A sample of Southeast Asian scripts from The World’s Writing Systems

People write things. All kinds of things: newspaper articles, shopping lists, poetry, stories, love letters, homework assignments, even blog posts.

It’s amazing, really. Writing is an invention of the last 5,000 years, but The World’s Writing Systems catalogs an astonishing 292 writing systems, 162 of them in active use. (For a similar list with more details, check out ScriptSource.) For 50 centuries, people have been writing down the things they want to remember, on paper, parchment, stone, metal, and palm leaves.

Writing is power. The mountain-dwelling Kayah Li people of Southeast Asia used to say that the lowlanders had three advantages: kings, horses, and writing. (No longer: Kayah Li now has three writing systems!)

Of course, not everyone can write. The global literacy rate for adults is only 86%. Things are getting better: at last count, 90% of children had basic literacy skills, but girls still lag behind boys. That may sound pretty good, but it still means 850 million people worldwide who can’t read. Data on literacy among minority language-speaking populations are harder to come by, but it’s clear that literacy rates there are far lower, perhaps as low as 50% worldwide.

Not everyone can write, but most people in the world speak more than one language. Which language to use can be a complicated thing, especially where reading and writing are concerned. For people who grow up speaking a minority language, though, reading and writing usually means reading and writing someone else’s language.

In SIL LEAD, we want each community to be able to use its languages, including its heritage language, as they like for, what is important to them—no matter whether that something is as foundational as primary education, as vital as a medicine bottle, as fleeting as a shopping list, as thrilling as poetry, or as lasting as a love letter from the Creator of the universe.

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