The Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, N.C., captures the depth of the written words journey.
Words were once only as permanent as the breath that carried them. It wasnt until someone, somewhere put symbols onto bits of clay, papyrus, wood or stone to represent objects that written language began. This enabled trade with other cultures to flourish, and according to the displays at The Museum of the Alphabet, from these symbols the alphabet was born.
The Museum of the Alphabet came to be when William Cameron Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, wanted to focus on the gift of written language, upon which all else depends.
Sharylee Zackary, a volunteer staff member, met a friend and me. She suggested we watch a short video to get acquainted with the museum and its mission.
The Alphabet Museum is part of the JAARS complex. The mission of JAARS is to bring Bible translations to indigenous people in a language that speaks to their minds and hearts. SIL International, a partner with JAARS, serves language communities worldwide, building sustainable language development through research, translation, training and materials.
After the video, we could take a self-guided tour or avail ourselves of Zackarys knowledge.
Words in time
In the foyer, is a fabulous junk metal piece representing the Tower of Babel. Designed and welded by Alan E. Baughman, it not only shows the tower and its many ladders, but also interesting characters and movement.
The linguist path begins in the ancient history alcove. We saw cuneiform and its growth into Phoenician to Roman through the Coptic. We learned of Russias Cyrillic, and how many languages had similar Greek sources. Each alcove captures a moment in the alphabets story. Each country and culture developed an alphabet. As we followed the timeline, we saw the basis of our alphabet with its roots coming from the Roman and Arabic.
There is an entire alcove dedicated to the concept of Moses finalizing the Hebrew or perhaps even the worlds original 22-letter alphabet. Here, we also learned the first written Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) was composed without vowels.
The displays for each section are excellent and bring depth to alphabets story: a representation of the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (in 1948); a Sefer Torah printed on ox skin parchment; a painting that shows Henry Rawlinson, a British cavalry major and diplomat researching three languages carved into stone 300 feet above the road.
From the simple markings in clay and stone, on papyrus and bamboo, the exhibit continued to guide us. We left Europe and made our way to Asia. Here we took in the scientific development of the Korean alphabet. We learned the oldest letter system in the world is Chinese where each character is an idea and has hardly changed in 4,000 years. The Chinese are noted for creating the first use of moveable type, long before Guttenburg and his press.
Turning a corner, we came back to the Americas. We were introduced to early South American record keeping on the Quipu, or knotted string. We experienced the alphabet of the Cree and Cherokee.
I was paging through a Gullah translated Bible, and was surprised to learn this book Old and New Testaments was only completed five years ago. To round out our tour, the museum also highlights the birth of Braille (Louise Braille created the system as a teenager) and American Sign Language.
As we walked through the exhibit, each alcove had a take-away pamphlet. Each pamphlet gives more depth to what we were looking at and the stories we heard. Plus, there are five quiz boxes throughout the museum.
Zackary said there are 7,000 languages in the world today. Some have become extinct, while others have yet to have their own alphabet.
This is what makes this museum interesting. Yes, it tells the story of the alphabet, but it also explains how JAARS/SIL creates alphabets for indigenous people with no written language. Once the linguists learn the language (understanding each sound and what it represents) they create an alphabet that speak in that language, the heart language of the people.
My friend, an educator, said she found the displays fascinating and educational. Before we left, we were given the opportunity to type our name into a computer. When we hit print, we received our names translated into Arabic, Assyrian, Hebrew and Punjabi. We left the museum with an appreciation of what we take for granted: This marvelous gift of language.
More next door
Next door to The Museum of the Alphabet is the Mexico-Cardenas Museum, dedicated to President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940). This unique display gives homage to Cardenas, his love for the indigenous people of Mexico and his efforts to improve their lives. Our guide was Al Huston. Like the alphabet museum, this museum is staffed by volunteers and free to visit. And just as with the alphabet museum, the displays are authentic. We learned the first major alphabet in a native heart language in Mexico started in Guatemala. There is a pristine 1938 Chevrolet, commanding much of the space. A fabulous bust of Cardenas from sculpture Alan E. Baughman, traditional Mexican costumes like a hand-made velvet festival dress of the Zapotec Indians and a scale model of a Tarascan Indian home, folk art and some interesting pieces of silver jewelry.
Want to go?
What: The Museum of the Alphabet and Mexico Museum
Where: 7405 JAARS Road, Waxhaw, N.C.
Hours: 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Admission: Free; donations accepted
Tip: Recommended for children older than age 10.
JAARS Days: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. March 9, June 8, Sept. 10, Oct. 12. Open house with videos, missionary presentations and a chance for an aircraft and 4x4 ride.
Susan Doyle is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.