Saturday, 9 July 2016

Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter
=Guest post=

Photo credit: Matt Thorsen
by Tim Brookes


Before I started the Endangered Alphabets project, I thought of myself as being multilingual: good French, decent German, solid Latin, tourist Spanish and Italian, toasts in Russian and obscenities in half a dozen languages.

Now, after seven years of carving the world’s most obscure and endangered writing systems, it’s clear what a novice I am. I just received a Facebook birthday card from a colleague who wrote in a dozen languages, most of them endangered. And my ethnocentricity has been challenged head-on by the fact that in doing more than 100 carvings in more than 30 different minority scripts I can now read precisely one word in a non-Latin script: the Balinese word suksma, meaning ‘thank you’.

The Balinese word “suksma” (‘thank you’).
Carved in cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Yet oddly enough my insular limitations have also been a strength in this ongoing project, or at least have offered me perspectives that might otherwise be hard to come by. My first exhibition of carvings, all of which featured Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in endangered writing systems, grew out of my stumbling upon Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. It was a revelation. I thought of myself as fairly well-traveled and widely-read, yet I’d never heard of probably 85% of the languages on Omniglot. And the texts themselves were all Greek to me – well, more than Greek, given that in many cases I couldn’t pronounce a single glyph or understand a single word-cluster.

In a way, that was an advantage. I saw those languages not in terms of the communication of meaning but as a series of symbols that had evolved (or in some instances been created) for a reason, or a series of reasons. My ignorance led me to ask questions that might never occur to someone versed in that language. Why was the Inuktitut script so mathematical? Why was Baybayin so damn thin it was hard to carve and even harder to paint?

The phrase “mother tongue” in Baybayin, the pre-colonial script of the Philippines,
based on calligraphy/graffiti by Kristian Kabuay.
Carved in flame cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Why were the letters of Samaritan off balance? Why did Cherokee have serifs on curves – and come to think of it, why did it have serifs at all?

And the more I looked at these unfamiliar scripts, the more I realized we English-speakers never stop and ask ourselves basic questions about our own language and alphabet. Why were we so smitten with the Latin alphabet – to such an extent that the default academic font was called Times New Roman? Why were we so keen on parallels, right angels, circles, the Euclidean forms that are in fact impossible to write freehand? What does English have against diacritics, when other languages embrace them to such an extent that some scripts look like a large wet black dog shaking itself?

But the really interesting questions were about language itself, and the way people instinctively think about it. For example: it has been fascinating to me how often people look at my Alphabet carvings and say, “That one looks like an alien script”. I even though so myself when I first started. I’ve come to think of this as the Stonehenge phenomenon: when people look at Stonehenge they see pattern and therefore intent but they can’t see meaning. That’s a powerful, magnetic phenomenon. They can’t look away or stop wondering what it means and why it was created.

I think an “alien” alphabet has the same qualities: we can see it has shape and purpose and therefore intent, but it’s so utterly unfamiliar we can’t understand it, and we can’t even imagine understanding it. So we assume it must not be of this Earth. More and more, I find myself thinking in such galactic terms and seeing and hearing language as a series of variations on the concept of pattern.  

“Happy New Year” in Mongolian calligraphy,
based on the work of Sukhbaatar.
Carved in pau amarillo
Photo credit: Tom Way

Let me explain. When I’ve finished carving and painting one of my scripts into, say, a piece of curly maple and then I add the first coat of tung oil, an extraordinary three-dimensional change takes place. The wood acquires both luster and depth, as if rising and sinking at the same time. Faint shadows become deep currents. Knots become cyclones. The grain ripens one way, but in the same instant a different set of ripples will often appear running perpendicular to it. The wood becomes anatomical, muscular. And the black text seems to float both in and above it, as if it is both part and not part of the wood.

The first time I really looked at this transformation, it struck me that something fascinating was taking place in terms of pattern. The grain in the wood and the ripples running more or less perpendicular to it, looking like patterns in wet sand, are expressions of the rhythms running through everything.

The verb “la” (‘to be’) in Nom, the pre-colonial script of Vietnam.
Carved in quilted maple
Photo credit: Tom Way

Trees have been on this planet for some 370 million years, and the patterns in the grain – well, they illustrate forces that have been acting on matter since the dawn of the universe.

Part of the human condition, though, is to try to see the shape and drift of those forces. We’re pattern-seeking creatures, after all. And what struck me about languages, especially when carved in wood, is that they show our own efforts to understand the world by creating patterns – patterns that others can recognize and convert into speech, into ideas – overlaid on the deeper, older, more complex patterns that have made us what we are.

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets project, whose carvings have been exhibited all over North America including at Harvard, Yale, and the Smithsonian Institution. He is also the author of 16 books, details of which can be found at his homepage.


© Tim Brookes 2016

Next post: Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness. Saturday 23rd July 2016.

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