Kickstarter project about endangered alphabets in Bangladesh

The Kickstarter project Endangered Alphabets II: Saving Languages in Bangladesh might be of interest here.

In short, their aim is to record the Indic alphabets used by the indigenous languages spoken in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Southern Bangladesh, such as Mro, Marma, Tripura, and Chakma. The project creator Tim Brookes will carve signs using these alphabets for his Endangered Alphabets exhibition, and a typographer and a calligrapher will collaborate to produce typefaces that can be used to print children's schoolbooks in these languages.

The project description page is somewhat vague about just how endangered these scripts and languages are and what the current situation is, so I've drawn up a quick background about the four languages mentioned.

Mro is considered "definitely endangered" by UNESCO, with around 50,000 speakers in Bangladesh and Burma. The proposal for encoding the Mro script seems to be still in the Unicode pipeline at this stage.

The Marma people numbering around 210,000 are Arakanese (Rakhine) descendants living in Bangladesh, and therefore speak a form of the Arakanese (Rakhine) language, which is itself a form of Burmese, written with the Burmese script. I couldn't find any mention of a separate alphabet for the Marma people.

"Tripura" seems to be referring to Kokborok, an official language in the Indian state of Tripura. Only around a tenth of the 800,000 total speakers of Kokborok are in Bangladesh. Kokborok was once written in its own script called Koloma, but this has disappeared and it has been written in the Bengali script since the 19th century. The Latin alphabet was also introduced later, and both Bengali and Latin are used today, with the choice of script a highly politicized issue. I couldn't find any information on the situation in Bangladesh.

The Chakma language has around 700,000 total speakers in India, Bangladesh, and Burma, with around 310,000 in Bangladesh. The Indian state of Tripura announced in 2012 the introduction of Chakma language in primary schools. The Chakma script was added to Unicode 6.1 in January 2012.

To summarize, only two of the four languages mentioned (Mro and Chakma) have their own scripts currently in use. The other two are written with Burmese (Marma) and Bengali or Latin (Tripura), which as scripts are not particularly endangered. Nevertheless, there may be variants of these scripts particular to these languages as used in Bangladesh, just as there are different variants of the Latin, Cyrillic, or Arabic alphabets depending on the different languages that use them. Mro is by far the most endangered of these languages; the other languages each surpass Icelandic in total speakers, for comparison, although it has to be pointed out they are not officially recognized in Bangladesh and are threatened by the official national language of Bengali, which is understood by 98% of the population.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

It sounds interesting and looks like you are well on your way, but I would still suggest adding some images of the scripts to your Kickstarter page. I’d like to see what this is all about.

A note: A typographer is not the same as a type designer.

(Edit: Ooops! Sorry. I thought it was the originator posting.)

hrant's picture

Thanks for sharing this Brian, and filling in the blanks. Definitely a worthwhile project. And I hope that Koloma somehow does get revived.


Jongseong's picture

I should perhaps have linked also to the Language Log post on this project, which has pictures of the Mro and Chakma scripts.

Edit in reply to Hrant: It's hard to tell from the snippets of info on the internet, but the Koloma script for Kokborok is said to have "disappeared", which may mean that there are no extant examples of the script and we only know that such a script existed. In that case, it would be impossible to revive, unfortunately.

hrant's picture

I think languages are harder to revive than scripts, and I'm sure some people also thought the Hebrew langauge (which was dormant* for a very long time**) was "impossible to revive"... although I admit that the tenacity of the Hebrew script probably helped there. Really though, if Kokborok is still alive reviving Koloma would be that much easier. Build it, and they will come - make the font, and use it - remember Mesrop Mashtots!

* In fact an idea (which is what a script is) can never die.



Jongseong's picture

But how can you revive a script without knowing what it looked like? I gathered that no examples of the script may have survived (the chronicles of the Borok kings were supposedly written in Kokborok in the Koloma script, but we only know about the later Sanskrit translation). In that case, the Koloma script would be irretrievably forgotten.

hrant's picture

Of course you're right about that. How old do you think the most recent Koloma inscription would be? In the case of Armenian we don't know exactly how Mesrop Mashtots designed our alphabet, but we do have inscriptions from about a century afterwards (beginning of the 7th century) and lucky for us it was never interrupted.


JanekZ's picture

(my name in Chakma script)

quadibloc's picture

In fact an idea (which is what a script is) can never die.

A script is a specific human invention, not a basic discovery of a law of nature.

The value of pi, the three laws of thermodynamics (although not their specific expression), Maxwell's Equations, and so on, could all be rediscovered were they to be forgotten.

The text of the plays of Shakespeare, the score to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - if, somehow, all record of these things were to be erased, they would be lost for ever.

The same can happen to an alphabet.

Fortunately, though, the Borok language, Kokborok, is still very much alive. The language may previously have been known as Bara, or by other names, and so the Koloma script may indeed have been recorded as well, even though the record may be awkward to find.

EDIT: Further searches have indicated that indeed the script is believed to be lost, and to have only been used in the Chronicle of the Borok Kings, lost in its original language.

However, this site claims that a group called the Tippera uses the Koloma script in the present day.

Jongseong's picture

However, this site claims that a group called the Tippera uses the Koloma script in the present day.

Tippera is just a variant anglicized form of Tripura. That is most likely an erroneous claim that the Koloma script is still used, given that the Chronicle of the Borok Kings has been recorded in Bengali since the 15th century (instead of in its original Kokborok, one presumes).

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