The Fading Alphabets


On this blog we have written at length about the challenges faced by many small languages due to the effects of globalization.

Languages that have survived for centuries, or even millennia in some cases, are slowly fading away as the younger generations are unable to carry the torch. 

While reducing the loss of these languages has been gaining momentum over the years, it can be hard to pinpoint the problems and craft a bespoke solution. The underlying causes can be many, and sometimes vastly different in each case, including demographic shifts, complexity of the language itself, lack of practical use, marginalization of its speakers and/or their culture, or even climate change.

There are some languages that face an even greater struggle, and these are the ones that also use a unique alphabet or script. Both a blessing and a curse, the alphabet means that the difficulties associated to learning and adapting it for modern day use are far greater, and yet this very situation means that failing to save these ancient relics of human history would be an unjustifiable loss.   

Hanunuo Script

Hanunuo is a script originating from Mindoro, the seventh largest island in the Philippines, and is used by the Mangyan peoples inhabiting the southern regions of the island. Written vertically and upward, one of the main drives to learn the language amongst the population is to record and memorize traditional love songs.

However, the threat to the alphabet is rather unconventional compared to the rest. The symbols are almost exclusively carved on bamboo shafts with a knife, and despite making it wonderfully exotic, the short-lived nature of bamboo makes preservation a complicated task. 

Coptic Script

The Coptic language was the last stage of the Egyptian language, and its written form first appeared in Ancient Greece with the main goal of correctly reproducing the pronunciation of the earlier Egyptian Demotic. In a way, Coptic script, which is essentially the Greek alphabet with a few symbols added to represent Demotic sounds, can be considered a linguistic marriage of the Egyptian dynastic era that was nearing its end after four millennia, and the Greco-Roman cultural sphere that was taking over.

The alphabet has survived to this day due to its use by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in their religious texts. After the numerous uprisings that occurred during the Arab Spring in 2011, Copts have faced increased persecution and religious discrimination, leaving Coptic script in a deteriorating situation.

Cherokee Syllabary

While most of the languages and alphabets risking extinction are ancient, the Cherokee Syllabary stands out from the rest due to its extreme youth by comparison. Created in the early 19th Century by the Native American polymath Sequoyah, its existence made reading and writing in the Cherokee language possible.

Each character in the alphabet, which consists of 86 symbols, represents a syllable rather than a letter, making it somewhat similar to the Japanese kana. The threats to its survival are well known, mainly originating from historical issues regarding Native American reservations and the treatment of their inhabitants. 

Syriac Alphabet

Dating back almost two millennia, the alphabet associated with the Syriac language dominated the Middle East during the early middle ages between the 4th and 8th Centuries A.D. Countless documents and literature from the period are written in this alphabet, consisting entirely of consonants (although certain diacritics can be used to represent vowel-like sounds) and its historical value is as immense as the need to protect it.

Its key place within the heritage of the early Arab world has long been recognized, and numerous efforts have been made to preserve it, including some newspapers printed in the language and classes in public schools. As one can imagine, decades of instability in the Middle East have greatly increased the difficulty of conservation, making it yet another cultural landmark in the region facing the real possibility of disappearing.

Leave your comment!