Local Writer Carves 'Endangered Alphabets' Into Wood To Illuminate Disappearing Writing Systems

Feb 23, 2017

Six years ago, writer and Champlain College professor Tim Brookes carved letters into wooden planks to give to family as holiday gifts. The presents were well received and Brookes enjoyed his new hobby. He added new and different alphabet letters and languages to his hand-carved signs. Then, by chance, Brookes learned just how many of the globe's writing systems were disappearing and a project was born: The Endangered Alphabets Project.

Brookes talked with VPR about the Endangered Alphabets Project exhibition, up now at Champlain College through March 10. The thirteen carvings each bear the phrase, "Mother Tongue," written in Abenaki, Balinese, Mandean, Inuktitut and several other cultures whose written word is disappearing.

"One of the things that I wasn't expecting when I started this was that it would be an advantage not to be able to read or speak any of these languages," Brookes said, "because it meant that I started looking at them from a perfectly graphic point of view: Why is this one so skinny? Why is this one so angular? Do they have common origins?

Tim Brookes is new to the art of carving and found his 'Endangered Alphabets Project' moved him from hobbyist to activist, as he travels and talks about certain writing systems origins and his work to help save them from distinction.
Credit Tim Brookes, artist

One of things I'm going to be doing at this exhibition at Champlain is to walk people through the carvings to answer those questions. What can we learn about the the technology, the history of ideas, even the climate in this particular region or country based on the way its writing looks? I pass out the carvings and people hold them and trace out the letters with their fingers so the relationship between the body and writing and meaning, it's very, very deep."

Brookes said one of his classes at Champlain College is also set to publish an illustrated children's dictionary using the many dialects and languages in Bangladesh. The students are closing in on their monetary goal and Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication.

A reception for the exhibition is planned for March 3 at 12:30 p.m. 'The Endangered Alphabets Project' is on view now at Champlain College's Communications and Creative Media building, on Maple Street in Burlington through March 10.