The Endangered Alphabets Project

Work in progress

Work in progress

The world has between 6,000 and 7,000 languages, but as many as half of them will be extinct by the end of this century. Another and even more dramatic way in which this cultural diversity is shrinking concerns the alphabets in which those languages are written.

Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

The Endangered Alphabets Project, which consists of an exhibition of carvings and a book, is the first-ever attempt to bring attention to this issue–and to do so by creating unforgettable, enigmatic artwork.

Every one of the Endangered Alphabets challenges our assumptions about language, about beauty, about the fascinating interplay between function and grace that takes place when we invent symbols for the sounds we speak, and when we put a word on a page—or a piece of bamboo, or a palm leaf.

The Endangered Alphabets are not only a unique and vivid way of demonstrating the issue of disappearing languages and the global loss of cultural diversity, they are also remarkable and thought-provoking pieces of art. These two threads interweave to raise all kinds of questions about writing itself: how it developed, how it spread across the globe, how the same alphabet took on radically different forms, like Darwin’s finches, on neighboring islands, and how developments in technology affected writing, and vice versa.

The Alphabets have been exhibited at Yale, Harvard, Cambridge (England), Barcelona, Rutgers, Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Champlain College, Central Connecticut State University, and other colleges, universities and libraries throughout the United States. In June 2013 they will be featured at the Smithsonian.

To read more about the exhibition of carvings, or to get booking information, click here.

To read more about the book, Endangered Alphabets, or to order it, click here.

To read more about my next carving project involving endangered alphabets, click here.

To check out my occasional blog on endangered alphabets and languages, click here.

Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.



New Carvings: Tibetan

Tibetan isn’t an endangered alphabet in the sense that very few people now read and write it, but news that the Chinese government has ordered that the Chinese rather than Tibetan script be taught in the schools in Tibet shows just how easily the fortunes of even a major script can change. With that in mind, and with the help of Sandra Bauer of Carleton University in Ottawa, I contacted Urgyen Gyalpo, a master Tibetan calligrapher. I highly recommend you visit his website and support his work.

Urgyen was kind enough to send me three Tibetan words to carve. I’ve finished two, and here they are. They are for sale, and half the proceeds will go to support the Endangered Alphabets Project and half will go to Urgyen. For pricing, please contact me through this website.

The first is in walnut, and means “peace.”

Tibetan walnut front


Tibetan walnut angled


The second is in American Elm, and means “love”:


Tibetan elm angled


Tibetan elm front


Photos, as usual, are by the wonderful Tom Way.


A request (not for money) and an incentive

Dear Friends of the Endangered Alphabets,

I’m writing to ask you not for money but for suggestions.

This has been a great winter for the Alphabets. In the past six months they’ve been displayed and discussed at Carleton University in Ottawa, at Eastern Tennessee State University, at Harvard, at First Nations University in Regina (Saskatchewan) and most recently at American University in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the recent Kickstarter campaign raised $5,000+ to print books in endangered alphabets for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

Where I need your help is in looking ahead. Almost all of those events and bookings were set up several months in advance, as you’d expect, so I need to be planning my Alphabet activities for the second half of 2014 right now.

Several of you have at various times recommended places where you thought the Alphabets might find a temporary home or showcase, and that’s what I’d like from you now: names of universities, libraries, museums or other institutions I can contact and send Alphabet information.

If you know the name of the specific person I should call or email, so much the better. If you yourself are in a position to book the Alphabets, better still!

Much of the basic information about booking the exhibition can be found at

Oh, and one small incentive: anyone who sends me a promising-looking contact will receive a signed copy of my book Endangered Alphabets.

Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you!