A total of 197 of around 2,500 languages on UNESCO’s list of endangered languages are from India. One of them is Lepcha, spoken by people in Sikkim and parts of West Bengal, Nepal and Bhutan. Unlike most other languages of the Himayalan region, the Lepcha people have their own indigenous script. Once widely used, the Sino-Tibetan language has only around 30,000 speakers now. For Avani Lakhotia, this was a revelation that was close to her. When she had to take up a final-year research project as part of her post-graduation course in communication design at Pearl Academy in New Delhi, Avani, a native of Sikkim, chose to work on reviving the language that faces extinction. The result of her work is Rong Ring, a new font in the Lepcha language.
“Not many people speak Lepcha at home. A majority of the people in Sikkim actually speak Nepali,” says Avani. “Even the monetary value of the language has declined, and youngsters have no interaction with the language,” she adds. A multitude of factors could have contributed to the decline of Lepcha’s use, such as religion and immigration from other regions. Though efforts are being taken to reinvigorate the language, including the establishment of Lepcha night schools in Kalimpong, it is not used in common parlance. The font, when perfected, could boost efforts to bring it back to contemporary use.
An important part of the background research went into interacting with the locals in Kalimpong, West Bengal, and Dzongu in north Sikkim, an official reserve for the Lepcha people. “As a first step, I had to learn the language and understand the different ways in which the script could be written. I also went through the work that has already been done to preserve it, including two other fonts that have been created,” says Avani. Since natives are used to seeing the script in the traditional calligraphy style, she had to be careful while giving the font a contemporary touch. The result was a blend of tradition and modernity.
A majority of the work on the font has been completed, including the design of sample signage and merchandise to showcase how the font can be used in printables. “A final round of testing and interaction with the local people is still required. I will do that when I go back to Sikkim later this year and get a final round of feedback,” says Avani, aware that the font will work only if the native speakers and youngsters are comfortable using it.
For Avani, who is currently employed as a user experience designer, the Rong Ring font — named after the language’s native name Rong — is an effort to breathe life into a declining language and contribute back to her roots.