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Mapping the World's Disappearing Alphabets

Atlas of Endangered Alphabets

There are roughly 6,500 languages in the world, half of which will be extinct by the end of the century – and a whopping third of the world’s alphabets are in danger of extinction.

But there is an organization working hard to keep these alphabets from fading into oblivion. Endangered Alphabets is an NGO dedicated to actively conserving endangered cultures by using their writing systems to create and display artworks and other educational materials and games.

Their most recent endeavor is the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets: the world’s first digital atlas of indigenous and minority writing systems. The online atlas is a place to present the world’s fading alphabets in a visual, accessible way. Before, finding information about endangered alphabets was near impossible; you had to sift through Google search results and piece together scattered information. “The aim of the atlas is to let visitors to the site know about the language and script: its history, its current use, the reasons why it is endangered, and, above all, what efforts are underway to preserve or revive it,” says Tim Brookes, Founder and President of Endangered Alphabets. With one glance you are able to see all the at-risk writing systems across the globe, which allows you not only to get a clear picture of the crisis but also learn more about them and find ways to help.

Each alphabet on the atlas has a dedicated page where you can find information including links to the fonts and keyboards, and language applications and lessons. You can also connect with groups around the world who are actively working to preserve and revive the alphabets.

Why is it so important to protect these alphabets?

“A culture’s history is rooted in its writings and its records,” says Tim. From spiritual texts to written histories, poetry to land records, the collective writings help preserve culture. But many writing systems are often lacking official status, are no longer taught in schools, and are only readable to an aging population. “It only takes two generations of disuse for a script to become incomprehensible to its own culture,” says Tim, “and when people are severed from their own history and culture, they lose their sense of identity and purpose, the effect of which can be devastating to a minority culture.”

Although revival of these alphabets is a long-term endeavor, Tim hopes that by piquing people’s interest and putting the problem on their radar, the project will gain momentum, and help connect those dedicated to keeping the alphabets alive. Visitors to the free digital atlas may well be surprised to see that there is an endangered alphabet right in their backyard and be encouraged to spread the word.

Memsource is inspired by Tim’s initiative and is a proud sponsor of the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets. If you find yourself equally inspired, go ahead and explore the world of at-risk writing systems or make a contribution.

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