April 19, 2020

Travel Writer Tim Brookes Studies, Carves and Advocates the Writing Systems of Indigenous and Minority Cultures through His Endangered Alphabets Project

What are you working on—on the side?

If something is important, we write it down.

Ten years ago, I discovered that most of the world’s writing systemsperhaps 90%—are in danger of extinction. No longer taught in schools, lacking official status, used by a small and dwindling number of elderly people, these writing systems nevertheless have served, in some cases for 2,000 years, as a primary means of expressing and recording the accumulated experience and wisdom of their cultures. Lose the alphabet, and within two generations not only is the information lost, but the sense of a shared past, a shared identity and purpose, is also lost.

I bought myself a set of hand tools and began to carve pieces of text (proverbs, spiritual texts, sometimes just individual letters) in some of these fascinating, often exquisite alphabets—and in the process discovered that many of them embody truths not only about their people and their culture but about writing itself. This became the Endangered Alphabets Project. In the past decade, I’ve done more than 150 carvings, exhibited them at colleges, universities, museums, libraries and galleries around the world, spoken about the vital importance of language and writing to cultural survival, and collaborated with individuals and groups who want to restore their language, their script, their identity, their sense of self-respect and self-determination. In addition to doing carvings, giving talks and promoting these scripts and their cultures, I’ve also published storybooks, teaching materials, journals, coloring books and illustrated dictionaries in minority scripts.

I’ve pulled together pretty much all I know and made it available to the public—in the online “Atlas of Endangered Alphabets.”

In the process, I’ve also become very much of a beginner calligrapher and typographer, though frankly most of my art/design work is based on the genius of indigenous people exploring their own endangered scripts, and of a small group xenotypographers who have given time, sweat and tears to create non-commercial versions of traditional scripts. I’ve also become a beginner woodworker/wood artist, and have come to respect the artistic properties of wood and the fact that not only is every kind of wood different, but every piece of wood is different. Working to combine the wood and the script to the best advantage of both is a challenge that never ends, and never fails to be fascinating.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

The Endangered Alphabets Project began as a side project while I was directing a college writing program. For the past 20 months, it has been my sole occupation, so that means I need to do a lot of fundraising, especially focusing on a Kickstarter campaign every year. Before this, I did my carving in the evenings and on weekends, and discovered how relaxing it is, paradoxically, to work with my hands last thing at night, so the act of focusing on that manual work drove out all the mental turmoil of the day, like a form of meditation.

Why have a side project?

I’m not sure I’ve ever worked harder or been happier. As I said, having a piece of wood in my hands every evening is the ideal end to a day. Beyond that, having a sense of purpose larger than my own head is a huge relief. The Endangered Alphabets have been very active on social media for the past 24 months or so, and it is an amazing thing to have a dozen or fifty people every day tell you you’re doing a good thing—I wish every person in the world could have such daily validation. And there is something astonishingly deep about making something beautiful. I don’t say I’m happy with all my work—I’m certainly not—but to be able to step back and see you’ve made a shape and a color and a line that works to your satisfaction…well, it goes a lot deeper than words. And that depth circles around to why writing systems are so closely connected to, and so deeply felt, by their communities, some of whom have embedded their writing symbols in flags or coins or banknotes or seals or tattoos or jewelry even though they themselves can no longer read them. That’s the paradox and the mystery I’m after.

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Diptych courtesy of Tim Brookes.

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