Thuistezien 133 — 30.12.2020

Johannes Bergerhausen & Ilka Helmig
Missing Scripts

How are democracy and language connected? Ilka Helmig and Johannes Bergerhausen have been working on the project Missing Scripts since 2016, which aspires to get all the existing writing scripts, living as well as historical, included in the encoding standard Unicode and made accessible on all digital devices.

There are two parts to their work, namely a political/scientific cause, but also an artistic cause. The first aspect to the project consists of work that is done by linguists or researchers of specific languages and cultures. They construct and gather proposals for scripts that are missing and try to prove to the Unicode Consortium that there is significance for the scripts to be made accessible on computers and smart phones. The Unicode Consortium is an organisation that requires 20,000 US dollars a year to become a member and have voting rights, and thus makes up mostly software companies and some academics. The Consortium annually revises if any characters or systems of characters needs to be added, or removed. They are for instance responsible for our widely used emojis and their updates. The researchers for the missing scripts have a continuous challenge: how to prove that a community would benefit from using their script digitally, if until now they haven’t been able to do so? The hypothesis is that it musters the potential to bring a script (back) to life. The importance for historical scripts is also there, in that cultural heritage can be enriched and researched more easily and thoroughly. Such scientific endeavour seems almost political, where ideally the world could be speaking one code, while protecting distinct cultural expressions. How does that convince companies with commercial interest in their software to invest time and money?

The second aspect of Missing Scripts is an artistic cause, where students are actively looking into every feature and detail of the scripts in the proposals, to then create a type design for each. They take care for the visualisation and possible standardization of what until then is just handwritten history. Representing scripts, representing cultures, is an ambitious and inherently democratic ideal. Up until now there have been a few attempts at universalising writing (i.e. the phonetic alphabet, and perhaps emojis), but all seem to fall short to the many different uses, appropriations and interpretations of characters in every community. Perhaps it is absurd to expect the world to speak and write in one language and alphabet. But it is another, maybe more hopeful, task to try to capture and include all variations.

Missing Scripts was the exhibition nr. 4 in the Alphabetum at West Den Haag.

Text: Yael Keijzer