There is an amazing site on the Web which, funnily enough, is run by a guy in Brighton. The site is called Omniglot, and it’s a guide to writing systems from around the world.
Ever since getting into calligraphy when I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by how words are written. As a teenager, I made up my own Runic alphabet and used it to write cryptic messages all over my school notebooks. Years later, I went through a phase of making fancy birthday cards for people by writing their names in an "illuminated" version of the Irish uncial alphabet. And my undying interest in Jewish mysticism stems in no small part from my fascination with the idea that letters and words themselves (in Hebrew in this case) are powerful enough to be the building blocks of all creation.
So, needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time at Omniglot.
I had a couple of different thoughts when I first trawled through the site. One was that looking at a completely unfamiliar alphabet like Bassa made me feel like I had some form of alexia. To see letters that are somehow recognizable as letters but are at the same time completely incomprehensible is both intriguing and disturbing.
I also realized that many of these "weird" alphabets are really no more weird than my own Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet seems so pedestrian compared to something as strange and beautiful as Burmese or Mongolian. But when you really think about a capital "R", for instance, or a small "g", they’re quite odd, unintuitive shapes to make on a piece of paper. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the poor old Latin alphabet.
And finally, looking at the Georgian alphabet reminded me of my own personal encounter with the Georgian language. When I was 15, I had the good fortune to go on a class trip to the Soviet Union. After spending time in Moscow, we took a rickety nighttime Aeroflot flight to Tbilisi, where we stayed for a few days.
Now, in Moscow, I had been surrounded by the Cyrillic alphabet, obviously. I couldn’t really read the Cyrillic alphabet at first, but it was very familiar-looking (thanks to movies and TV, I guess), and it was only a short while before I was able to start working out words.
But Georgian…well, Georgian was like nothing I had ever seen before. Ever. Anywhere. And as I walked through the streets of Tbilisi that first night, cold and tired and surrounded by this utterly alien, deeply cryptic writing, I felt more foreign and further away from home than I had ever felt before - and than I have ever felt since. Those strange, incomprehensible letters were frightening, and I think if I could have gone home in that moment, I would have.
As it is, I’m very glad I didn’t. Tbilisi was beautiful city, and the Georgians were some of the warmest, most generous people you could ever hope to meet. Their alphabet, like nearly all of the writing systems on Omniglot, is as impenetrable to me as ever - but maybe that’s why I find it all so fascinating in the first place.