I just received a Facebook birthday card from a colleague who wrote in a dozen languages, most of them endangered.

My ethnocentricity has been challenged head-on by the fact that in doing more than 100 carvings in more than 30 different minority scripts I can now read precisely one word in a non-Latin script: the Balinese word suksma, meaning 'thank you'.

My first exhibition of carvings, all of which featured Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in endangered writing systems, grew out of my stumbling upon Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages.

My ignorance led me to ask questions that might never occur to someone versed in that language.

Why were we so smitten with the Latin alphabet - to such an extent that the default academic font was called Times New Roman? Why were we so keen on parallels, right angels, circles, the Euclidean forms that are in fact impossible to write freehand? What does English have against diacritics, when other languages embrace them to such an extent that some scripts look like a large wet black dog shaking itself? But the really interesting questions were about language itself, and the way people instinctively think about it.

What struck me about languages, especially when carved in wood, is that they show our own efforts to understand the world by creating patterns - patterns that others can recognize and convert into speech, into ideas - overlaid on the deeper, older, more complex patterns that…

Report a problem with this summary