilted maple, says simply "Be."

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    Tibetan "Prosperity"

    The Tibetan word "prosperity," based on the calligraphy of Urgyen Gyalpo, carved in flame mahogany

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    Cham E

    The letter E in the sinuous script of the minority Cham people of southwestern Vietnam. Carved in amazing mahogany. 13" x 18"

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    "Anit"--"Love" in Cham

    Carved in amazing bubble maple, this is the word for "love" in Cham, an endangered alphabet from Vietnam. I mean, really. Only one available because I'm not sure where I would go to find more wood like this.

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    One Ring to Rule them All

    Elvish is not an endangered alphabet in the conventional sense, I know--but when I saw this amazing ring of applewood I knew I had to carve, as a Tolkien tribute, the inscription from the One Ring. 28" x 15".

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    Balinese "Sacred Space"

    One of the wonderful and illuminating aspects of the Endangered Alphabets Project is that it shows new relationships between writing, culture, and thinking. Balinese has a unique character, unlike anything in the Latin alphabet, that is placed in a piece of writing to indicate that what follows is a sacred text. It struck me that to carve that character and hang it on a door, say, would imply "This is a sacred space. Treat it, and yourself, and those around you, and the world, with attention and respect." Carved in curly maple, 17" x 12".

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    Dining Table with Tibetan Blessing

    Okay, this is the big one. A dining or small conference table, roughly five feet in diameter and made entirely of cherrywood (thanks to the skills of cabinetmaker Tim Peters) without a single screw or nail, this is more than a piece of furniture. The wood alone is just stunning. The text I carved in the top reads "Graceful kindness" adapted from the astonishing Tibetan calligraphy of the Buddhist monk Tashi Mannox, the phrase repeated six times like a mantra. Available only in the lower 48 states, but here's the thing: I will personally load this up and drive it to whomever claims it--the first-ever Endangered Alphabets Road Trip. (This means delivery costs will vary; I put $250 as a shipping cost because Kickstarter doesn't have a tab for "Road Trip.") This table has been exhibited several times, and people who see it just gasp.

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Funding period

- (30 days)