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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

Opti­cal Scan­ning Tech­nol­o­gy Lets Researchers Recov­er Lost Indige­nous Lan­guages from Old Wax Cylin­der Record­ings

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Hear What the Lan­guage Spo­ken by Our Ances­tors 6,000 Years Ago Might Have Sound­ed Like: A Recon­struc­tion of the Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean Lan­guage

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.

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