The history of how scripts and alphabets emerge, evolve and disappear through history, is built on the changing tides of commerce, cultural dominance and religion. Two generations of a people who do not write their language in its original script will render that script endangered, and very nearly dead.
Inspired by Omniglot.com (an online encyclopedia of languages and alphabets), Tim Brookes founded the Endangered Alphabets Project in order to support “endangered, minority and indigenous cultures by using their writing systems to create art.” He speaks of writing systems as having three parts, reflecting different aspects of the human mind:
1. the phonetic element of sound
2. the semantic aspect which gives it meaning within a language
3. the graphic ingredient of its curves and lines.
Histories and cultural aesthetics are contained in scripts, and likewise lost when they are. Wars that lead to the conquering of one people by another have led to banishment of entire cultures, including their languages and scripts. Governments impose one language over another for such reasons as control, unity, and the puncturing of a minority’s vitality. Phoenician leadership in global trade 1000 years BC spread their writing system all over the region, extinguishing others over time as they were not used. The dying off of small populations with their own scripts and languages has led Tim Brookes on quests to far corners of the Earth to find the remaining individuals who still carry the irreplaceable knowledge.
In the case of American Latin alphabet cursive, the extinction of knowledge currently taking place is led by public schools that have ceased to teach the subject. The decision seems to be occurring without thought or planning, a default option ‘chosen’ because the subject is declared irrelevant and a waste of education funds in an era when keyboard communication dominates most activities.
But close-up, firsthand, here in the 21st century, we can see that the real losses incurred when knowledge of a script dies (and thus eventually the script itself), are numerous, and varied in nature. Here’s a big one: there are countless American documents written in script that look as foreign as hieroglyphics to contemporary sixth graders who have not learned that native script. As adults, these young Americans will not be able to decipher even the personal missives of their grandparents – they are being cut off from connection as they are cut off from the knowledge of their civilization’s script. Is this really healthy for a free and literate society?
Beyond that incomprehensibility of existing documents, there are other losses when the learning and use of a script is withdrawn from its people. According to Psychology Today, training children to write their alphabet with their hands is a commitment to developing their capacity for acquiring knowledge. A “reading circuit” of linked sections of the brain activated by reading is not activated by keyboarding. After receiving letter instruction, a group of pre-literate 5-year-olds in an Indiana University study received brain scans that showed enhanced neural activity that was more “adult-like” than those of children who merely looked at letters. Cursive writing teaches the brain to integrate visual and tactile information, paving the neural pathways that facilitate fine motor dexterity.