I had the opportunity to have an interview with Tim Brookes, our upcoming speaker on May 23rd. If you are curious about him or the Endangered Alphabets Project, please take a look at what he had to say.
Please tell me a bit about your background.
I was born in England and educated at Oxford, but I was always restless, and left for the US right after college. After several fits and starts in a series of professions including teacher, tour guide, soccer coach, guitarist, freelance writer and editor (I’ve written 16 books and published many more) I fell into my life’s work—the Endangered Alphabets Project—purely by accident.
What is the story behind the project? How did it start? Where do you see it headed in the future?
If something is important, we write it down.
Ten years ago, I discovered that most of the world’s writing systems–perhaps 90%–are in danger of extinction. No longer taught in schools, lacking official status, used by a small and dwindling number of elderly people, these writing systems nevertheless have served, in some cases for 2,000 years, as a primary means of expressing and recording the accumulated experience and wisdom of their cultures. Lose the alphabet, and within two generations not only is the information lost, but the sense of a shared past, a shared identity and purpose, is also lost.
I bought myself a set of hand tools and began to carve pieces of text (proverbs, spiritual texts, sometimes just individual letters) in some of these fascinating, often exquisite alphabets–and in the process discovered that many of them embody truths not only about their people and their culture but about writing itself.
This became the Endangered Alphabets Project. The full story is in my book Endangered Alphabets, available at https://www.endangeredalphabets.com/buy-the-book/.
What are some of the current projects you’re working on?
I’m working on a print edition of my Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, a series of carvings that each say “Thank you all” in a different minority script, and an endangered alphabet sudoku book and a companion word search book. I’m also, during COVID, going to a tennis wall each day and working on my backhand.
What have been some of your biggest accomplishments?
In the past decade I’ve done more than 150 carvings, and exhibited them at colleges, universities, museums, libraries and galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian, speaking about the vital importance of language and writing to cultural survival. I’ve collaborated with individuals and groups who want to restore their language, their script, their identity, their sense of self-respect and self-determination. In addition to doing carvings, giving talks and promoting these scripts and their cultures, I’ve also published storybooks, teaching materials, journals, coloring books, and illustrated dictionaries in minority scripts. I’ve pulled together pretty much all I know, and made it available to the public, in the online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, at endangeredalphabets.net.
Have there been any alphabets you began to preserve but were unable to finish for any reason?
Not exactly. There are a number of cultures around the world that are so marginalized I’ve been unable to make contact with them, but the work goes on each day, and in the past six months alone I’ve learned of more than a dozen minority writing systems that I didn’t know existed. So there will always be challenges, but I thrive on challenge!
What gave you the idea to turn the alphabets into artwork?
In the process of exploring the Alphabets, I’ve become very much of a beginner calligrapher and typographer, though frankly most of my art/design work is based on the genius of indigenous people exploring their own endangered scripts, and of a small group xenotypographers who have given time, sweat and tears to create non-commercial versions of traditional scripts. I’ve also become a beginner woodworker/wood artist, and have come to respect the artistic properties of wood and the fact that not only is every kind of wood different, but every piece of wood is different. Working to combine the wood and the script to the best advantage of both is a challenge that never ends, and never fails to be fascinating.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The Endangered Alphabets Project began as a side project while I was directing a college writing program. For the past 20 months it has been my sole occupation—which means I’ve had to learn a lot about fundraising! Before that, I did my carving in the evenings and on weekends, and discovered how relaxing it is, paradoxically, to work with my hands last thing at night, so the act of focusing on that manual work drove out all the mental turmoil of the day, like a form of meditation.
Having a piece of wood in my hands every evening is the ideal end to a day. Beyond that, having a sense of purpose larger than my own head is a huge relief. The Alphabets have been very active on social media for the past 24 months or so, and it is an amazing thing to have a dozen or fifty people every day tell you you’re doing a good thing–I wish every person in the world could have such daily validation. And there is something astonishingly deep about making something beautiful. I don’t say I’m happy with all my work–I’m certainly not–but to be able to step back and see you’ve made a shape and a color and a line that works to your satisfaction…well, it goes a lot deeper than words. And that depth circles around to why writing systems are so closely connected to, and so deeply felt, by their communities, some of whom have embedded their writing symbols in flags or coins or banknotes or seals or tattoos or jewelry even though they themselves can no longer read them. That’s the paradox and the mystery I’m after.
The NML Speaker Series continues on May 23rd at 2 PM EST with Endangered Alphabets and the Value of the Written Word with Tim Brookes. This is a free event with free registration. Please follow this link for registration information.
NOTE: The event is currently sold out, but you can certainly join our waitlist. Please follow the link above.