Art exhibit preserves dying languages from time and globalization

Published by Jazmin Ode on

Tim Brooks, founder and artist of the Endangered Alphabet project, stands next to his inspired Vanuatu sand drawing representing the word ‘love.’
Jazmin Ode / The Mainstream

Culture is hard to define. The library exhibit from Nov. 1 through Nov. 9 argues that language is the primary and deepest root of culture. 

Nicholas Tratz, UCC Spanish associate professor, was the UCC representative who helped bring the Endangered Alphabet Exhibit. Dana Pertermann, a professor at Southwest Community College, inspired bringing the exhibit to Oregon from Wyoming. Tratz says that the cost is being split between schools. 

The exhibit includes over 20 Brookes’ wood carvings of nearly extinct global languages, from areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Bali, Thailand and Northern New England. 

The founder of the exhibit, Tim Brookes, lectured at both schools along with visiting a few campus classes, such as Spanish and ceramics, about the Endangered Alphabet project he had started in 2009 and have continued throughout the years. 

This carving was created by Tim Brookes. The Sundanese language has blossomed from the island of Java and it is unsure if the language is extinct, living or endangered.
Jazmin Ode / The Mainstream

Brookes shared that in one culture, the people would take a sharp knife to bamboo to communicate with others. Because the script would often be difficult to read, they would smudge wood ashes into the carvings. Brookes took this technique into his own work but instead uses silver and gold to fill in the carved scripts on his darker wood pieces. He reserves gold for sacred scripts.  

During Brookes’ lecture, an audience member brought up emojis which sparked a conversation on writing as art instead of just a utility. 

Brookes’ journey started with teaching himself to wood carve for Christmas presents. “I had no background in linguistics or anthropology or woodwork or art,” Brookes says. At first, he only carved the Latin alphabet but soon started carving in Chinese characters. “I asked people to choose a character that they thought somehow represented them, and I found that so much freer and so much more expressive and interesting than carving in the Latin alphabet,” Brookes said.  

A carving created by Tim Brookes inspired by an indigenous script in sub-Sahara Africa, called Mandombe.
Jazmin Ode / The Mainstream

Brookes also expressed that the materials cultures used to create their alphabets affected the alphabets’ shapes. Latin alphabet’s sharp angles came about from stone carvers trying to copy text from scripts. He explained that the Latin alphabet was not made for the comfort of the hand, wrist, and shoulder unlike Chinese characters. When he started his journey with Chinese characters, he could feel the flow comfortably through his tool to his wrist all the way up his arm. 

After he began carving Chinese characters, he began to explore many other different and diverse languages. He explained that many of the languages he found on websites he didn’t recognize as writing at all; they looked more like art, mathematics, or something you would find in a science fiction novel. “In the text about each one, time and time again, it said ‘no longer used for official purposes,’ ‘no longer taught in schools,’ ‘only used by priests,’ ‘only used by women to write secret love letters,’” Brookes says. 

This fascinated Brookes. Later, Brookes discovered that the entire field to help preserve language was called script loss and no one is actively working in the field at all. “Since the mid-1990s, there has been a growing area of endangered languages which are binge studied and being documented and now there’s revitalization. All of which is fantastic but tends not to include writing at all,” says Brookes. 

A word puzzle book by Tim Brookes and Charlotte Artemis Walsh.
Jazmin Ode / The Mainstream

Being a writer, Brookes explained, gave him a different view on the endangered language crisis. “Instead of looking at [a language] and saying, ‘ah yes, this says this or whatever,’ all of that was sort of stripped away, and instead I was asking myself ‘Why does this look like that? Why is it that I find this beautiful? Why is it that this script is so thin, or this script is so angular?’” says Brooks. Being a writer, Brookes then dove deeper into these different scripts that came from indigenous and minority cultures looking more for the meaning behind the scripts, the ancestral stories, legends and culture. 

Brookes also taught that most of the language around the world has been influenced or has stemmed from the Latin alphabet. According to Brookes the Latin alphabet is “used by literally 80% of the world,” such as French, Spanish, Baltic, English. So, to many who use the Latin alphabet, language isn’t as embedded in the sense of culture that other indigenous and minority cultures may feel. “We don’t even have a strong sense of attachment to [our language] culturally and for us it’s like, that’s just what writing is. It’s like linguistic duct tape, you just use it. And that is the kind of writing, the kind of attitude that is imposing itself on the world,” says Brookes. He stressed that preserving these endangered languages is just as important as preserving traditions, stories and structure made from long ago. “[The writing] uses their tools, it uses their materials, it’s something that’s been collectively shaped by them for centuries, and it’s so closely identified with their history, their right to exist as a people.” 

Legends of the Nomads, an Endangered Alphabets project game. Available at
Jazmin Ode / The Mainstream

Many additional faculty members worked hard since late spring of last year to bring the exhibit here. Tratz explained, “Firstly, Danielle Haskett, dean of Learning and Support Systems, helped me get title three funding to help pay for the event. Her assistant at the time, Emily Adams, was helpful with the logistics. Natalya Brown, our CFO, was helpful filling out the contract and getting those details worked out. Joy Yori, our purchasing manager, and our librarians, Liz Teoli and Kelly Peter, have been helpful as well especially getting the actual pieces set up in the library and helping me figure out what spaces were going to work,” Tratz said. 

To see more of Tim Brookes work, visit his website, The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, or keep up to dates with upcoming projects follow his Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts

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