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Thursday, April 24, 2014
 

Industry Focus


Documenting endangered alphabets

Tim Brookes

The Endangered Alphabets project has raised a series of fascinating questions and dilemmas about language, culture and the forces that act on each of them. I can’t pretend to have solved any of these riddles, but it may at least be worthwhile passing them on as a series of items for consideration and discussion. For example, what does a written language — any written language — look like? The Endangered Alphabets highlight this question in a number of interesting ways. As the forces of globalism erode scripts such as these, the number of people who can write them dwindles, and the range of examples of each script is reduced. My carvings may well be the only examples of, say, Samaritan script or Tifinagh that my visitors ever see. 

At once we’re faced with the fact that what written language looks like and means now is very, very different from what it looked like and meant in its infancy. When I saw Tifinagh on the Omniglot website, it looked weird and cool. When I tracked down photographs of it in its natural habitat, I realized I was looking at the most extraordinary writing in the world.

The natural habitat in question is the wall of a cave deep in the Sahara desert, at a site called the Wadi Matkhandouch Prehistoric Art Gallery, near Germa in Libya. It’s startling to find any evidence of human presence in such an inhospitable place, so far from what we think of as civilization. And, frankly, the Tifinagh didn’t look much like what we think of as writing. It was a meandering string of simple symbols (Figure 1), some of which looked more like mathematics than writing. There was no attempt to include pictograms, though in fact the same set of rocks and caves has an incredible array of carvings of animals: giraffes, lions, crocodiles, elephants, ostriches and two cats apparently fighting. Or perhaps it represented a kind of code, for this twisting strand of language looked so old and so deep it might just be the DNA of writing. Did I mention that the symbols or letters were in such a strange and vivid red pigment that they looked as if they’d been written in blood?

To me, it wasn’t just a series of symbols intended to convey sound and meaning, though in fact these fantastical scraps of writing are actually messages from one caravan to another, giving directions, passing on the location of water. It was, however, like a missing link, the verbal equivalent of the famous prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France. Written language was here, it said, long before anyone thought to write in straight and level lines. 

The individual letters had the same combination of angular purpose yet prehistoric crudity that challenge the sense at Stonehenge. Something was being born. That writing was a defining moment in human intellectual history: not just a representation of a panorama of hunting, but early, early, unbelievably early symbolism. It was like the invention of meaning itself. . .

The full article is online.

October/November, 2012