A Tale of Languages and Alphabets by Sam Winston
I didn’t realize that most languages have never appeared in books.
It feels like a strange thing to say but when working on my latest picture book, One & Everything, I began to focus on the world’s languages, especially the ones with unique writing systems. 5 years in the making and incorporating over 50 different scripts it opened my eyes to how truly beautiful languages can be but also to how many are missing from our pages.
When walking around a bookstore or browsing online, one could be mistaken in thinking that this is a vast display of the human tongue, but it’s not. I didn’t realize that such a tiny minority of languages have their own alphabet for them to be written in.
One & Everything tells the tale of a story that goes around eating all the other stories and features a cast of endangered alphabets, ancient letterforms and partly deciphered scripts. This journey, to find the words for this book, has become a tale in itself. As you will see, there were lots of things I didn’t know.
Firstly, I hadn’t really comprehended how young writing is. I knew humans had been speaking a lot longer than we had been using text but I hadn’t really comprehended the timescales involved. Current evidence suggests full writing systems did not appear until a few thousand years ago; whereas, even with a conservative estimate, humans have been around for a few hundred thousand years. This means writing has only taken place for a tiny tiny fraction of our species’ lifespan.
Which begins to explain why so little language appears in print. Currently we have over 7000+ languages and only a few hundred writing systems. If measured across time, the oral traditions have been by far the most common way humans shared culture through the ages.
When I was at school I was often amazed and slightly puzzled by the almost infinite amount of typeface choices I had available. But it took me another decade or two to finally ask; why are there so many in just the Latin alphabet? Even finding the Korean Hangul or Fārsī scripts at the bottom of the menu felt like a window to somewhere else.
Of these estimated 7000 plus languages roughly half of the world’s population speaks just 25 of them. The other half of the global population speaks the remaining 6000+ languages. This second group carries the vast bulk of our linguistic DNA and many of these languages are in decline. As the Endangered Languages Documentation program states “Today there are about 6500 languages spoken worldwide and at least half of those are under acute threat to not be spoken anymore.”
So instead of getting lost in infinite typeface choices, I highly recommend searching out the maps that show the languages of the world. They offer us a beautiful portrait of how diverse the human mind is.
As an artist and writer who has worked with words for the last twenty years, it was also incredibly humbling to realize how little I know when it comes to the history language. I think I must have missed that part at school. I had some sporadic Welsh lessons but the idea that the story of language happened predominately off the page, this is an idea that I have only begun to properly contemplate recently.
It’s clear that language finding a home in print will never be a simple story. Language rarely thrives outside of culture and how the globalized world meets our communities is still one of the most pressing questions of our times.
But what we do know is this; it is vitally important that younger generations see their spoken or signed heritages as part of their future. A majority language can carry the aura of employment and mobility which is a major factor in whether children (or parents) deem their own native language as equally valuable. Only seeing aspirational opportunities within one language carries a powerful message. Localization of culture, especially for children and teenagers reinforces the message that their heritage belongs in tomorrow’s world.
The main character in One & Everything is a large ball of type that knows everything, so it goes around eating up all of the other stories. But as the ball of type becomes increasingly large (and covers the page) we soon see how dull it all becomes.
When making picture books, you learn, in part, how to tell the story through colour and tone. Contrast is a beautiful way to explain things beyond what one color alone can say. The same is true for languages; the human story is only rich and compelling if we maintain all the contrasting ways in which we can tell it.
Sam Winston is a fine artist whose work has been featured in many special collections worldwide, including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the Tate Britain, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His first picture book, A Child of Books, cocreated with Oliver Jeffers, was a New York Times bestseller and won a Bologna Ragazzi Award. Sam Winston works and lives in London.