10 Endangered Alphabets You Should See Before It's Too Late

The Glagolitic script carved into wood
The Glagolitic script carved into wood
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

The Arabic and Simplified Chinese scripts aren't in danger of going anywhere anytime soon, but the same can't be said for Balinese, Mali, Pahawh (or Pahauh) Hmong, and the other 100-some alphabets that Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has cataloged in his online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, which is set for a soft launch on January 17. The featured alphabets—which Brookes has loosely defined to include writing systems of all sorts—are vanishing for varied reasons, including government policies, war, persecution, cultural assimilation, and globalization.

“The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems—really something between 15 and 20,” Brookes tells Mental Floss. “And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”

The atlas will include a bit of background information about each alphabet as well as links to any organizations attempting to revive them. By creating a hub for these alphabets, Brookes hopes to connect people who want to preserve their language and culture, while also showing the world how beautiful and intricate some of these scripts—including the 10 below—can be.

1. Cherokee

Although the Manataka American Indian Council says an ancient Cherokee writing system may have existed at one point but was lost to history, Cherokee was more or less a spoken language up until the early 19th century. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah started working on an 86-character writing system known as a syllabary, in which the symbols represent syllables. Most remarkably, Sequoyah himself had never learned how to read. At the time, many Native Americans deeply distrusted writing systems, and Sequoyah was put on trial for witchcraft after tribal leaders caught wind of his new creation. However, once they realized that written Cherokee could be used to preserve their language and culture, they asked Sequoyah to start teaching the syllabary. “The Cherokee achieved 90 percent literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes says. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.”

After a period of decline in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee language education saw somewhat of a revival in the late 20th century. The predominance of English and the Latin alphabet has made these efforts an uphill battle, though. Brookes says it’s difficult to find people who can teach the script, and even among Cherokee translators, few are confident in their grasp of the writing system.

2. Inuktitut

A stop sign containing the Inuktitut script
A stop sign in Nunavut, Canada
Sébastien Lapointe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nine different writing systems are used among Canada’s 59,500 Inuit. Many of these are based on the Latin alphabet, but the one shown above uses syllabics that were first introduced by European missionaries in the 19th century. Since it’s difficult and costly to represent each of these writing systems in official documents, many Inuit officials write and hold meetings in English, all but ensuring the demise of their mother tongue. However, Canada’s national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is now in the process of developing one common script for all Inuit. “Our current writing systems were introduced through the process of colonization,” the organization writes on its website. “The unified Inuktut [the collective name for Inuit languages] writing system will be the first writing system created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada.” It remains to be seen what that script will look like.

3. Glagolitic

A tablet containing the Glagolitic script
The Baška tablet, which was made around the year 1100
Neoneo13, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It’s widely believed that Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic script, was invented by missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius around 860 CE in an effort to translate the Gospels and convert the Slavs to Christianity. The name Glagolitic stems from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolati, meaning to speak. Some of the symbols were lifted from Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, while others were entirely new inventions. Nowadays, academics are typically the only ones who can decipher the script, but some cultural institutions have made efforts to preserve its legacy. In 2018, the National and University Library in Zagreb launched an online portal containing digitized versions of Glagolitic texts. In addition to being a source of Croatian heritage and pride, the alphabet has also become an object of tourist fascination. Visitors can view monuments containing Glagolitic symbols along the Baška Glagolitic Path on the Croatian island of Krk. And in Zagreb, the capital city, it’s not hard to find gift shops selling merchandise adorned with Glagolitic writing. However helpful this may be to the tourism sector, it's no guarantee that more Croatians will want to start learning the script.

4. Mandombe

The Mandombe script
Moyogo, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

This African script is unusual for several reasons. For one, the Mandombe alphabet reportedly came to David Wabeladio Payi—a member of the Kimbanguist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in a series of dreams and spiritual encounters in the late ‘70s. One day, he was looking at his wall when he noticed that the mortar between the bricks seemed to form two numbers: five and two. He believed these were divine clues, so he set out to create a series of symbols based off those shapes. Eventually, he assigned the symbols phonographic meaning and turned it into an alphabet that could be used by speakers of the Kikongo and Lingala languages. Perhaps most remarkably, the pronunciation changes depending on how the symbols are rotated. “It’s one of about three writing systems in the world where that’s true,” Brookes says. Unlike most of the other alphabets on this list, Mandombe is growing in popularity rather than declining. However, because it’s primarily being taught in Kimbanguist schools and used only for religious texts, it will be a challenge to convince the rest of the population to start using it. Elsewhere in the country, the Latin alphabet is used (French is the official language). “What it’s up against is, in essence, exactly the same forces that a declining script is up against,” Brookes says. For this reason, many new alphabets can be considered endangered.

5. Ditema tsa Dinoko

In a similar vein, Ditema tsa Dinoko is also a minority script, and it's too new to tell if it will stick around. A team of South African linguists, designers, and software programmers invented this intricate, triangular-shaped alphabet in just the last decade in hopes of forging a single script that could be used by speakers of indigenous languages in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Because the symbols were inspired by artworks and beadwork designs that are typical of the region, the alphabet is also a celebration of culture. “One of the really interesting features of African alphabets is how deeply embedded they are in what we would call graphic design,” Brookes says. “Instead of imitating the shapes or structures or layout of other writing systems, such as our alphabet, they often start from a completely different point of view and draw on designs that are found in war paintings, weaving textiles, pottery, and all of those other available graphic elements.” The colors used in the alphabet aren't necessary to understand the script, but they hark back to the alphabet's artistic origins while also functioning as a kind of font. For instance, different writers may use different colors to give their text "a certain feel or emotional resonance," Brookes says.

6. Mandaic

The Mandaic script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

This ancient, mystic script dates back to the 2nd century CE and is still being used by some Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran. According to mythology, the language itself predates humanity, and the script was historically used to create religious texts. Charles Häberl, now an associate professor of Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2006 paper that Mandaic is “unlike any other script found in the modern Middle East." And unlike most scripts, it has changed very little over the centuries. Despite its enduring quality, many of the speakers in Iraq have fled to other countries since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As these speakers assimilate into new cultures, it becomes more challenging to maintain their linguistic traditions.

7. Lanna

The Lanna script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

According to Brookes, the Lanna script was primarily used during the time of the Lanna Kingdom in present-day Thailand from the 13th century to the 16th century. It’s still used in some regions of northern Thailand, but faces stiff competition from the predominant Thai script. The word Lanna translates to "land of a million rice fields." The script is one of Brookes’s personal favorites as far aesthetics are concerned. “It is so extraordinarily fluid and beautiful,” he says. “They developed this script to indicate not only consonants, but then the consonants have vowel markings and other consonant markings and tonal markings both above and below the main letters, and so you have this amazingly joyous and elaborate writing system, and it’s like a pond of goldfish. Everything is just curving around and swimming in all these different directions.”

8. Dongba

The Dongba script
Courtesy of Aubrey Wang

Members of the Naxi ethnic minority in China’s Yunnan province have been using this colorful pictographic script for well over 1000 years. The pictures stand for tangible objects like mud, mountains, and high alpine meadows, as well as intangible concepts such as humanity and religion [PDF]. Historically, it was mainly used by priests to help them remember their ceremonial rites, and the word Dongba means "wise man." However, the script has undergone something of a revival in recent years, having been promoted by people working in the arts and tourism industries. It’s also taught in some elementary schools, and it remains one of the few pictographic scripts that’s still in use today. At the same time, Brookes says he's seen little evidence of efforts "to create a circumstance where the script is actually used in a functional, everyday fashion." With the predominant Chinese script looming large throughout much of the country, Dongba's days may be numbered.

9. Tibetan

A student writes the Tibetan script
China Photos/Getty Images

Some of the world’s alphabets and languages are endangered for political reasons. Tibetan is perhaps the best-known example of that. The Chinese government has cracked down on language instruction in recent years, with the aim of promoting Mandarin, the predominant language—although some have argued this policy comes at the expense of minority languages. In Tibet, many schools now conduct the bulk of their lessons in Mandarin, and Tibetan might be taught in a separate language course. Chinese officials put a Tibetan activist on trial in January 2018 for “inciting separatism”—partly because he criticized the government’s policies on Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In general, “the story behind endangered alphabets is almost never a pleasant or cheerful one, so that’s the human rights side of it,” Brookes says.

10. Mongolian

The Mongolian script

Anand.orkhon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some have likened the appearance of the traditional Mongolian script to a kind of vertical Arabic. The script traveled to Mongolia by way of a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs in the 1100s. Beginning with Genghis Khan, Mongol leaders used the script to record historic events during their reign. Later, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite state, the country started using the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s, and the traditional script was largely cast aside. The traditional alphabet is still used in inner Mongolia and is returning to Mongolia, and the renaissance of Mongolian calligraphy has bolstered its usage to some degree. Nonetheless, it, too, remains endangered.

21 Facts About The Nightmare Before Christmas

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

Christmas is a time for donning festive garb, singing holiday songs, festooning your home in decorations, and giving thoughtful gifts. Of course, all those tasks turn out a bit more twisted when assigned to the denizens of Halloween Town. The Nightmare Before Christmas, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago, mixes light and dark with jolly and macabre with great success. Even if this Halloween/Christmas movie mash-up movie is part of your regular holiday tradition, we'd roll Oogie Boogie's dice that you don't know all of these secrets from behind the scenes.

1. TIM BURTON DID NOT DIRECT The Nightmare Before Christmas.

It is a common misconception spurred by the film's alternate title: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton was busy with Batman Returns and handed this hefty responsibility to his old Disney Animation colleague Henry Selick, who made his feature directorial debut here. Burton's name goes above the title for serving as producer, creating the story, and coming up with the look and the characters for The Nightmare Before Christmas. It probably doesn't hurt that his name was much bigger than Selick's at the time, thanks to the success of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman.

2. JACK SKELLINGTON RESURFACED IN HENRY SELICK'S LATER FILMS.

1996 saw the release of Selick's follow-up, a stop-motion/live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. It also saw the resurrection of The Nightmare Before Christmas's bare bones protagonist, who appears in one spooky scene as a skeletal pirate captain. He's much harder to spot in Selick's 2009 translation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, but if you look closely as the Other Mother makes breakfast, you'll see Jack's smiling skull hidden in the yolk of a cracked egg.

3. THE PLOT WAS INSPIRED BY THE RECURRING COLLISION OF HOLIDAY STORE DECORATIONS.

In the film's DVD commentary, Burton explains that his childhood in ever-sunny Burbank, California was not marked by seasonal changes, so holiday decorations were an especially important factor in the year's progression. When it came to fall and winter, there was a melding of Halloween and Christmas in stores eager to make the most of both shopping seasons. This, he claimed, planted the seed for his tale of the king of Halloween intruding on Christmas.

4. A Tim BURTON POEM PREDATED THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.

While Burton was working as an animator at Disney on productions like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, he began toying with cartoon projects of his own. This eventually led to animated shorts like "Vincent," as well as the penning of a poem called "The Nightmare Before Christmas." A sort of parody of Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (also known as "The Night Before Christmas"), this poem focused on Jack Skellington's inescapable ennui and featured his ghost dog Zero as well as Santa.

5. RANKIN/BASS WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR THE STOP-MOTION APPROACH.


Walt Disney Pictures

In the same DVD commentary, Burton admits the animated Christmas specials from Rankin/Bass Productions were hugely influential.

6. Tim BURTON ORIGINALLY IMAGINED The Nightmare Before Christmas AS A TELEVISION SPECIAL.

Like Rankin/Bass's Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, Burton envisioned his take on Christmas could play well on television annually. This turned out to be true, but in a way he had not expected. He initially pitched the animated effort to TV studios. When that failed, he tried book publishers. No one bit until he pitched it as a full-length feature film. On the commentary track, Burton estimates that roughly 20 years passed between the project's earliest inception and its theatrical debut on October 29, 1993.

7. RONALD SEARLE AND EDWARD GOREY WERE ALSO INFLUENTIAL.

In a behind-the-scenes video about The Nightmare Before Christmas's backbreaking creation, a narrator notes that the production design team took a page from the pen and ink drawings of these two memorable artists, aiming to create in the physical set designs the kinds of cross-hatching and textures found within their works. Selick explains that they'd smear sets in plaster or clay, then scratch lines into this material "to give it that sort of etched texture or feel to make it look like a living illustration."

8. SHOOTING BEGAN BEFORE THE SCRIPT WAS COMPLETED.

Stop-motion demands a great deal of time, so when Danny Elfman had mastered most of the film's songs, Selick plus a team of 13 specially trained animators and an army of prop makers, set builders, and camera operators got to work without a final screenplay. Animators began by crafting Jack's big moment of discovery with "What's This?" Shooting 24 frames per second meant the animators had to create unique motions for 110,000 frames total. One minute of the movie took about a week to shoot, and The Nightmare Before Christmas took 3 years to complete.

9. SELICK IS RESPONSIBLE FOR JACK'S SIGNATURE SUIT.

In Burton's original sketches, Jack was dressed all in black. It is revealed in the film's commentary track that it was director Selick who gave Jack a marvelous makeover that added white stripes to his slim-fit suit. More than a smart sartorial choice, the addition of the pinstripes was needed to help Jack pop. In early camera tests, it became a major concern when Jack's flat black suit blended in to the dark backdrops of Halloween Town.

10. DISNEY FOUGHT FOR JACK TO HAVE EYES.

Because of the dark and deeply weird nature of Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, Walt Disney Studios decided it was too off-brand to be released under their banner. So the film was made through their branch Touchstone Pictures. But this didn't keep Disney from dropping some serious studio notes, including the insistence that Jack Skellington's empty sockets be filled with a pair of friendly eyes. A common guideline in animation and puppet-creation is that eyes are crucial to having an audience connect to a character, but Selick and Burton wouldn't budge, and ultimately proved their anti-hero didn't need oculars to connect.

11. THE MOST DIFFICULT SHOT WAS OPENING A DOOR.


Walt Disney Pictures

Because of the filmmakers' dedication to be as true to shooting like live-action as possible, one Nightmare Before Christmas shot proved especially challenging. When Jack discovers the part of the forest with pathways to other holiday worlds, he looks longingly at the Christmas tree door. A close-up of its shiny golden knob reflects this mournful skeleton as well as the trees behind him as he advances to open it. Getting the reflection just right took a great deal of time, care, and attention.

12. VINCENT PRICE WAS NEARLY NIGHTMARE'S SANTA.

Burton had previously worked with the renowned horror icon on Edward Scissorhands and "Vincent." From there, Price had agreed to give voice to the plump and flustered Santa who is kidnapped by treacherous trick 'r treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel. However, this plan was derailed when Price's wife Coral Browne passed in 1991. Selick explained in the commentary track that the actor was so grief-stricken that the director felt he sounded too sad for Santa. Edward Ivory was then brought in to replace him.

13. PATRICK STEWART WAS CUT FROM THE FILM.

Early on, The Nightmare Before Christmas planned to rely heavily on its poetic inspiration. As such, Star Trek: The Next Generation star Patrick Stewart was called in to read poetry that was intended for the film's opening and closing narration. The lengthy monologues were eventually pared down to a few lines, and those were reassigned to the film's Santa, Edward Ivory. However, Stewart's version can be found in full on the film's soundtrack.

14. TIM BURTON WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE A CAMEO.

Unearthed in cut footage is an alternate version of the vampires playing hockey. In the theatrical and all subsequent releases, the ice-skating vampires swat a jack-o-lantern. However, the original version of this scene had them batting about a recognizable decapitated head. With its ghostly pallor, black spiky hair, angular shape, and deep bags under its eyes, the creepy creation is clearly Burton. But this seems to have been deemed too grisly for a kids' movie.

15. THERE ARE SOME HIDDEN MICKEYS.


Walt Disney Pictures

Since the film became a success, Disney has become less shy about their association with Nightmare Before Christmas. But the commentary track reveals that, despite their reluctance, Disney allowed Selick and Burton to include a hidden Mickey in the form of a menacing toy. In the scene where Jack's Christmas gifts attack, there's a flying stuffed animal with a sharp-toothed grin that's meant to be the Burton version of Mickey Mouse. Also, the girl it attacks is wearing a Mickey print nightgown, while her brother's pajamas are covered in Donald Duck faces.

16. THERE'S A HIDDEN ED WOOD REFERENCE.

While The Nightmare Before Christmas was in production, Burton not only completed Batman Returns but also dug into pre-production on Ed Wood, a biopic about the notoriously untalented filmmaker. A nod to Wood's works is found tucked into the fearsome folk of Halloween Town—the burly, bald Behemoth is a sweet-natured brute who bears a striking resemblance—down to the scars on his face—to Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as seen in Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space.

17. THERE'S A HIDDEN DANNY ELFMAN CAMEO.

The former Oingo Boingo front man began collaborating with Burton back in the early 1980s when he composed the score for Burton's feature directorial debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The pair re-teamed for Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands before Elfman was called to write the music and lyrics for The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also lent his singing voice to Jack Skellington, and for all this he gets the dubious distinction of a cameo as the redheaded corpse tucked away in the upright bass of the ghastly Halloween Town band.

18. Tim BURTON CALLED ON OTHER PAST COLLABORATORS TO BE HEARD.

Aside from Jack's singing voice, Elfman also lent his pipes to mischievous Barrel as well as the menacing clown with the tear-away face. Filling out the trio of trick 'r treaters was Pee-Wee's Big Adventure star Paul Reubens as Lock, and Beetlejuice's Catherine O'Hara as Shock. O'Hara also voiced the stitched up and besotted Sally, while her former co-star Glenn Shadix played the two-faced mayor of Halloween Town.

19. DELETED SCENES INCLUDED BEHEMOTH'S SOLO AND AN ALTERNATE OOGIE BOOGIE REVEAL.

On the DVD, storyboard presentations reveal deleted scenes that never made it to production. One of these has Behemoth belting beautifully about "pretty" presents during "Making Christmas." Another shows an abandoned concept of Oogie Boogie boogeying with the bugs that fill his stitched up form, and a third clip displays a very different finale. Instead of Boogie being torn up and reduced to bugs, he's unmasked to be evil scientist Dr. Finkelstein in disguise! In this version, his whole scheme was revenge-fueled because Sally loved Jack, even though Finkelstein made her to be his mate.

20. THE SET WAS BUILT WITH SECRET PASSAGES FOR ANIMATORS.

Reminiscent of the cut-out pathways used by Muppeteers, the animators behind and beneath The Nightmare Before Christmas had special trapdoors cut into the 19 sound stages worth of 230 model sets so they could more easily reach in and manipulate their peculiar puppets. From these vantage points, they can move the armatures hidden within the creatures or swap their faces out for one of hundreds made to allow for a wide range of emotion. Jack Skellington alone had more than 400 heads.

21. Tim BURTON REJECTED A CGI SEQUEL.

Though Disney has found success pumping out straight-to-DVD sequels of their animated hits, Burton has no interest in making The Nightmare Before Christmas 2. He told MTV, “I was always very protective of [Nightmare Before Christmas], not to do sequels or things of that kind. You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things, just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it. Because it’s not a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it. I try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible.”

7 Fast Facts About RollerCoaster Tycoon

Amazon
Amazon

For Windows gamers, 1999 was dominated by RollerCoaster Tycoon, a now-classic strategy and building game that tasked users with erecting an amusement park and gauging the popularity of rides while maintaining a profit margin and keeping patrons from barfing all over the landscape. For the game’s 20th anniversary, check out some facts about its origins, its association with pizza, and how it became a pinball machine.

1. The first RollerCoaster Tycoon sold 4 million copies.

RollerCoaster Tycoon was the brainchild of Scottish programmer Chris Sawyer, who had enjoyed success with his line of Transport Tycoon games in the 1990s that allowed players to build and operate their own railroad, truck, and ship lines. Sawyer decided to marry that concept with his love of roller coasters. An independent effort—Sawyer enlisted only two collaborators, artist Simon Foster and musician Allister Brimble—the first Tycoon game that was released in 1999 sold a staggering 4 million copies.

2. RollerCoaster Tycoon came free with frozen pizza.

In the early 2000s, packaged food companies offered products that came with promotional offers for CD-ROMs. In 2003, Pillsbury offered a free copy of RollerCoaster Tycoon to anyone who sent in proof of purchase barcodes from specially-marked boxes of Totino’s Pizza Rolls or Pillsbury Toaster Strudel.

3. There’s a RollerCoaster Tycoon pinball machine.

A pinball machine released to coincide with 2002’s RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 took the spiraling coasters of the game and put them under glass. Players could try and direct the pinball—a substitute for the park guest—around and through coasters like The Flying Ghost and The Rocket.

4. RollerCoaster Tycoon helped inspire Minecraft.

If you or a loved one has spent countless hours absorbed in the popular world-building game Minecraft, you have RollerCoaster Tycoon to thank. Minecraft creator Markus Persson was a fan of Tycoon for the way it allowed players to construct elaborate designs. He also enjoyed Dungeon Keeper, which had a fantasy element. Together, the two games encouraged him to develop Minecraft. The game debuted in 2009 and went on to become one of the biggest interactive success stories of all time.

5. RollerCoaster Tycoon inspired real roller coaster designers.

The laborious construction undertaken by players of RollerCoaster Tycoon weaned a number of players on the excitement of the amusement industry. Park designers hoping to break into the industry have used screen shots from the game as examples of their design prowess at trade shows.

6. You can get a spooky update of RollerCoaster Tycoon in time for Halloween.

Atari distributes an Android and iOS version of RollerCoaster Tycoon for mobile phone users. For 2019, the company is offering a Six Flags Fright Fest update to the game that adds a Halloween component. Players can add Skull Mountain, an actual Six Flags coaster, as well as a Demon Rock statue.

7. A RollerCoaster Tycoon fan spent 10 years building a park.

In 2017, a Reddit user declared he was finished building out his own custom park on RollerCoaster Tycoon 2. The 34 coasters and 255 attractions were all minutely detailed, offering a sprawling virtual park with themed areas covering everything from Egyptian attractions to a forest. In comparison, it took only four years to build the actual Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

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