Monthly Archives: April 2014

Immortalizing the world’s endangered alphabets

There’s a great hubbub among linguists—though (regrettably) not among the world at large—about the thousands of languages that are slated to evaporate over the coming decades as small languages with few speakers give way to the few politically strong languages of the world. Losing languages means losing cultural heritage: history, mythology, perspectives. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest checking out the Endangered Languages Project, which seeks to document as many of these languages as possible before it’s too late.

As regular readers of ScratchTap (or afternoon thinkers on the matter) surely know, languages does not equal writing, though it is easy to mistake them as one and the same. Thus, even the linguists who fret over the disappearance of languages seldom consider the disappearance of the writing systems used to encode those languages. Such a loss is just as grave.

I recently found out about a new project by Tim Brookes called Endangered Alphabets, a traveling exhibition and philosophy dedicated to this issue. The project’s home page summarizes its mission nicely:

Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

The Endangered Alphabets Project, which consists of an exhibition of carvings and a book, is the first-ever attempt to bring attention to this issue–and to do so by creating unforgettable, enigmatic artwork.

The Endangered Alphabets are not only a unique and vivid way of demonstrating the issue of disappearing languages and the global loss of cultural diversity, they are also remarkable and thought-provoking pieces of art. These two threads interweave to raise all kinds of questions about writing itself: how it developed, how it spread across the globe, how the same alphabet took on radically different forms, like Darwin’s finches, on neighboring islands, and how developments in technology affected writing, and vice versa.

Without further ado, check out the Endangered Alphabets website. You can see pieces from the exhibition, learn more about the project, and even purchase a piece of art for yourself. (Tim does commissions!)

I’m a big fan of bringing issues to light in multiple ways. Sure, we have scholars writing books on the disappearance of writing systems, but those can only reach so many. This project will reach a different audience. In the future, I hope there will be other projects that will reach even more.

Universals in text directionality?

English text is read and written in lines. In each line, the text goes left to right, and the lines themselves go from top to bottom. Simple enough. But when we look at other writing systems, we see that left-to-right (A in the diagram below) isn’t the only possibility. How else do humans write?


Many languages are written right-to-left, such as Arabic and Hebrew. In these writing systems, just as in ours, lines are read from top to bottom (B). Then there are the languages whose text is read from top to bottom, such as traditional Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Here, the lines are read from right to left (C). Some languages are written in vertical lines that are read from left to right (D). Finally, some languages are written in vertical lines that are read from bottom to top, and these lines can either run from right to left (G) or from left to right (H). We should note that there are some special cases in the world, such as bi-directional text, but for now we’ll set those aside.

At first we might remark at the wonderful diversity of the world of text directionality. So many permutations! But when we look a bit deeper, we can see that it’s actually not that diverse. For example, the overwhelming majority of the world’s scripts are written as ours is (A). Check out the chart below and you’ll see what I mean.

Writing Directions Chart

Moreover, it is extremely rare for writing to go from bottom to top. You’ll notice that the theoretical possibilities E and F in my diagram are not realized in actual languages. According to Omniglot, there are only three languages that are written as in H, and only one as in G—and the G exemplar, Ancient Berber, was only written in this way sometimes; most commonly it is written as in B (in the chart above, it was counted in both categories).

Next, the very fact that languages are by and large written in successive lines is interesting. Sure, there’s boustrophedon, in which lines alternate right-to-left and left-to-right such that the text can be seen as a continuous stream of characters, but even that is written in lines. Let’s think outside the box a little. Again, Omniglot shows us some of the other possibilities: Ogham, an ancient Irish script, was inscribed on stones in a circular pattern, starting from the outside and working its way toward the center. Mayan was written in zig-zagging columns. Besides these, I’m sure there are millions of theoretical possibilities; perhaps many have already been explored in art.

Why is there not more diversity in the real world? Perhaps it is a reflection of the very purpose of writing: to organize information. Unorganized writing would, in some ways, cease to be writing at all. In other words, our writing has a natural preference toward lines. And within that preference, we have a clear bent toward unidirectional lines. (For example, ancient Greek was written in many different ways, including A, B and boustrophedon, but over time it settled on A.) 

Do we also have a universal preference toward left-to-right and top-to-bottom writing? Or is the fact that A is the majority pattern simply a testament to the influence the Latin writing system has had in the world?