There’s something so omnipresent in almost every culture that we barely notice its inventiveness and beauty.  Have you ever pondered where your culture would be without an alphabet commonly understood by everyone?

The written record of your culture’s past would fade into obscurity within a few generations. The entirety of the documented knowledge-base and every system of exchange between people, unique to your culture, would disappear.

Where would that leave your family and community?

This might seem like a frivolous thought experiment, but I was surprised to learn that alphabets are actually going extinct right now. Today we will introduce you to the person who opened my eyes to this matter, Tim Brookes. Tim is a remarkable thought leader who is doing something unique about preserving endangered alphabets. In fact, his passion is the driving force behind a beautiful website by that name: EndangeredAlphabets.com

Tim’s skill set seems perfectly suited to this endeavor. He is a writer, musician, NPR essay contributor, and world traveler. The one thing he didn’t know until recently was that he was also an artist, and that’s part of the gift of Tim’s story.

He reminds us that we probably all have talents yet to be discovered.

Image: Tim Brookes' Endangered Alphabets

Tim Brookes // Endangered Alphabets

 

Here’s a few statistics to flesh out our understanding of the issue: there are 6000 languages spoken on the planet and they are written using only 100 different alphabets. Unfortunately, one-third of those alphabets are in danger of going extinct because they are no longer taught in schools and no longer used for commerce or government.

They are understood by only a few elders and when they go, so will the meaning behind the beautiful, fluid symbols that record important parts of the picture of human history.

Fortunately, there are a few people all over the planet who are throwing their particular gifts and passions at preserving these remarkable and often ancient inventions of the human mind.

Today, we’ll learn about the work of one of them. Tim Brookes discovered his talent for carving in 2009 when circumstance aligned and how he is becoming renowned for recording culturally important words in alluring pieces of wood.

I met Tim when he was exhibiting his work in Burlington, Vermont last fall. He had completely captivated about a dozen people with his stories and perspectives, and even my three teenagers were rooted to the ground.

I’ve held his work in my hands and I have to tell you there is something very special about his pieces.

One feels irresistibly compelled to touch these pieces of wood. As if by running our hands over the grain and symbols, we are connecting with a commonality across time and cultures.

I could go on, but Tim explains some interesting insights so beautifully in a video, that I’ll let him shine a light on his endeavor.

Via: Fractor 1

It’s a remarkable confluence of events, isn’t it?

And did you happen to notice Tim’s final comment?

This project is heading in all sorts of directions. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in a year’s time, we are doing things I haven’t even thought of yet.

Well, that’s exactly what has happened.

The Endangered Alphabet project expands:

Tim is currently running an Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter Campaign to expand his work in a big way.

His goal is “to create the most ambitious and significant set of Endangered Alphabets carvings yet—20 separate carvings of the phrase ‘mother tongue’ in the traditional written languages of those cultures, carved in woods native to those cultures.” 2

Then he plans to show these works in a major exhibition to open on International Mother Language Day, February 21st, 2017, which will be the largest and most high-profile display of the Alphabets thus far.

Tim says he wants to spur public discussion and awareness of the importance of inter-cultural respect. I suspect the dangers of language loss may be a perfect lens through which to observe the past, present, and future of the possibilities with this issue.

And here’s my favorite part: once the exhibition has run its course, each of the carvings will be donated to an organization in the United States or overseas dedicated to preserving that culture’s language and identity.

Tim has already done this for the Somali Bantu, the Ainu of Japan, and the Mro, Marma, and Chakma of Bangladesh, and this project, funded by the Kickstarter campaign, will be extending this work many times over.

So, if you have an interest in culture, anthropology, human rights, art, woodworking, history, or any of the other topics this project embraces, check out Tim’s great intentions on his Kickstarter.

And this is the beauty of Kickstarter, we don’t have to start something ourselves. We can each be a part of making the world a little better place through giving what we can spare.

What’s the takeaway message?

I found so many.

Have you had your “ah-ha” moment in some strange and wonderful direction that your experiences and passions are perfectly suited for?

If you want to read a great little story that might inspire you, check out Tim’s Our Story page on the Endangered Alphabets website.

I love how Tim describes his feelings when being drawn into this unusual combination of art and anthropology. It was like he was unwrapping a gift:

What an array of inventions! What staggering variety! Some languages seemed more like elaborate decorations than meaningful symbols; some looked more like thickets of thorn bushes; some seemed utterly alien, as if the hand of man had had nothing to do with their creation at all. 3

This work expands us all.

In another passage on the Our Story page at Endangered Alphabets, he remarks

The endangered alphabets had shrunk to the margins of their societies precisely because people had not acted towards each other in a spirit of brotherhood… These gnarly or magnificent old scripts were being replaced by the beige, rectangular uniformity of the keyboard. 4

And that’s the issue at hand in our current age of globalization, isn’t it? We may be losing the “gnarly, magnificence” of diversity, as we move to the uniform and expedient.

Tim’s work may be revealing just that.

He could be just mechanically recording these symbols for posterity, on some esoteric corner of the web.

But no, his work brilliantly and compellingly preserves the essence of these symbols in a way that generations have and will understand.

He makes a wonderful attempt to pick up the threads of connection between art and personal expression.

Even if we don’t fancy ourselves as “an art person”, we can find something to ponder in the way Tim has found people appreciating his pieces.

If you’ve read his story page, you’ll know Tim first started making these pieces for family members as gifts and that he assumed people would appreciate the actual text he was translating, but that’s not what happened.

Here’s what Tim has to say about losing himself in the fluid designs:

Something else was happening: I was starting to see that there was a curious advantage to unfamiliar alphabets. If you stare at a letter or word and have no idea even how to sound it out, you start looking at that letter not as an atom of sound or of meaning, but as a design. It becomes, in a strange way, a hand-made work of art, something that someone has shaped with a pen or a brush or a stylus or even a knife. Subtract meaning and you get art. Nobody really cared whether their carved monograms meant what I said they meant—they loved the fact that they were fascinating and unusual and fluid and graceful. 5

And like so many of the thought leaders we feature on EWC each day, once again, Tim has found a way to combine disparate things in a new way that seems to resonate with many.

Perfect. We will need so much more of that as the next decades unfold.

Meanwhile, stay open, curious and hopeful. (Tim certainly proves where that can lead us!)

~ Dr. Lynda

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Notes:

  1. “Tim Brookes: Endangered Alphabets.” Vimeo. Fractor, 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 June 2016. <https://vimeo.com/102691332>.
  2. Brookes, Tim. “The Right To Read, The Right To Write.” Kickstarter. Kickstarter, 20 June 2016. Web. 29 June 2016. <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1496420787/the-right-to-read-the-right-to-write>.
  3. Brookes, Tim. “Our Story.” The Endangered Alphabets Project. Endangered Alphabets, n.d. Web. 29 June 2016. <http://endangeredalphabets.com/our-story/>.
  4. Brookes, Tim. “Our Story.” The Endangered Alphabets Project. Endangered Alphabets, n.d. Web. 29 June 2016. <http://endangeredalphabets.com/our-story/>.
  5. Brookes, Tim. “Our Story.” The Endangered Alphabets Project. Endangered Alphabets, n.d. Web. 29 June 2016. <http://endangeredalphabets.com/our-story/>.

Dr. Lynda is a dentist, artist, global traveler, and philanthropist who looks for potential and shares it with the world.