In the early 19th century, in an astounding act of persistence, imagination, and courage, a Cherokee named Sequoyah invented a written version of his people’s language. The Cherokee became the first American Indian nation to adopt their own script, and they went from nonliterate to literate in a single decade. Soon, a variety of publications, including Bibles, prayer books, and a newspaper were printed in Cherokee by a missionary named Samuel Worcester.
But just as this extraordinary transformation was taking place, the 1830 Indian Removal Act was passed. The Cherokee were driven from their homelands in Georgia and the Carolinas. Their printing press was seized, and the Cherokee type was destroyed. Their only path to literacy was through white schools, where speaking their mother tongue was often forbidden.
But Sequoyah’s syllabary survived in those Bibles and prayer books, and at the end of the 20th century, a revival of the Cherokee language began. Today, Sequoyah’s invention still speaks so strongly to the traditional identity of the Cherokee that their artwork often includes the characters he created.
In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the site of the Cherokee Nation headquarters, the high school is named after him. The downtown post office is inscribed in both English and Cherokee. Wheelchair access and tobacco-free signs around the old courthouse are also in both languages, and the front window of the Bank of America features a message in Cherokee. It doesn’t matter that most people (even most Cherokee) can’t read it. This is who we are, it beckons. Don’t forget.
We write so we remember. Shopping lists, memos, histories, even fiction and spiritual texts: The sheer act of writing carries the injunction, This is important.
The busier we are, and the more we have on our minds, the more likely we are to forget, so the more important writing becomes. Is it any surprise, then, that humans are writing more now—emails, texts, Facebook posts—than at any other time in history?
None of this had occurred to me before 2009. At the time, I was a freelance writer trying to support a family. In the previous two decades, I had penned a dozen books, around 100 magazine articles, and some 500 newspaper articles. I was prolific, but I was a mess—frantic, scattered, confused of purpose. And then, more or less on a whim, I began carving endangered alphabets.
I had stumbled across a website, omniglot.com, that catalogs the world’s written languages. Despite being a well-traveled guy, I’d never heard of most of them. Many of these written forms were beautiful, even astonishing. And an alarming percentage, perhaps a third, were on the verge of extinction: no longer taught in schools, no longer used for official purposes, and in some cases used only by priests.
What do we lose when a written language dies? And what happens when some daft Englishman living in Vermont decides to buck the global trend and write slowly, using tools a thousand years old?
I launched the Endangered Alphabets Project, and I started documenting these losses in a medium more permanent than paper or the fleeting pixel. Learning about woodwork as I went, I carved Balinese and Javanese from Indonesia; Tifinagh from North Africa and Bassa Vah from West Africa; Lanna from Thailand and the traditional Mongolian script called bichig. First by emailing scholars and later through Facebook, I gradually developed a network of contacts. To my astonishment, I started getting emails from the other side of the planet with tiny miracles of exotic text to enlarge, transfer with carbon paper, and gouge into maple, cherry, walnut, and sapele.
In 2012 I received an email from Maung Nyeu, a graduate student at Harvard. A member of the Marma, an ethnic group from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, he had been stunned to discover photos of my carvings.
We met in Cambridge, and he told me of his journey from the remote upland region of his birth to Harvard, via degrees at the University of Hawaii and the University of Southern California. He had begun developing schools in the Hill Tracts where indigenous children could be educated in their own languages.
Public education in Bangladesh takes place, by law, in Bangla, the official national language. For many of the children in the Hill Tracts, Bangla is not even their second language. Unsurprisingly, the results are dismal: Less than two percent of the region’s children finish their schooling. Many of these children have never even seen their own languages in writing. I wanted to give them a sense that their language and culture were dignified and worthy of respect. So at Maung’s request, I carved signage in Mro, Marma, and Chakma to display outside these schools. My work, I found, was shifting from documentation to activism, prompting an increased sense of urgency.
Maung and I recruited a team to create classroom materials in the endangered languages and alphabets of the Hill Tracts. We published alphabet wall charts, rubber letter stamps, writing journals, the first coloring books to be seen in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and children’s readers based on regional folk tales. More than 700 indigenous children have now been admitted to three schools, where they are doing what we hope children do the world over: learning their alphabets.
When a culture loses its own alphabet, it also loses everything written in that alphabet—and everything that alphabet stands for. Minority cultures are often agricultural, which means they have a deep knowledge of plants and their medicinal properties. In many cultures that knowledge is written only in their own language. The same goes for spiritual writings, legal documents, and personal letters. As soon as the traditional script is no longer taught, in as little as two generations, that wisdom and experience is unintelligible—not only to them, but to the world.
But the loss goes subtler and deeper. Every culture’s writing has developed alongside its tools, their sense of who they are, and what they believe in.
It had never occurred to ask myself why English letters look the way they do until I started carving letters that looked utterly different. Take the English “E” and the “E” of the Cham people of Vietnam. Our E is copied, deliberately and with reverence, from the letters on Roman memorials. To us it stands for Renaissance virtues of education and civilization. But to the Romans themselves, it was literally an artifice, one that required tools and skill to execute properly. It embodied the ideal forms of Euclid—straight lines, parallel lines, right angles, symmetry—that you can’t actually write by hand. It was chosen to embody the qualities of an empire: balance, durability, law and order.
The Cham E, on the other hand, has no truck with straight lines or symmetry. Instead, it’s all about movement and curve—the virtues of the human wrist.
After working on the alphabets for a year or two, I started to realize that the enterprise was changing me. I’ve published about a million words in my lifetime, but now I might spend all evening working on one.
I still spend many of my daylight hours answering hundreds of emails, but in the evening, I sit down with a piece of wood that compels me to slow down. There’s no such thing as a perfect sentence, but there is such a thing as a perfect curve, and if you make the slightest mistake, you notice.
The project has also revealed interesting things about error. The digital world allows us to make mistakes at the speed of light, and correct them just as quickly. Working in wood makes it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to correct mistakes. And those mistakes are always the result of haste: ripping off the template sheet without noticing you’ve missed an accent mark or even a whole word; rounding a corner at excessive speed; wanting to get to work quickly and not preparing the wood properly, so when you apply the finish, disfigured lines left by the planer rise out of the grain.
Which is what the whole project is about, really: making sure nothing important is lost in the name of convenience or haste. Carving endangered alphabets forces me to pay attention, and it’s only when you pay attention that you truly understand value—and beauty. Sitting down to the clean look and satin feel of well-sanded wood, the smooth sweep of the wrist, bone over bone, forges curves that somehow preserve and express almost everything we know.