Rong Ring: How a communication designer is trying to create new font for endangered Sikkimese language Lepcha

By: | Updated: June 24, 2018 8:41 AM

Lepcha, or Róng script, is a Sino-Tibetian language spoken by the Lepcha people in Sikkim, parts of West Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan.

A native of Sikkim, educated in Delhi and based in Bengaluru, who has spent many years away from her home, might just have found a way to go back to her roots. An alumna of Pearl Academy, 22-year-old Avni Lakhotia has created a new font for an endangered Sikkimese language called Lepcha in an attempt to revive it.

Lepcha, or Róng script, is a Sino-Tibetian language spoken by the Lepcha people in Sikkim, parts of West Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan. Once spoken across a sizeable region, the usage of the language dwindled over time, leaving no more than 30,000 speakers, as per the 2011 Census. It’s no wonder then that the Unesco declared it an endangered script this year along with 197 other languages.

Lakhotia, who has a great interest in languages and scripts, says she wanted to revive Lepcha as it always appealed to her. For this, the Sikkimese communication designer focused her final-year college research project earlier this year on the endangered script and ultimately designed the ‘Rong Ring’ font to enable Lepcha’s contemporary use.

The local Sikkimese script, which has 75 characters and is written vertically like Chinese, is a syllabic script, featuring a variety of special marks and ligatures. “I didn’t know the language myself when I began,” says Lakhotia, adding, “Once I learnt the letters (from teachers in Sikkim), I started creating iterations of the alphabets. I then sent my iterations to the Lepcha community, as well as interacted with people who had created fonts before.”

The designer then made use of software such as Illustrator and Glyphs to give the font a more finished and professional look. Besides conducting in-depth interviews with linguists and the elders of the Lepcha community, Lakhotia also spoke to the local youth in Sikkim and Kalimpong, knowing that her font would only work if the youth adopted it. She conducted separate interviews with them to understand how they fell out of using the script and discovered that while it was taught to them in school, it was not used in regular parlance, much less in advertisements, literature, etc.

The designer (who joined Accenture in Bengaluru in May as a user interface and user experience designer) now hopes to embark upon the second half of her project—working closely with the Lepcha community to get the best output from the font, whose final round of testing still remains. “That will only happen when I go back to Sikkim and get the final feedback from the locals who can then decide how to incorporate it in their daily lives,” she says, adding that Rong Ring has been designed to be used on packaging, magazines, signage, among other printables.

Such innovative ideas regarding language and script development will come in handy if we are to preserve or revive endangered Indian languages, say experts. As per Karnataka-based linguist Ganesh Narayan Devy, our country seems to have lost over 250 languages in the past 50 years.

In 2015, Devy spearheaded the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), which discovered that around 780 languages and 86 scripts were still in use in the country. The PLSI, however, found that even though English poses no real threat to major Indian languages, as they were backed by media, literature and a community of millions, several other local languages were on the verge of disappearance. “The younger generation today is not drawn to these languages because they find them difficult and see no economic value in them,” says Devy.

The linguist feels that Indians often ignore the value of scripts over languages. “Most people think that to save a language, one must write it in other commonly-known scripts even if the language has its own,” he says, adding, “We risk losing the identity, importance, history and literature of a language without its script, which eventually leads to its extinction.”

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