The historian Edward Tenner has posted an article on The Atlantic Aug 2010 that describes the work of Tim Brookes on the Endangered Alphabets Project. As some of you know, I am a lover of calligraphy and good typography. So I just have to put in a plug for this project. You can contribute to the Endangered Alphabets Project by going to Kickstarter and making a pledge.
There are literally thousands of rare languages that are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people each. Many more are already lost and nobody remembers them. Many of these languages also had their own written alphabets (or more accurately, scripts).
Mr. Brookes is a writer and a calligrapher/sculptor who is attempting to preserve many of these rare scripts by carving text into blocks of curly maple, a beautiful tree wood that grows near his home in Vermont. An example of Manchu is shown below. Manchu is one of the written languages derived from the Mongolian script. It is written vertically from top to bottom with the columns running left to right. Characters in a word are joined in a cursive style with spaces between the words. Diacritical marks are used to clarify pronunciation. (Think of it as Arabic rotated counterclockwise 90 degrees.)
Manchu carved in curly maple. Image from the Endangered Alphabets Project
The Endangered Alphabets Project consists of 14 carvings. Each carving is in a different rare language (Inuktitut, Baybayin, Manchu, Bugis, Bassa Vah, Cherokee, Samaritan, Mandaic, Syriac, Khmer, Pahauh Hmong, Balinese, Tifinagh and Nombut) but all composed of the same text, Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of the United Nations.
As Mr. Brookes notes, “The irony, of course, is that many of these forms of writing are endangered precisely because human beings do not always act towards one another in that spirit.”
Although these languages may disappear in their spoken form, their written forms may continue to live on. Each of these written scripts are described within the Unicode system of computer text encoding.
[Update: Added hyperlinks to language names.]