Scripts at risk

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Andrea Valentino has an intriguing article in BBC Future (1/21/20):  "The alphabets at risk of extinction:   It isn't just languages that are endangered: dozens of alphabets around the world are at risk. And they could have even more to tell us."

Usually, when we worry about languages going extinct, we are thinking about their spoken forms, but we are less often concerned about their written manifestations.  As Valentino puts it,

This might have something to do with the artificiality of alphabets. Language is innate to all humans, but scripts have to be invented and actively learned. This has happened rarely. Even by the middle of the 19th Century, only 10% of adults knew how to write, and there are only about 140 scripts in use today.

To put it another way, suggests founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project Tim Brookes, writing can feel less vital to humanity than speaking. "Linguistics emerged with a very strong brief that said writing is an accidental byproduct of language, and the study of spoken language is really what linguistics is about," explains Brookes, who also heads up the Alphabet of Endangered Alphabets, an interactive database of endangered scripts.

Toby Blyth, who brought this article to my attention, remarks:

Some of it is rather outlandish: alphabets cannot go extinct by definition (especially in the modern age), although they may become indecipherable; there is an element of Sapir Whorf in all of this; and the kana discussion is a little alarmist and misfires as much of the kana article seems more to be about art and the loss of some characters with late 19th c reform (which is hardly extinction, otherwise Classical Chinese would be an "extinct" "alphabet") than a real issue of an alphabet becoming indecipherable.

I have to agree with Toby about the article's preoccupation with kana.  Valentino tells about a kana advocate-artist, Kaoru Akagawa, but I don't fully understand the point he is trying to make:

…Akagawa learned that her grandmother did not just have bad handwriting, but was writing in Kana, a script mostly used by Japanese women since medieval times.

Though few still study Kana, she brings the script to a wider audience through art. Her drawings – painting thousands of tiny Kana character to form larger images – have been displayed across Europe.

Kana is still very much alive, as all literate persons in Japan use it as a major component of writing, the other being kanji (Chinese characters).  Perhaps the point is that Kaoru Akagawa writes in kana as an independent form of calligraphy, and, beyond that, she utilizes different densities of flows of kana to produce works of representational art.  At that, she is ingenious and highly skilled.  Her achievement in kana as calligraphy and art mirrors in literature that of Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973/978-c. 1014-1031), female author of the monumental masterpiece, The Tale of Genji (c. 1000-1012), often said to be the world's first novel, which was written in onna moji ("women's letters"), i.e., kana.

For a lengthy list of extinct scripts dating back eight to nine millennia ago, see "Undeciphered writing systems".

Selected readings



19 Comments

  1. Frank L Chance said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 9:25 am

    The Valentino quote repeats an old and inaccurate idea of the hiragana script being "Kana, a script mostly used by Japanese women since medieval times." First this fails to note the second kana script, katakana, which does not have a female association at all. Second, though hiragana is sometimes called "onnade" or "women's hand" writing, that does not mean it was only – or even mostly – used by women. ANY writer – male, female, or otherwise – of vernacular Japanese – from"medieval times" would use kana, along with a certain amount of kanji. Repeating this old misunderstanding does not help the situation.
    By the way, does the disappearance from European writing of characters like the long "s" or the ae double vowel mean the Roman alphabet is endangered? That would be the implication if the standardization of kana implies that the script is at risk.

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 9:37 am

    I've seen a lot of concern from Americans about the possibility that "cursive" (which was called "longhand" in my school days) will became obsolete. Evidently some school systems no longer teach it.

  3. Gali said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 10:24 am

    Beyond the whole kana slip-up, which is clearly the journalist misreading their sources, (though I have no idea where the bizarre quote that ' "nobody had heard" of kana' came from) it is grating that the author conflates script and language throughout the piece: we read that Coptic script plays a central role in Coptic liturgy (perhaps a bit pedantic when I suppose they would follow text written in missals); Inuit students educated "in the Inuktitut script" excel where those educated in French and English lag behind; and that the constructed Adlam script has the advantage of not requiring prior education in the Arabic or French languages (it would be a cruel teacher indeed that makes their students learn Latin before they dare scribble in the vernacular). The comment about imagining a world where we digitize rare scripts and can automatically translate between languages of different scripts (which would "really upset people in power") makes me question which decade this article was composed in.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 11:07 am

    If the fruits of a quick google search are correct, Marma is traditionally written in the Brahmic script used for Burmese (Marma is either a "dialect" of Burmese or a separate "language" that's a close relative of Burmese), and even if disfavored by the government-run schools in Bangladesh that script is in perfectly good health right across the border in Burma. Now, if a language traditionally spoken and written on both sides of a border ceases to be spoken on one side because of heavy-handed governmental policies coercing language shift (with the script going with it) that may well be a bad and unjust development, but when people talk about language "extinction" they generally don't mean "disappearing in one part of its prior geographical range while continuing to flourish elsewhere." Plenty of languages have shifted back and forth among being standardly written in Arabic v. Cyrillic v. Latin scripts due to the vagaries of history and the fortunes of war, but all three of those scripts have survived just fine. (Obviously there's a lumper/splitter parallel to the language v. dialect issue — you can count the dominant writing system in Europe as being the single "Latin" script or you can count up a few dozen different "alphabets" with language-specific quirks when it comes to diacritical marks and the like, but on the latter approach you have a *lot* more than 140 extant worldwide.)

    What I expected from this article was an example of a language traditionally written in a unique script (Armenian or Georgian or Korean, to give some examples) where the language was in perfectly good health but had shifted over to being written in Latin script (or Cyrillic or Tengwar …). I didn't see any such example offered.

  5. Matt S. said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 11:48 am

    If you assume the "kana" in the article is Man'yōgana (not Hiragana and/or Katakana), as referenced in the Guardian article they link to, then it is indeed lesser known. The whole article is certainly alarmist but if the Rosetta Stone taught us anything it's that cultures die and things are forgotten, even languages and scripts. As we move into digital archiving it's not unreasonable to think that scripts that don't make it into Unicode may well be forgotten over the course of many generations and hundreds of years. Non-digital scripts may be the equivalent of some early script only written in mud of which all memory has since been erased as the medium has be eroded away.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 3:26 pm

    From Robert Harrist:

    As to kana calligraphy, I've always thought the writing in the earliest Tale of Genji scrolls is the most beautiful calligraphy there is (the gorgeous paper certainly helps!).

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 4:38 pm

    You can remove at least one layer of potential journalistic confusion/misdescription by just going directly to the list maintained by the Endangered Alphabets Project and see what you think of their selection and descriptions. I suspect that there are a lot of methodological inconsistencies and whatnot, but if you are interested in the topic probably at least some subset of what they have will strike you as interesting. But again "script is becoming moribund because language itself has already largely died outside perhaps a liturgical context" is a very different scenario from "script is becoming moribund because of popularity of an alternative script for the same language" which is in turn different from "hey, you know how there are lots and lots of different scripts that have been developed for the various Hmong languages — well, here's one that was first created in diaspora in California a few decades ago but which has not really thus far caught on all that well outside one specific religious community."

    https://www.endangeredalphabets.net/alphabets/

  8. Toby said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 5:57 pm

    'Kana is still very much alive, as all literate persons in Japan use it as a major component of writing" – to clarify for any readers not familiar with Japanese, by use of "literate" VHM means basically functionally literate, as hiragana is the first alphabet that all Japanese learn , at or before primary school, and Japan has among the highest rates of literacy in the world.

    VHM did not mean "literate" in its extended sense of cultured or learned. So for the underlying article to suggest that kana had been forgotten is arrant nonsense.

    This (and the nonsense about how alphabets reflect the inner spirit of people) was a major alarm bell when I saw the article, enough that I read it a few times to try to work out what it was saying.

    As far as I know from classical and middle Japanese, there were never that many kana anyway (putting the original manyogana forms to one side), such that the best-known 1945 reforms only removed a few.

    The real point is probably that cursive writing can make it illegible to all but the most specialised readers, but that is a different point altogether.

  9. Gali said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 6:48 pm

    For those who don't feel like digging through the links, the calligrapher the misinformation ultimately comes from after a written game of telephone lamenting specifically the decline in kana (by which solely hiragana seems to be meant) *calligraphy* (which shouldn't be taken at face value anyway when, being as vital to the Japanese writing system as it is, calligraphy using the native Japanese scripts has never been forgotten or obscure despite playing second fiddle to kanji), but which also mentioned the hentaigana becoming obsolete, and repeated the rather stretched account of hiragana as a woman's script. The author of this piece is evidently not acquainted with the Japanese writing system, and combined with a source that wasn't clear in the first place, took this to mean that kana itself was left by the wayside. I don't think any of the people here meant to refer to manyougana, particularly when kanji and kana are presented as opposing scripts, which is dubious from both the origin of kana and their complementary usages.

  10. Chris Button said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 8:53 pm

    Marma is either a "dialect" of Burmese or a separate "language" that's a close relative of Burmese

    The suggestion that Marma is ultimately from the same word as Burma and hence also Myanmar (Mramma) seems very reasonable phonologically.

  11. The Other Mark P said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 11:19 pm

    Unlike most people on this list, I'm not good at learning languages. Circumstances have led to me learning them despite that.

    However, I find learning alphabets extremely easy, and it's not like children find learning the alphabet very difficult. Learning the order is simple, if tedious. The point of an alphabet is they don't have many parts, and there is close to a one-to-one correspondence with sounds.

    So it is just me, or is a dying alphabet not that big a deal? A person who knows the base language can teach themselves a new alphabet in a matter of days. It's not even close to analogous with a dying language.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2020 @ 12:54 am

    From David Lurie:

    I couldn't agree more about the articles's weird treatment of kana; that the notion of it as "a mostly forgotten script traditionally used by Japanese women" made it into print (or at least, the website equivalent of print) suggests lazy and imprecise fact-checking at the BBC. And more broadly, the looseness with which the term "alphabets" is deployed is also off-putting, although that doesn't seem to be the article's fault…

  13. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 31, 2020 @ 11:22 am

    Note that until about 100 years ago, a runic script was used in a region in Sweden.

  14. Ken said,

    January 31, 2020 @ 7:14 pm

    A fairly high proportion of the alphabets in the list at Alphabet of Endangered Alphabets are of post-1900 origin. Some were created after 2000. Fifteen (of 97) were invented by Dr. Prasanna Sree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sathupati_Prasanna_Sree) within the last 30 years. Perhaps they aren't so much "endangered" as "un-adopted".

  15. philip said,

    January 31, 2020 @ 7:58 pm

    The first time I saw a woan from the Maldives writing Dhivehi in Taana script i was amazed, as it looked more like entries in an accounts books to my untrained eye.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaana

  16. Ross Bender said,

    January 31, 2020 @ 9:32 pm

    Matt S. points out that Man'yōgana is less well known. It is the script in which Old Japanese texts are inscribed — MYS, Kojiki, the Senmyō, the Norito.

    Old Japanese was the precursor to Early Middle Japanese, the language and script of Genji. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the difference.

  17. R. Fenwick said,

    February 4, 2020 @ 4:50 am

    @Gali:

    For those who don't feel like digging through the links, the calligrapher the misinformation ultimately comes from after a written game of telephone lamenting specifically the decline in kana (by which solely hiragana seems to be meant) *calligraphy* (which shouldn't be taken at face value anyway when, being as vital to the Japanese writing system as it is, calligraphy using the native Japanese scripts has never been forgotten or obscure despite playing second fiddle to kanji), but which also mentioned the hentaigana becoming obsolete, and repeated the rather stretched account of hiragana as a woman's script.

    Meaning no disrespect at all, Gali, but trying to parse this sentence as written has utterly boiled my brain. Is there a word missing somewhere?

  18. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    February 4, 2020 @ 6:41 am

    By "kana" the artilcle presumably means hentaigana, that is onsolete or nonstandard hiragana, preceding the 1900 script reform. According to the wikipedia article, they have some modern usage, mainly to look traditional.

    285 hentaigana were added to unicode 10.0 in 2017, in the Kana supplement and Kana extended-A blocks. More details on the standardization (as well to a link to an article in japanese on the subject) can be found on Ken Lunde's blog.

  19. Rodger C said,

    February 4, 2020 @ 7:56 am

    R. fenwick: After much rereading I think Gali's sentence parses as follows:

    "For those who don't feel like digging through the links, the calligrapher [that] the misinformation ultimately comes from–after a written game of telephone, lamenting specifically the decline in kana *calligraphy* (by which solely hiragana seems to be meant)(which [idea] shouldn't be taken at face value anyway, [since], being as vital to the Japanese writing system as it is, calligraphy using the native Japanese scripts has never been forgotten or obscure despite playing second fiddle to kanji)–[at this point the end of the sentence seems to forget the beginning], but [the calligrapher's article] also mentioned the hentaigana becoming obsolete, and repeated the rather stretched account of hiragana as a woman's script." Or something like that.

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