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From Manchu to Mwangwego: A Journey through the Threatened Landscape of Global Alphabets

World Endangered Writing Day: The Executive Summary

It’s a widely-quoted statistic that half of the world’s 7,000-odd languages are endangered, and may be extinct by the end of this century.

It’s less widely quoted—in fact, this is probably the first time you’re hearing it—that more than 85% of the world’s 300-plus alphabets are likewise to varying degrees threatened.

Yet that statistic means almost nothing to those of us in Western Europe and North America. For one thing, we had no idea there were all that many alphabets anyway. For another, the whole concept of an alphabet being endangered is baffling because our own, the Latin or Roman alphabet, is so secure. It’s used by more people around the world than every other script combined. It’s the top dog, the bully alphsbet.

So why are so many forms of writing endangered, and why does that matter?

The answers are to be found throughout this website, our online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets at, and our YouTube channel at

But that’s a great deal of information, on a subject that is completely new to most people. So here's the first-time-visitor version.


What is writing? And how can it be endangered?

Those two questions are directly related. Many of the world’s fascinating and varied ways of communicating meaning through visual symbols are endangered or even extinct because they didn’t or don’t fit our European definition of writing.

For centuries, the standard European/American belief has been that primitive peoples drew/draw pictures to convey meaning because they were/are not sophisticated enough to have developed writing, and as they “evolved” they started using symbols that represented ideas, then syllables, and finally a “true” phonetic alphabet like ours, in which every symbol represents a single sound of the spoken language.

This may sound logical, but it is nonsense.

  • There is no evidence that any culture in the world developed writing following this progression.
  • By this logic Chinese is a primitive script, yet Confucius was writing philosophy when the Ancient Britons were still painting themselves blue with woad.
  • The European explorers who encountered pictographic systems massively underestimated the kinds of information they encoded. Even today we are still struggling to understand their full complexities.
  • Visual or graphic symbols work better than phonetic writing in a multilinguistic setting (think European road signs) and are better at instantly conveying emotion (think emojis).

The idea that the alphabet, especially the Latin alphabet, is superior is thus a circular, not to say racist, argument: if the most powerful or “successful” nations use it, it must be the most advanced. History is written by the winners--in the alphabet of the winners.

This in turn justifies imposing our alphabet on other cultures in the name of helping them “develop” and become more sophisticated.

And that in turn creates a rolling-rock argument that says everyone should learn and use the Latin alphabet because, well, everyone else does.

Not Just a Toolbox

The belief that writing is just a means of representing speech leads to another, subtler but equally catastrophic misunderstanding. It implies that the symbols used for writing are like the symbols used for mathematics—a toolkit that can be used to tackle any problem, anywhere. That’s how we tend to see it in the West, and that’s why we can’t see why everyone shouldn’t use one script—namely, ours.

But writing is not like that. Writing has the extraordinary virtue of expressiveness. Not only is each individual person’s handwriting an expression of their character, their mood, even their level of energy at the time, but each culture’s form of writing is equally self-expressive. Every script is shaped over time by the people who use it, and is as much an expression of their culture as their music, art, or dance.

For example, we know of one or more scripts...

  • whose every letter has a secret mystical meaning;
  • that united entire minority communities against colonizers;
  • that are taken so seriously that a scribe must recite specific mantras before beginning to write, before making a correction, even before opening a book;
  • that were created as the result of dreams, visions, or divine commands;
  • that were devised and used solely by women, largely in secret;
  • that were so banned that a writer who used them could be imprisoned and have all his property confiscated;
  • that are worshipped at household shrines in ceremonies in which the letters are written in chalk, then the chalk is washed off and the chalk-water is drunk to imbibe the sacred power of the letters;
  • that were written or incised in bark, palm leaves, bamboo, buffalo horn, animal hide, stone, wood, and even human skin, as tattoos. The very shapes of their letters were influenced by the tools and materials available, and so reflect not only their history by their landscape;
  • that have such spiritual significance that if someone in the community dies without having learned to read and write their script, the priest sits beside the corpse in the period before cremation and teaches in the alphabet so it is prepared for the afterlife.

We know of at least half-a-dozen scripts that are so iconic to their culture that they are still used on a state seal, a flag, banknotes, tourist trinkets and tattoos even though nobody can read them any longer.

The world of minority and Indigenous scripts is infinitely more fascinating and illuminating than we know. There are scripts more elegant than our Latin alphabet, more user-friendly, more accurate, easier to learn, more deeply embedded in their visual culture, spiritually richer, more calligraphic, more musical, more like art, more like dance, more multi-dimensional, more important to their users and their community.

For example: traditional Balinese culture devotes one day a year to venerating writing, during which all the books in the household are taken down, dusted, repaired, and become the focus of domestic rituals. That day, which shows how much clearer an understanding of the value of writing the Balinese have than we do, was the inspiration for World Endangered Writing Day.

Our beliefs about writing—that it should be quick, efficient, easily stored, easily mass-produced—are essentially industrial beliefs, and in thinking in these terms, we in the West are in the process of driving other forms of writing out of existence. The barbarians are at the gate, and they are us.

Discovering the astounding richness and meaning of the world’s scripts is one of our central missions. The other is to try to convey what it is like to lose them.

Script Death

If a culture stops using its traditional script, typically within two generations everything written in that script—land deeds, histories, recipes, family letters, legal documents, sacred texts—becomes incomprehensible, lost. And when a culture loses its history it not only loses its sense of identity and dignity, but its history then is written, if at all, by someone else, who is more than likely to be cursory, dismissive, even contemptuous.

King Ibrahim Njoya of the Bamum people of Cameroon declared, with remarkable insight, that his people would ever be free until they had their own history written in their own script—and as at the time (the late 19th century) there was no Bamum script, he invented it, and went on to write his people’s history.

Unfortunately, Cameroon subsequently fell into French hands, and Njoya’s work was too independent for the colonial authorities. They maneuvered him out of power, destroyed his work and drove him into exile, where he died.

Njoya’s script, an emblem of what the Bamum people still see as a golden age, is still waiting to be revived.

At Greatest Risk

Many a website will tell you which are the world’s most widely-used scripts, though this calculation is actually based on half-informed guesswork, as no country I know includes scripts in its census. One estimate, though, is highly likely: users of the Latin alphabet outnumbers all the others combined.

Nobody, though, will give you data on the world’s least widely used scripts, the ones at greatest risk.

In part, again, it’s because of the lack of census information. But it’s mostly because the users of those barely-surviving scripts are likely to be minority and Indigenous peoples,

often dispossessed, a community that once had land and dignity along with their own writing practices. Such people are rarely counted, and their writing, which they once used to record almost everything of importance to them, is usually incomprehensible to local or regional government. It is never used officially; it may even be banned.

So which scripts, you ask, are the most at risk? Where is the situation most urgent, most in need of attention?

I’ve been working on that question for 14 years, and I’m sorry, I still can’t give you a definitive answer.

Let’s consider an analogy. In 1964, the Red List of Threatened Species alerted the world to the hard facts of species endangerment. That magnificent, world-changing document was the result of years of work by multiple agencies in multiple countries, and even so the status of many species was unclear. Was the ivory-billed woodpecker really extinct? Had someone actually seen a Florida panther? In a sense, these headline statistics were the incentive, not the point. The point was to see things differently, to change our ways.

We at the Endangered Alphabets Project are in a similar position (except for the resources, as we are essentially one person plus a couple of dozen committed volunteers.) Our research has turned up at least 20 scripts for which we have no evidence that anyone is using them any longer, but no proof that nobody is using them. So our impulse is to be hopeful. A single surviving passenger pigeon or Tasmanian devil represents a species that is already effectively extinct, but if only one person is using a script, they may yet teach it to others, as we’ll see in a moment.

Rather than simply offering a Bottom Ten, so to speak, it will be more useful to offer five categories that do more than simply throw out some guess-based numbers—they offer an understanding of which scripts are likely to be in peril, and why.

The Mighty Fallen: Manchu

This is the rarest category—the script that was once the official writing of government, even of empire, but has fallen from grace. The most spectacular example is Manchu, once required for all documents of the Chinese empire but eventually so far out of political favor that in 2010 Simon Ager of Omniglot estimated that there were perhaps no more than a dozen users left—daily users of Manchu as their mother script, that is.

Since then the overall number has certainly grown, with scholars learning it for professional reasons and others simply out of interest, but the first-user base probably remains just as fragile.

The Lone Author-Teacher: Mwangwego

Africa and India in particular have a long tradition of individuals, sometimes inspired by a dream or divine command, taking it upon themselves to create a script for their minority community, typically to replace the Latin alphabet that had been introduced by missionaries and/or colonial forces.

Such an endeavor is a hard, lonely one, especially as the authorities may regard the script inventor as a troublemaker who threatens the status quo. Officially, the script author may be praised for his (for it is almost always a man, often startlingly young) invention, but denied any funding or resources.

We know of more than a dozen people like Nolence Mwangwego, a scholar, polyglot and inventor of the Mwangwego script for the Malawian languages, who have spent their entire lives promoting and teaching their script, often with nothing more than blackboard and chalk, but their enthusiasm and commitment is matched by the inertia of the forces lined up against them, and all too often when they die the script has still not been used by more than a handful of followers, students and/or family.

This is not the whole tragedy, though. The tragedy is that this sad arc has been routinely described by Western scholars as evidence that new scripts should not be taken seriously, studied, or supported, as if their demise was proof that their technical deficiencies had let them down, or they had been found wanting in the marketplace of ideas. These scholars are, of course, from cultures that have not been conquered and colonized in recent memory, and whose script is in no danger whatever.

The Shrinking Sect: Medefaidrin

Perhaps a quarter of all existing scripts were originally, or are still, connected to specific religions or spiritual practices. When these religions spread (Christianity and Islam, for example) their scripts spread with them. When the religions retreated or came under attack, though (such as Syriac and Coptic), their scripts, too, became a target, a visible manifestation of the belief. And there are many highly local religions whose adherents only ever numbered in the hundreds.

The Medefaidrin language is spoken by a Christian group known as the Oberi Okaime (“freely given”) Christian Church in the oil-rich Niger delta region of Nigeria. The religious community reportedly numbers about 4,000 members, but there are fewer than twenty adult speakers of Medefaidrin and only a handful have mastered its script, meaning that Medefaidrin is among the world’s most endangered alphabets.

The Government Denial: Oromo

A world map on which each country has its own color gives a massively misleading sense of uniformity: most countries are patchworks of differing ethnicities, tribes, religious groups, refugees, castes and outcasts. The most common reason for a script to be endangered, then, is that whoever is in power at the time does not care for the people who use it.

It's impossible to overstate how routine and widespread this practice of marginalization is, from the smallest nations to the most powerful. What is less often documented is the role a script plays in this ongoing unequal struggle. We know of at least four people who have been executed for creating a script for their community because that script gave a sense of dignity, worth and unity to a despised minority.

The Oromo, one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, are also one of the oldest peoples inhabiting the Horn of Africa; they may have been living in north Kenya and south-east Ethiopia for more than 7000 years.

Under Haile Selassie's regime, though, the Oromo were suppressed, and the Oromo language was banned in education, in conversation, and in administrative matters. Sheikh Bakri Sapalo (born Abubakar Garad Usman) was an Oromo scholar, poet and religious teacher who created a script for the Oromo language and people in 1956, keeping it secret from the authorities, who would have strenuously opposed Oromo being written in any form, let alone in a script other than Ethiopic.

As is often the case when a marginalized culture develops its own writing system, the Oromo responded to Sheikh Bakri’s script with great enthusiasm, and a number of people in his region began to use it. As is equally often the case, this surge in self-respect and literacy among the Oromo was viewed with alarm by the Ethiopian authorities and, in the name of national unity, Sheikh Bakri was placed under house arrest in 1965.

He continued to write and teach, but he never regained his freedom and died in a refugee camp. The Oromo script never became accepted: officially it is no longer used, although this is almost certainly not the case.

The Abandoned Tradition: Lota Ende

This is probably the most numerous category. All over the world, communities with their own traditions—language, writing, music, dance, art, spiritual beliefs—have been visited by representatives of more powerful cultures with their own traditions, and you don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way that wind has blown.

Interestingly, of all those categories, the ones least at risk have tended to be art, music and dance (which seem to pose least threat to missionaries and colonial forces and may even be regarded as charming or vibrant). The most at-risk cultural elements are often indigenous spiritual beliefs, opposed by missionaries and any colonists with a strong sense of religious mission, and writing.

Today, the Lota Ende script is only used during ritual circumcision. A local poet writes  the biography and the family history of the boy who will be circumcised, in the form of what is referred to as woi, the mourning narrative poem.

When such a ritual is performed, not only one family comes with their woi but more than one, and listeners may evaluate which woi and reader are the best.

The woi manuscript they bring is usually rolled up and inserted in the beak of a bird made of woven palm leaves.

The woi is always recited in such a sad tone that those who hear it often cry.

Back from the (Nearly or Apparently) Dead

We are living in an extraordinary time in history. Since roughly the year 2000, a surge in concern for indigenous rights and traditional cultures has led to support for traditional minority and indigenous scripts—and the creation of some 40 new scripts for cultures that previously didn’t have their own.

The grandparent of all these acts of resilience is the Samaritan script, which at the start of the twentieth century was being used by only four families, but has now recovered to the point of having perhaps a thousand users, plus its own librarian and online newsletter.

The Meitei Mayek script of northeastern India was ordered to be utterly destroyed in 1709, but over the past half-century was resurrected to the point of becoming an official script of the state of Manipur.

In the 1990s the province of Sunda in Indonesia decided to revive and update its ancestral script, which had not been used in more than 350 years.

You can never rule out a script. The Mende Kikakui script was kept alive in three small villages in Sierra Leone for decades and is now in active revival. The Tifinagh script of the Amazigh people of North Africa was kept alive for centuries in the desert by Touareg women who incorporated it into tattoos and jewellery designs.

The greatest threat, then, is not endangerment but the habit, among Western scholars, of declaring, in effect, “Almost nobody uses this script any more, so we don’t need to bother with it.”

Exactly the opposite is the case: the fewer people who use a script, the more it demands our attention, our support.

Our Goal

Our goal is simple: that people approach and treat each other equally and with respect. Or, to put it in the words of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

Article 11

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Article 13

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

What Can You Do?

We have a page identifying how to support each of the organizations and initiatives featured in this year’s World Endangered Writing Day at xxxxxxx

The Endangered Alphabets Project

The Endangered Alphabets Project is a federal 501c3 nonprofit based in Vermont, USA. We are the only organization in the world dedicated to preserving and revitalizing endangered cultures by researching, cataloging, and promoting their indigenous writing systems through talks, exhibitions, educational materials, games, and artwork.

For more information, please contact Tim Brookes at

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