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Spotlight on Memory of the World Heritage: Languages lost and found

© Lebanese Ministry of Cultural Affairs
Phoenician alphabet

UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register mirrors the fate of the world's languages: one that was saved, one that was lost and the prototype of all modern alphabets. These three examples typify the richness of cultures and the linguistic diversity to be found throughout the world. But while Papiamentu has survived and become an official language, only the documented script of the ǀXam keeps memory of the existence of the San people alive.

First Catechism Written in Papiamentu Language

© National Archives, Netherlands Antilles
Catecismo Corticu

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2008
  • Year of inscription: 2009
  • Country: Netherlands Antilles
  • Heritage item: Link

Bon Bini. Welcome. Of the world’s some 6,800 languages, over 6,000 of them, like Papiamentu, are spoken by less than a million people.  It’s estimated that half of them are in danger of extinction.

Papiamentu is, in fact, one of the lucky languages.  Spoken on what are known as the ABC Islands of the Netherlands Antilles, it has made the transition from a local Creole dialect to a written and official language. Many other small languages have not shared its fate.

For the Caribbean islands, the turning point came in the early 19th century when missionaries realised that their attempts to evangelise in Dutch were being met with resistance. The Apostolic Prefect at the time, Mgr Martinus Joannes Niewindt, decided to translate the Catholic catechism into Papiamentu and publish it. The first edition came out in 1826 and the second in 1837.

The Catecismo Corticu represents the genesis of writing in Papiamentu and is the oldest surviving printed publication in the language. The publication was a decisive factor in the survival of the language and had a great impact on the history of the islands. With Papiamentu spoken by all the islands’ people, irrespective of race, social class or ethnicity, it has also played a cohesive role in the society.

The Bleek Collection

© National Library of South Africa
Bushman folklore

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 1997
  • Year of inscription: 1997
  • Country: South Africa
  • Heritage item: Link

While Papiamentu was formalised in this period of colonial dominance, the language of the ǀXam, a now-extinct people of South Africa, did not share the same good fortune.

In 1870, the semi-nomadic San tribe’s culture had collapsed because of the encroachment of both Europeans and people from elsewhere in Africa. They had brought with them diseases and had also actively tried to eliminate the San. In that year, Wilhelm Bleek, who at the time was curator of a collection at the South African library in Cape Town, heard there were 28 San prisoners working on the building of a breakwater at the local harbour.

Knowing the language was disappearing, he got permission to document their speech and folklore, which was done with his sister-in-law, Lucy Lloyd, and later his daughter Dorothea.

Significantly, Bleek developed a phonetic script for transcribing the ǀXam language which is still used by linguists today. They also recorded much about the tribe’s life, religion, mythology and folklore, and the Collection, which includes albums of photographs, sketchbooks containing tracings of rock art and drawings made by the San, constitutes a unique glimpse into the culture at the moment of its disintegration.

Their notebooks have been used to decipher the meaning of southern African rock art and the insights gained from this have helped scholars elsewhere in the study of this art form in their respective countries.

The Phoenician Alphabet

© Lebanese Ministry of Cultural Affairs
Sarcophagus of King Ahiram

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2005
  • Year of inscription: 2005
  • Country: Lebanon
  • Heritage item: Link

The non-pictographic consonantal Phoenician alphabet was developed in the 13th century BC in Phoenicia, which included modern day Lebanon.  It is widely seen as the precursor to most of the major alphabets in use today.

At that time, the Phoenician civilisation was a powerful and enterprising maritime culture that has spread across the Mediterranean and as far south as Carthage in modern day Tunisia. Contact with the writing systems in both Egypt and Mesopotamia led the Phoenicians to invent their own alphabet, which was much simpler in form and phonetic in nature, although it did not include vowels.

This oldest existing example of the full alphabet is engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram dating from approximately 1200 BC and can be found in the National Museum in Beirut. It is now listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register as an item of global importance in the development of the written word.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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