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An Online Atlas Tracking Disappearing and Endangered Languages Across the Globe

February 12, 2019

Kate Sierzputowski

The Yi alphabet, a script created during the Tang dynasty in China (618-907 AD), all images via the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets

The Yi alphabet, a script created during the Tang dynasty in China (618-907 AD), all images via the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets

In 2016 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that 2019 would be the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The declaration’s goal was to raise awareness for disappearing language systems around the world, while mobilizing a coordinated global effort to help preserve them. At the time of the meeting it was estimated that 40% of the world’s 6,700 languages were at risk of disappearing. This threatens the history of the associated cultures, while also erasing thousands of years of knowledge systems valuable for protecting the environment, peace making, and national resource development.

The Endangered Alphabets Project is a Vermont-based nonprofit organization that supports endangered, minority, and indigenous cultures by helping to preserve their writing systems. For the past six years they have researched and compiled information on endangered languages, exhibited artwork using the cultures’ sayings, proverbs, and spiritual texts, and partnered with organizations to publish educational materials and games in endangered languages. Through their research they have also created an interactive website that tracks these languages across the globe. The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets is a clickable map compiled from languages across the world. Many of these scripts do not have an official status in their country, state, or province, and are not taught in government-funded schools.

“My goal is to include scripts from indigenous and minority cultures who are in danger of losing their sense of history, identity, and purpose and who are trying to protect, preserve and/or revive their writing system as a way of reconnecting to their past, their dignity, their sense of a way ahead,” explained Tim Brookes, the founder and president of the Endangered Alphabets Project. “A traditional script is a visual reminder of a people’s identity—as we can tell by the number of cultures that continue to use their script as an emblem (on printed invitations, on shop fronts, even on the national flag) long after most people have stopped using it for everyday purposes.”

As a general rule, the atlas is guided by Article 13 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says: “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.” The project is therefore not necessarily about the language, but about the people that speak and continue to carry these writing systems as tradition.

You can begin your own search into writing systems and their origins, or take a look at a list of languages the atlas needs help researching on their website. (via Kottke)

An oil barrel sculpture installation with Afaka script which reads "Save our Drinking Water" by Marcel Pinas

An oil barrel sculpture installation with Afaka script which reads “Save our Drinking Water” by Marcel Pinas

An example of Mandombe, an indigenously-created script of sub-Saharan Africa, which is said to be the only writing system in the world that looks like a brick wall.

An example of Mandombe, an indigenously-created script of sub-Saharan Africa, which is said to be the only writing system in the world that looks like a brick wall

"The One and The Many" is a 24-tonne sculpted granite boulder by artist Peter Randall-Page inscribed with many of the world's scripts and symbols. It includes Bassa Vah, an alphabet for writing the Bassa language of Liberia (highlighted in light grey), among many others.

“The One and The Many” is a 24-ton sculpted granite boulder by artist Peter Randall-Page inscribed with many of the world’s scripts and symbols. It includes Bassa Vah, an alphabet for writing the Bassa language of Liberia (highlighted in light grey), among many others

A bilingual plaque in Portuguese and Javanese

A carving by Tim Brookes in Ojibwe, a Canadian Aboriginal syllabic language

A carving by Tim Brookes in Ojibwe, a Canadian Aboriginal syllabic language

A street sign in Thaana, the script of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, image by Eric Lafforgue

A street sign in Thaana, the script of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, image by Eric Lafforgue

A Siddham manuscript of the Heart Sutra

A Siddham manuscript of the Heart Sutra

 

 

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