The Endangered Alphabets Project

Mandiac script, Carving by Tim Brookes, The Endangered Alphabets Project

Writing Rights, Human Rights

by Tim Brookes

I had been researching, carving and speaking about endangered alphabets for a decade before it struck me that the few reference sources on the topic said nothing about why these Indigenous and minority cultures were losing or abandoning their traditional scripts. No longer taught in schools, no longer used for official purposes, only used for private correspondence—okay, but why?
The net effect of this absence is to create a vastly misleading impression: that script loss is a natural process, as if scripts are like trees, springing up, having their moment or century in the sun, and then going through an organic decline and demise. The very language being used—“dying,” “declining,” “lapsing”—creates a metaphor, and thereby implicitly offers a paradigm for script loss, without ever offering information or analysis.

“Bayarlaala,” or “Thank you,” in Mongolian. Endangered Alphabets Project, Tim Brookes

Here’s the thing: If you ignore or overlook the process by which cultures are forced to abandon their traditional scripts, you also ignore the many ways in which a people and their writing affect, develop and define each other. As a result, it seems as though one form of writing can easily and naturally be replaced by another.

Not so. Many peoples around the world, in fact, keep using their beleaguered scripts for generations, even centuries, even retaining them as visual icons long after anyone has been able to read or write with them, a remarkable fact that speaks to the extraordinary value of having one’s own script.

The history books only talked about script deaths that were safely in the past. Probably the most famous and sadly effective of these was the destruction of pre- Columbian writing by the Spaniards. As part of his campaign to eradicate pagan rites, Bishop  Diego de Landa. Diego de Landa (12 November 1524 – 29 April 1579) ordered an  Inquisition Inquisition in Mani one of the centers of Mayan culture and, subsequently,
of Spanish colonization, ending with an  auto de fé auto de fé in 1562. A large number of Maya  codices and approximately 5000 Maya  cult images cult images were burned. Only three pre-Columbian books of  Maya hieroglyphics Maya text and, perhaps, fragments of a fourth are known to have survived. The Mayan writing system was functionally extinct within fifty years.

Other examples of script death are similarly violent, not the gradual demise of trees but deliberate acts of deforestation. A century and a half later in India, the ancient Meitei Mayek script in the Indian state of Manipur was reportedly all but lost when King Pamheiba converted to Hinduism and decreed the Bengali script should replace that Meitei Mayek.

According to the earliest published source, most or all books and documents written in Meitei were burned—such a catastrophic and traumatic event in Manipuri history that even today events and marches are held to commemorate this destruction, which is called Puya Meithaba (The Burning of the Puya, or traditional Meitei scriptures), said to have occurred on January 23rd, 1729.

The sun and moon in Tibetan, Endangered Alphabets Project, Tim Brookes

Likewise, traditional Nepalese scripts were suppressed in Nepal starting in 1769, an interdiction so profound that as recently as 1941, all writers and poets using them were thrown in jail, and their property confiscated. And in the United States, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 allowed the notorious Georgia Guard to crush the Cherokee syllabary.

By then, Sequoyah and his astonishing achievement in creating a script for his people had been honored by the U.S. government and the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper had been circulated as far away as London, but that success, perhaps, made the Cherokee more of a threat, and their syllabary and printing press more of a

“They dumped the soft lead type on the ground,” wrote Larry Worthy, editor of About North Georgia, “and stamped it into the red Georgia clay with their feet, effectively silencing the voice of the Cherokee Nation. Then [they] removed the press and set fire to the building.”

Such accounts, related distantly and dispassionately, still managed to make script loss a fait accompli, and in a sense inevitable. I didn’t really understand why a culture might lose or abandon its traditional script, and what that would mean for those involved, until 2011, when I went to Bangladesh.

While I was in Dhaka, I was visited by representatives of three Indigenous groups from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an upland forested area in the south of the country, and they changed my entire understanding of minority scripts, and what I should be doing about them.

My first two visitors were members of the Marma and Mro people, two of thirteen Indigenous, genetically distinct peoples from the Hill Tracts. I would not be able to visit the Hill Tracts, they explained, because the whole area was closed to outsiders, especially writers, journalists, and human-rights activists. Raids by the military were common, they explained, as were rapes, abductions, arrests, and extra-judicial murders. A news embargo meant that Bangladeshis in the rest of the country had little idea of the situation, and any reported acts of violence were blamed on terrorists and troublemakers. The scripts, the languages, the cultures, and the entire existence of the Indigenous peoples of the Hill Tracts were under grave and constant threat.

The plight of the residents of the Hill Tracts was further clarified by my third visitor, who was a member of the Chakma people. His father, he explained, had been one of the most famous and respected Chakma writers, and in addition to his own writing had amassed a major collection of books and manuscripts in Chakma. The military raided his village twice in his early childhood, he said. “The second time they killed my father and burned down our house.” At a stroke, his connection to his family’s history and that of his culture was destroyed. He grew up in a country that denied the existence of Indigenous people and their languages. Now in early middle age, educated and successful, he could neither read nor write the script of his people, the language of his family.

My most significant informant, though, approached me a year later when I was back in Vermont. His name was Maung Nyeu; he was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Maung turned out to be a neat, calm, handsome, quiet-spoken man, a member of the Marma people. He told me without anger or rancor much the same story I had heard from the others, a story of a childhood interrupted by raids by the army, of running into the jungle with his mother, brother, and baby sister as their village burned.

He also gave me the historical background I had been missing. When Partition divided the former territory of India crudely into Hindu and Muslim lands, and divided the Muslim lands into East Pakistan (the area that is now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now Pakistan), it was a recipe for disaster in many ways. Politically, economically and militarily, East Pakistan was almost entirely under the control of better resourced West Pakistan. Linguistically and culturally, East Pakistan was largely Bengali, and spoke as a mother tongue the language called Bangla or Bengali; yet under the new constitution the official language of both Pakistans was Urdu, the official language of the ruling elite of West Pakistan. East Pakistanis, then were ordered to abandon their traditional language—and their traditional script.

This violation of language and culture was so abhorrent it spawned protests that came to be known as the Mother Tongue movement. This was a major factor in galvanizing East Pakistan into a short but extremely violent civil war against West Pakistan. India sent troops to back East Pakistan, and in 1972 East Pakistan, in a bloody birth, became Bangladesh.

This may have been a triumph for the Bengali majority in Bangladesh, but not for its Indigenous population. The first act of the government of many a newly-independent nation is to give the impression of unity and consolidation, and to avoid further fragmentation by repressing the independent spirit of regional or ethnic minorities. In Bangladesh’s case, the liberating Mother Tongue movement turned out to have no interest in or tolerance for mother languages that were not Bangla.

“How quickly the oppressed,” Maung observed, “became the oppressors.” Bangladesh was so closely identified with the Bangla language and Islam that the new government took the position that Bangladesh had no Indigenous peoples, and therefore anyone who was not Muslim and did not speak Bangla—several hundred thousand people—did not deserve full citizenship or full human rights.

For Maung, the first experience of this de facto apartheid was his dysfunctional education. Like all Bangladeshis, the Marma were educated in Bangla, which he could not speak or understand, and on his first day of school, at the age of six, he was twice beaten for not paying attention. Next morning, his mother saw him crying, and asked him what was wrong. For her, an education was vital, but when she understood what was going on, she let him stay home and schooled him herself.

His mother’s home-schooling was so successful that Maung earned a full scholarship to a boarding school, though to get there he had to walk a considerable distance, then take a boat, two buses, a taxi, and a rickshaw. He did well enough at boarding school to go on to the University of Hawaii to earn a degree in engineering, then an MBA from the University of Southern California. He was very much an educational exception. In the Hill Tracts in the early twenty- first century, fewer than 8% of children survived their education as far as the fifth grade. Only a minuscule 1.5% stayed in school beyond tenth grade.

“I realized,” he said, “that the next generation of kids, particularly those who had been living in refugee camps in India and returned home with one or no parents, had not gone to school. Most had lost their homes and had no way to survive, since my people live off the land. I had seen the world, but so many had nothing. I had a responsibility to help these kids get at least a basic education, to have a glimpse of what was possible.”

He returned to the Hill Tracts to build a school on the grounds of a half-ruined Buddhist temple, in which local children could be educated in their own mother tongues. At Harvard he was writing his thesis on an almost entirely unexplored subject: how to create a curriculum for Indigenous schools whose pupils not only speak multiple minority languages but use multiple minority scripts.

Tripura, Marma, Mro, English, Bangla and Chakma. for ‘frog’,
Endangered Alphabets Project, Tim Brookes

“I’m trying to create children’s books in our alphabets–Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and others,” he explained. “This will help not only save our alphabets, but also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communications, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”

This isn’t just rhetoric. As we know from sad experience in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, if children are educated in a language other than their own they are, to put it mildly, not invested in that education, and their schools may not be invested in them. Success rates are low, dropout rates high. Those same grim statistics convert into high rates of unemployment, violence, and suicide. In a single generation, he said, he has seen his people go from being self-sufficient farmers, living on ancestral lands they had tilled for generations, to being vagrant day-laborers, scattered across Bangladesh and into India and Myanmar.

Over the next few years, Maung and I partnered to create the learning materials the Bangladesh government would not: alphabet wall charts in Mro, Marma and Chakma; rubber stamps that enabled children to stamp out their own letters; coloring books; a writer’s journal; a series of children’s storybooks based on folk tales from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, published in English and a combination of Indigenous languages; and a six-language children’s picture-book dictionary, possibly the first publication of its
kind in the world.

The loss of human rights and the loss of linguistic rights are often connected, then, but there’s an additional twist of the knife. Whenever a minority or Indigenous group claims rights they were hitherto denied, the majority calls this action “political”—as if the minority were supposed to argue their rights on purely linguistic grounds, perhaps.

The long-term, status-quo denial of those rights is surely just as political. All scripts, in fact, are political; the only reason why we fail to see this is because our own linguistic rights are under so little threat.

For now, the protection and promotion of human rights through Indigenous languages and scripts is almost entirely the province of non-profits, NGOs, community organizations and individuals—who, of course, may well be termed “political” for their opposition to the status quo.

In theory, such protections are the responsibility of the governments of the world, all of whom signed off in 2007 on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPs), Article 13 of which reads:

“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.”

As far as I know, the number of countries whose governments actively seek ways to offer their Indigenous peoples the rights detailed in these declarations, and provide the encouragement, protection, and funding necessary for them to exercise those rights, is zero.

Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project ( This article is condensed from a chapter in his forthcoming book Writing Beyond Writing. The Endangered Alphabets Project (a federal 501c3 non-profit organisation)

and The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets at

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