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.