From Gaagudju in Australia, whose last native speaker died in 2002, to the Cromarty dialect of Scots that died in the United Kingdom in 2012, to Nuchatlaht, which perished with Alban Michael in British Columbia in 2016 — languages around the world are disappearing. Of roughly 6,700 languages worldwide, nearly 40 percent are considered in peril. They are across the globe, around the United States, and here in Vermont.
Language plays a crucial role not just in communication, but also in cultural identity. Recognizing this decline and its cultural cost, the United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
As 2019 opens, an exhibition of hand-carved wood panels by Tim Brookes, of Burlington, is especially well timed. “Endangered Alphabets,” presented in the Vermont State House cafeteria in Montpelier, opens Jan. 3 and continues to Feb. 1. Brookes brings together calligraphy, woodwork, linguistics, anthropology and human rights in strikingly beautiful pieces that invite reflection on language, script and culture.
About a dozen of Brookes’ panels are in the show, most carved on Vermont curly maple. Looping Balinese vowels and consonants, logograms of Yi from China, and angular letters from the Bassa Vah alphabet from Liberia are among them.
Prominently leading the exhibition is an engraving on cherry. It reads “People of the Dawn Lands” in an Abenaki script. Motifs from traditional Abenaki artwork combine with Latin alphabet letters in a distinctive Abenaki font on the panel.
Brookes’ Endangered Alphabets Project nonprofit, based in Vermont, began nearly a decade ago when, as a travel writer, he first carved panels for family members with their names in different languages. Intrigued by the unfamiliar symbols and letters, he saw them as art. Soon, he was staggered to learn the number of languages and scripts that were nearing extinction.
Brookes began carving translations of Article One of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in these threatened scripts: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
“The sad irony,” Brookes said, “is that these extraordinary writing systems, and the cultures that developed them, are endangered precisely because people have not acted toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
About a year and a half ago, Brookes was startled by the recognition of the extent of peril to indigenous North American languages. Not only are these languages endangered as fewer people grow up speaking them, their risk is compounded because most are oral. Some have been written by using Latin letters to express their phonetics, but few had their own distinct historic script.
“There’s a real problem writing a minority language in the language of the dominant culture,” said Brookes, noting the example of “Okinawan people, essentially conquered by mainstream Japan, have questioned whether you should write Okinawan in Japanese, continuing dominance of Japanese culture.”
With that debate in mind, Brookes and members of Abenaki bands opened discussion of creating an Abenaki font or script.
Melody Brook, of the Elnu band of Abenaki and former chairwoman of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, was among the group that explored the development of a script. A team from bands including the Missisquoi, Mohegan and Elnu came together.
In their consideration they turned to artwork as well as history and use of the Latin alphabet. A collaborative process between the tribal council members, chiefs, other representatives, Brookes and designer Alec Julien led to a font that incorporates motifs from traditional artwork and beading.
“There is a message here that there is change over time. We’re a living breathing modern culture — and there’s a message here that we have been able to translate that oral tradition to a script,” Brook said.
Brook said that Brookes has given each band a panel with the new font, and, “has been a good ally and a perpetual supporter. He’s bringing visibility to one of the most endangered languages in the country. Your culture is in your language — when you lose your language you lose much more than words.”