Why World Endangered Writing Day?

Key things to know about the new international holiday

The Executive Summary

Half of the world’s 7,000-odd languages are endangered, and may be extinct by the end of this century.

Some 90% of the world’s 300-plus alphabets are likewise threatened. Yet that statistic means almost nothing to those of us in Western Europe and North America.

For one thing, we had no idea there were all that many alphabets anyway. For another, the whole concept of an alphabet being endangered is baffling because our own, the Latin or Roman alphabet, is so secure. It’s used by more people around the world than every other script combined.

How are so many forms of writing endangered, and why does that matter?

The answers are throughout our website, our online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, and our YouTube channel.

However, that’s a great deal of information to go through, so this is the executive summary.

— Tim Brookes

Why do endangered writing forms matter?

World Endangered Writing Day was born when I read that in traditional Balinese culture, one day a year was dedicated to respecting and venerating writing.

On the day dedicated to the goddess Saraswati, nothing written may be destroyed, or even a letter crossed out. All the lontar manuscripts—oblong pages of lontar palm leaf, written on with a stylus and then bound between wooden slats—in a household are gathered and act as the representation of the goddess, to whom eighteen offerings are made, one for each of the letters of the Balinese alphabet. Each offering contains the symbol of the supreme god, made of fried rice dough.

This shows a deep understanding of the value and importance of writing, beyond being a mere means of conveying information as quickly and clearly as possible.

World Endangered Writing Day, then, is a celebration of writing in all its varied and astonishing manifestations, especially those that see and use writing in far richer ways than we do.

We in the West have no day dedicated to knowledge, learning, wisdom, and writing. Writing is just a tool we use for everyday purposes of all kinds. It’s linguistic duct tape.

As such, it is based on the fact that the world’s lesser-known and lesser-used scripts show writing not just as a useful set of symbols but as an extraordinarily expressive range of cultural artifacts and cultural practices.

Not only is each individual person’s handwriting an expression of their character, their educational tradition, even their mood, but each culture’s form of writing is equally self-expressive. Every script is shaped over time by the people who use it, and is as much an expression of their culture as their music, art, or dance.

For example, we know of one or more scripts...

  • whose every letter has a secret mystical meaning;
  • that united entire minority communities against colonizers;
  • that are essentially cosmic maps;
  • that are taken so seriously that a scribe must recite specific mantras before beginning to write, before making a correction, even before opening a book;
  • that were created as the result of dreams, visions, or divine commands;
  • that were devised and used solely by women, largely in secret;
  • that were so banned that a writer who used them could be imprisoned and have all his property confiscated;
  • that were written or incised in bark, palm leaves, bamboo, buffalo horn, animal hide, stone, wood, and even human skin, as tattoos. The very shapes of their letters were influenced by the tools and materials available, and so reflect not only their history by their landscape;
  • that have such spiritual significance that if someone in the community dies without having learned to read and write their script, the priest sits beside the corpse in the period before cremation and teaches in the alphabet so it is prepared for the afterlife.

In the West, we see writing differently, in more industrial terms—that it should be quick, efficient, easily stored, easily mass-produced. Because of the dominance of our alphabet, we in the West are in the process of driving these other remarkable forms of writing out of existence. The barbarians are at the gate, and they are us.

What is at stake?

When a culture is compelled to stop using its traditional script, typically within two generations everything written in that script—land deeds, histories, recipes, family letters, legal documents, sacred texts—becomes incomprehensible, lost. It becomes the “old” writing, strange and meaningless. After a while, the general assumption is that it was pointless and useless.

But a script is, in a very real sense, a culture's history. And when a culture loses its history it loses its sense of identity, dignity, and value. It ceases to believe it deserves a foothold on the Earth. It becomes someone else’s poor cousin.

Which forms of writing are at greatest risk?

Many a website will tell you which are the world’s most widely-used scripts, and though these figures are largely guesswork, one thing is clear: users of the Latin alphabet outnumber all the others combined.

Nobody, though, will give you data on the world’s least widely used scripts, the ones at greatest risk, mostly because the users of those barely-surviving scripts are likely to be minority and Indigenous peoples, often dispossessed, a community that once had land and dignity along with their own writing practices, but are now thought of as outsiders. Primitives. Tribals.

Such people are rarely counted, and their writing is never used officially. Nobody pays any attention to it. It is not taught in schools. It may even be banned.

So the short answer is, we can't point to a script and say, this one is at greatest risk.

On the other hand:

  • We know of a script that is being used by only one village in Assam, India, of another used by a Christian sect in West Africa whose texts can now be read by only a handful.
  • Many scripts are used for a specific cultural practice that may in itself be waning. Today, the Lota Ende script of the island of Flores in Indonesia is only used during ritual circumcision. A local poet writes the biography and the family history of the boy who will be circumcised, in the form of what is referred to as woi, the mourning narrative poem. The woi is always recited in such a sad tone that those who hear it often cry.
  • Perhaps the scripts at greatest risk are those that have been recently created specifically for their communities, when individuals have taken it upon themselves to create a script and have spent their entire lives promoting and teaching their script, often with nothing more than blackboard and chalk. But the forces ranged against them have been more powerful, and all too often when they die the script has still not been used by more than a handful of followers, students and/or family.
  • This happens most often when whoever is in power at the time does not care for the people who use this new script, this visible symbol of their culture. We know of at least four people who have been executed for creating a script for their community because that script gave a sense of dignity, worth and unity to a despised minority.

Is it even possible to revive a script?

We are living in an extraordinary time in history. Since roughly the year 2000, a surge in concern for indigenous rights and traditional cultures has led to support for traditional minority and indigenous scripts—and the creation of more than 40 new scripts for cultures that previously didn’t have their own.

This means you can never write off (so to speak) a script. The Mende Kikakui script was kept alive in three small villages in Sierra Leone for decades and is now in active revival. The Tifinagh script of the Amazigh people of North Africa was kept alive for centuries in the desert by Touareg women who incorporated it into tattoos and jewellery designs.

The greatest threat, then, is not endangerment but the habit, among Western scholars, of declaring, in effect, “Almost nobody uses this script any more, so we don’t need to bother with it.”

Exactly the opposite is the case: the fewer people who use a script, the more it demands our attention, our support.

And why January 23rd?

Yes, it’s John Hancock’s birthday, and therefore National Handwriting Day—an important element, as most minority scripts have been handwritten, and many were driven out of use by the arrival of the printing press. But that’s not the main reason.

The Meitei people of northeast India had an ancient sacred script, every letter of which corresponded to a body part of their deity. In the early 18th century, an itinerant Hindu missionary converted their king, who reportedly ordered every document written in the Meitei script to be burned—one of two instances we know of when at a single stroke an entire script was destroyed. The event was so horrifying and traumatic it became annually commemorated on a day known as Puya Meithaba (The Burning of the Puya, or traditional Meitei scriptures): January 23rd.

But World Endangered Writing Day is about revival as much as loss, and more than 200 years later, some Meitei agitated so forcefully for the return of their traditional script that eventually scholars finally agreed on a reconstructed version of the alphabet with additional letters to represent sounds not present in Meitei when the script was first developed, and now Meitei Mayek—that is, Meitei writing—is an official script of the state of Manipur.

What is your goal?

Our goal at Endangered Alphabets is simple: that people approach and treat each other equally and with respect. Or, to put it in the words of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

Article 11
Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Article 13
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.

What is Endangered Alphabets?

The Endangered Alphabets Project is a federal 501c3 nonprofit based in Vermont, USA. We are the only organization in the world dedicated to preserving and revitalizing endangered cultures by researching, cataloging, and promoting their indigenous writing systems through talks, exhibitions, educational materials, games, and artwork.

For more information, please contact admin@endangeredalphabets.com.