The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets: A Free Online Atlas That Helps Preserve Writing Systems That May Soon Disappear

The United Nations, as you may or may not know, has designated 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages. By fortunate coincidence, this year also happens to mark the tenth anniversary of the Endangered Alphabets Project. In 2009, its founder writes, "times were dark for indigenous and minority cultures." Television and the internet had driven "a kind of cultural imperialism into every corner of the world. Everyone had a screen or wanted a screen, and the English language and the Latin alphabet (or one of the half-dozen other major writing systems) were on every screen and every keyboard" — putting at a great disadvantage those who could only read and write, say, Mandombe, Wancho, or Hanifi Rohingya.

2019, by contrast, turns out to be "a remarkable time in the history of writing systems" when, "in spite of creeping globalization, political oppression, and economic inequalities, minority cultures are starting to revive interest in their traditional scripts."




A variety of these scripts have found new lives as the material for works of art and design, and they've also received new waves of preservation-minded attention from activist groups and governments alike. But that doesn't guarantee their survival through the 21st century, an unfortunate fact toward which the Endangered Alphabets Project's Atlas of Endangered Alphabets exists to draw attention.

Not all the scripts included in the Atlas are alphabets — "some are abjads, or abugidas, or syllabaries. A couple are even pictographic systems" — but all lack "official status in their country, state, or province" and "are not taught in government-funded schools." All once enjoyed "widespread acceptance and use within their cultural and linguistic community," but none do any longer, and though none are actually extinct, all suffer from endangerment as a consequence of their declining or emerging status (as well as, often, of "being dominated, bullied, ignored, or actively persecuted by another, more powerful culture"). You can explore the endangered languages by scrolling, zooming, and clicking the world map on the atlas' front page.

Or you can browse them all, from Adlam to Zo, on an alphabetically ordered list — ordered, of course, by the Roman alphabet, but full of examples of writing systems that differ in many and often surprising ways from it. Take, for example, the African Ditema tsa Dinoko script, which allows the writer to express with not just shape but color. Developed between 2010 and 2015 to write southern Bantu languages, it takes its forms from southern African murals of the kind painted by Esther Mahlangu, whose BMW art car appears in the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets' gallery. BMW might consider commissioning another one emblazoned with official Ditema tsa Dinoko letters. With promotion that snazzy, what writing system could possibly go extinct?

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling in His New Online Course

How has Neil Gaiman, author of fiction in a variety of forms ranging from novels and short stories to comic books, radio plays, and films, managed to win over such a large and devoted fan base? Ask a member of that fan base, and you'll more than likely hear an explanation along the lines of, "He knows how to tell a story." That may sound like a simple skill, but telling a story at Gaiman's level requires a deep-rooted expertise in the essential nature and still-unexplored possibilities of storytelling itself — an expertise that Gaiman himself has lately proven more than willing to share. A few years ago we featured his lecture "How Stories Last" here on Open Culture; now, he's come out with an online course on the art of storytelling at MasterClass.

"Human beings are storytelling creatures," Gaiman says in the course's trailer above. "Stories are vital. We convey truth with stories. That is the magic of fiction." But even the author of stories like The SandmanNeverwhereStardust, American Gods, Coraline, and much more besides has certain admissions to make about the practice of writing them: "Writing a novel is like driving through the fog with one headlight out," for example.




"You can't see very far ahead of yourself. But every now and again, the mists will clear." And when it comes time to revise, he explains, "the process of doing your second draft is the process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along." What do you need most to make it through this harrowing process? The "conviction that you are brilliant."

Not that you don't need anything else. The nineteen lessons of Gaiman's MasterClass cover everything from "using the 'lie' of a made-up story to tell a human truth," to "how to overcome the fear of making mistakes," to techniques like "cold opens, withholding information, finding emotional weight, and choosing memorable details," to the art of worldbuilding, which Gaiman describes as "honestly, the joy of getting to play god." Other lessons provide case studies focusing on his short stories, novels, and comic books, all of which have no doubt inspired many to tell stories themselves. But who, hearing Gaiman talk about storytelling, could possibly resist trying their hand at it?

You can take his course for $90. Or if you if pay $180, you can access his course, plus every other course in the MasterClass catalogue, for a year.

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

ursula k le guin writing advice

Image by Gorthian, via Wikimedia Commons

"Some of us are Norman Mailer," said Ursula K. LeGuin in a 1976 interview with science-fiction fanzine Luna Monthly, "but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives." And though Le Guin may have thought of herself as one of the latter, "middle-aged Portland housewife" is hardly the way the rest of us would describe her. Over a nearly 60-year-long career, Le Guin produced an enormous body of literary work, including but not limited to the six books in which she created the world of Earthsea and other acclaimed sci-fi novels like The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven. And somehow she managed to write all of it between 7:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. each day.

Or that's what her ideal writing schedule dictates, anyway. Recently tweeted out by writer Michael J. Seidlinger as "the ideal writing routine," it first appeared in an interview she gave in 1988 (and more recently reappeared in Ursula Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations).




Beginning at the early hour of 5:30 in the morning, the time to "wake up and lie there and think," it continues on to breakfast — and "lots" of it — at 6:15, and the commencement of the day's "writing, writing, writing" an hour later, which lasts until lunch at noon. After that, Le Guin considered what we consider her main work to be done, moving on to such pursuits as reading, music, correspondence, "maybe house cleaning," and dinner. Past 8:15, she said, "I tend to be very stupid," a state in which nobody could write the sort of books we remember her for.

But however originally she wrote, Le Guin was hardly exceptional in living this way while doing it. "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work," said Gustave Flaubert, a maxim true for enough writers that we also worked it in when we featured an infographic on the daily routines of famous creative people. In both Flaubert and Le Guin's case (or in the case of a writer like Haruki Murakami, who rises famously early and runs famously hard when working on a book), their domestic lives, well-ordered to the point that an outside observer would find them boring, facilitated the creation of literature like none that had ever come before. This despite the fact that, on the surface, few novels could seem more dissimilar than Flaubert and Le Guin's, but each writer would have seen what the other had in common: specifically, that they knew what it took to get the imagination well and truly fired up.

via Michael J. Seidlinger

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

Every generation of schoolchildren no doubt first assumes homework to be a historically distinct form of punishment, developed expressly to be inflicted on them. But the parents of today's miserable homework-doers also, of course, had to do homework themselves, as did their parents' parents. It turns out that you can go back surprisingly far in history and still find examples of the menace of homework, as far back as ancient Egypt, a civilization from which one example of an out-of-classroom assignment will go on display at the British Library's exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens this spring.

"Beginning with the origins of writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Americas, the exhibition will explore the many manifestations, purposes and forms of writing, demonstrating how writing has continually enabled human progress and questioning the role it plays in an increasingly digital world," says the British Library's press release.




"From an ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters to a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s, Writing: Making Your Mark will showcase over 30 different writing systems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the continuation of a 5,000 year story and is a step towards determining how writing will be used in the future."

That wax tablet, preserved since the second century A.D., bears Greek words that Livescience's Mindy Weisberger describes as "familiar to any kid whose parents worry about them falling in with a bad crowd": "You should accept advice from a wise man only" and "You cannot trust all your friends." First acquired by the British Library in 1892 but not publicly displayed since the 1970s, the tablet's surface preserves "a two-part lesson in Greek that provides a snapshot of daily life for a pupil attending primary school in Egypt about 1,800 years ago." Its lines, "copied by this long-ago student were not just for practicing penmanship; they were also intended to impart moral lessons."

But why Greek? "In the 2nd century A.D., when this lesson was written," writes Smithsonian.com's Jason Daley, "Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years following 300 years of Greek and Macedonian rule under the Ptolemy dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a special status below Roman citizens but higher than those of Egyptian descent. Any educated person in the Roman world, however, would be expected to know Latin, Greek and — depending on where they lived — local or regional languages." It was a bit like the situation today with the English language, which has become a requirement for educated people in a variety of cultures — and a subject especially loathed by many a homework-burdened student the world over.

via Livescience

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How the CIA Helped Shape the Creative Writing Scene in America

Image by Arielle Fragassi, via Flickr Commons

In May of 1967,” writes Patrick Iber at The Awl, “a former CIA officer named Tom Braden published a confession in the Saturday Evening Post under the headline, ‘I’m glad the CIA is ‘immoral.’” With the hard-boiled tone one might expect from a spy, but the candor one may not, Braden revealed the Agency’s funding and support of all kinds of individuals and activities, including, perhaps most controversially, in the arts. Against objections that so many artists and writers were socialists, Braden writes, “in much of Europe in the 1950’s [socialists] were about the only people who gave a damn about fighting Communism.”

Whatever truth there is to the statement, its seeming wisdom has popped up again in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Sonny Bunch, editor and film critic of the conservative Washington Free Beacon. The CIA should once again fund “a culture war against communism,” Bunch argues. The export (to China) he offers as an example? Boots Riley’s hip, anti-neoliberal, satirical film Sorry to Bother You, a movie made by a self-described Communist.




Proud declarations in support of CIA funding for "socialists" may seem to take the sting out of moral outrage over covert cultural tactics. But they fail to answer the question: what is their effect on artists themselves, and on intellectual culture more generally? The answer has been ventured by writers like Joel Whitney, whose book Finks looks deeply into the relationship between dozens of famed mid-century writers and literary magazines—especially The Paris Review—and the agency best known for toppling elected governments abroad.

In an interview with The Nation, Whitney calls the CIA’s containment strategies “the inversion of influence. It’s the instrumentalization of writing.… It’s the feeling of fear dictating the rules of culture, and, of course, therefore, of journalism.” According to Eric Bennett, writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education and in his book Workshops of Empire, the Agency instrumentalized not only the literary publishing world, but also the institution that became its primary training ground, the writing program at the University of Iowa.

The Iowa Writer’s Workshop “emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed,” Bennett explains. “More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates.” The program “attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War”—at first through its director, self-appointed cold warrior Paul Engle, with funding from CIA front groups, the Rockefeller Foundation, and major corporations. (Kurt Vonnegut, an Iowa alum, described Engle as "a hayseed clown, a foxy grandpa, a terrific promoter, who, if you listened closely, talks like a man with a paper asshole.")

Under Engle writers like Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman went through the program. In the literary world, its dominance is at times lamented for the imposition of a narrow range of styles on American writing. And many a writer has felt shut out of the publishing world and its coteries of MFA program alums. When it comes to certain kinds of writing at least, some of them may be right—the system has been informally rigged in ways that date back to a time when the CIA and conservative funders approved and sponsored the high modernist fiction beloved by the New Critics, witty realism akin to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (and later John Cheever), and magical realism (part of the agency's attempt to control Latin American literary culture.)

These categories, it so happens, roughly correspond to those Bennett identifies as acceptable in his experience at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and to the writing one finds filling the pages of The Best American Short Stories annual anthologies and the fiction section of The New Yorker and The Paris Review. (Exceptions often follow the path of James Baldwin, who refused to work with the agency, and whom Paris Review co-founder and CIA agent Peter Matthiessen subsequently derided as “polemical.”)

Bennett’s personal experiences are merely anecdotal, but his history of the relationships between the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the explosion of MFA programs in the last 40 years under its influence, and the CIA and other groups’ active sponsorship are well-researched and substantiated. What he finds, as Timothy Aubry summarizes at The New York Times, is that “writing programs during the postwar period” imposed a discipline instituted by Engle, “teaching aspiring authors certain rules of propriety."

"Good literature, students learned, contains ‘sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.’” These rules have become so embedded in the aesthetic canons that govern literary fiction that they almost go without question, even if we encounter thousands of examples in history that break them and still manage to meet the bar of “good literature.” What is meant by the phrase is a kind of currency—literature that will be supported, published, marketed, and celebrated. Much of it is very good, and much happens to have sufficiently satisfied the gatekeepers' requirements.

In a reductive, but interesting analogy, Motherboard’s Brian Merchant describes “the American MFA system, spearheaded by the infamous Iowa Writers' Workshop” as a “content farm” first designed to optimize for “the spread of anti-Communist propaganda through highbrow literature.” Its algorithm: “More Hemingway, less Dos Passos.” As Aubry notes, quoting from Bennett's book:

Frank Conroy, Engle's longest-serving successor, who taught Bennett, "wanted literary craft to be a pyramid." At the base was syntax and grammar, or "Meaning, Sense, Clarity," and the higher levels tapered off into abstraction. "Then came character, then metaphor ... everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as 'the fancy stuff.' At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract."

The direct influence of the CIA on the country’s preeminent literary institutions may have waned, or faded entirely, who can say—and in any case, the institutions Whitney and Bennett write about have less cultural valence than they once did. But even so, we can see the effect on American creative writing, which continues to occupy a fairly narrow range and show some hostility to work deemed too abstract, argumentative, experimental, or "postmodern." One result may be that writers who want to get funded and published have to conform to rules designed to co-opt and corral literary writing.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Write a Bestselling Page Turner: Learn from The Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown’s New Masterclass

"Dan Brown visited my English class," remembers the New Yorker's Joshua Rothman. "It happened in the spring of 1998," five years before Brown hit the bigtime with The Da Vinci Code, a thriller best known for its colossal sales numbers. "None of us had heard of Brown, or of his book" — his debut novel, Digital Fortress — "and we were annoying, arty little snooty-snoots. Why would we want to talk with the author of a 'techno-thriller' about computer hackers?" But the class' attitude didn't stop Brown from sharing the writing wisdom he had to offer, delivered in the form of such guidelines (in Rothman's memory) as "Set your story in an exotic location," "Make your characters interesting people with secrets," "Have lots of plot twists," and "End each chapter with a cliffhanger."

At the time, Rothman didn't understand why Brown would come to his class to "give a bunch of arty high-school kids advice about how to write cheesy thrillers." But now, as a professional writer himself, Rothman realizes "why Brown's advice was so practical," and what it had to teach them about the practical considerations, even rigors, of "how to write for a living."




Though he doesn't mention any of his classmates growing up to become the kind of novelists Brown is, a great many others dream of such a writing life, few of whom ever had the chance to benefit from a classroom visit by the man himself. But they can now enroll in "Dan Brown Teaches Writing Thrillers," a new course from online education company Masterclass whose trailer you can watch above.

Any fan of Brown's writing — or the blockbuster movies that have been made out of it — knows that, as far as exotic locations, characters with secrets, plot twists, and cliffhangers go, he has hardly abandoned his principles. His Masterclass covers all of those aspects in depth and more besides, from "The Anatomy of a Thriller" to "Creating Heroes and Villains" to "Creating Suspense" to "Protecting Your Process." Brown also devotes two sections to research, which he once called in a Goodreads question-and-answer session "the most overlooked facet of writing a successful page turner." If any living writer knows how to come up with a successful page turner, Brown does, and unlike in his novels themselves, he certainly doesn't seem inclined to bury the secret under layers of history, symbolism, conspiracy, and murder. You can enroll in Brown's new thriller-writing class (which runs $90) here. You can also pay $180 to get an annual pass to all of Masterclass' courses.

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

7 Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction

ErnestHemingway

Image by Lloyd Arnold via Wikimedia Commons

Before he was a big game hunter, before he was a deep-sea fisherman, Ernest Hemingway was a craftsman who would rise very early in the morning and write. His best stories are masterpieces of the modern era, and his prose style is one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Hemingway never wrote a treatise on the art of writing fiction.  He did, however, leave behind a great many passages in letters, articles and books with opinions and advice on writing. Some of the best of those were assembled in 1984 by Larry W. Phillips into a book, Ernest Hemingway on Writing.




We've selected seven of our favorite quotations from the book and placed them, along with our own commentary, on this page. We hope you will all--writers and readers alike--find them fascinating.

1: To get started, write one true sentence.

Hemingway had a simple trick for overcoming writer's block. In a memorable passage in A Moveable Feast, he writes:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

2: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.

There is a difference between stopping and foundering. To make steady progress, having a daily word-count quota was far less important to Hemingway than making sure he never emptied the well of his imagination. In an October 1935 article in Esquire "Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter") Hemingway offers this advice to a young writer:

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.

3: Never think about the story when you're not working.

Building on his previous advice, Hemingway says never to think about a story you are working on before you begin again the next day. "That way your subconscious will work on it all the time," he writes in the Esquire piece. "But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start." He goes into more detail in A Moveable Feast:

When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

4: When it's time to work again, always start by reading what you've written so far.

T0 maintain continuity, Hemingway made a habit of reading over what he had already written before going further. In the 1935 Esquire article, he writes:

The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can't do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That's how you make it all of one piece.

5: Don't describe an emotion--make it.

Close observation of life is critical to good writing, said Hemingway. The key is to not only watch and listen closely to external events, but to also notice any emotion stirred in you by the events and then trace back and identify precisely what it was that caused the emotion. If you can identify the concrete action or sensation that caused the emotion and present it accurately and fully rounded in your story, your readers should feel the same emotion. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes about his early struggle to master this:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.

6: Use a pencil.

Hemingway often used a typewriter when composing letters or magazine pieces, but for serious work he preferred a pencil. In the Esquire article (which shows signs of having been written on a typewriter) Hemingway says:

When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is that much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.

7: Be Brief.

Hemingway was contemptuous of writers who, as he put it, "never learned how to say no to a typewriter." In a 1945 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway writes:

It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2013.

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