A Living Portrait of India
It will seem contradictory for India to have the greatest written literature of ancient times and a new script created (and allowed to fade into obscurity) every three months while simulataneously laying claim to the tremendous oral transmission of texts no less than the Vedas. This juxtaposition of the written and the oral permeates every Indian language, old and not-so-old. Historically speaking, the culture of the written language began during the period of the Indus Valley civilization of the third millenium B.C.
This was the age of seals covered with images and a script that has defied deciphering. Approximately two thousand five hundred seals have been recovered from excavations since the 1920s. While their literary or linguistic value remains a mystery, they have shed light on other facts. For instance, the Santals- a backward people at present- are believed to be the 'true descendants' of these early 'writers', a theory put forward by many. Similarly, the Dravidian script is seen as belonging to the same family. However, neither of these arguments has been irrefutably established. Confusion reigns as even the number of letters/signs cannot be agreed upon- the count varies from a hundred and fifty to four hundred. Nonetheless, there is certainty that the script or the language of the Indus Valley settlers did not fan out, geographically speaking.
There is a second period in the history of Indian writing, and this begins in the third century B.C. The earliest recognizeably written documents are the Ashoka inscriptions. Much can be gleaned from these. The two scripts- the Kharosthi and the Brahmi- have been deciphered, and both point to a single source. They are both left-running scripts similar to one another in terms of vowel indication, and in all probability derived from a Semitic script. Some scholars favour the idea of a North Semitic source such as the Phoenician because of the fact of alphabet writing; others consider the South Semitic script like the Ethiopian the parent script since the principles of vowel indication are identical.
An important difference between the Semitic scripts and the Kharosthi is that the former are consonant scripts, whereas the latter is not. The Kharosthi cannot be considered a consonant a consonant script because each alphabet has a consonant plus an inherent vowel, for example, the alphabet C would be read as C + a, unless otherwise specified. At the same time, this script cannot be called syllabic as the consonants are modified with additional marks to indicate other vowels. For instance, a vertical stroke would alter the letter to the 'e' vowel.
The Brahmi script outlived the Kharosthi, and is the source for all Indian scripts. The left-running nature changed during the emperor Ashoka's reign (about 251 B.B.) and the edicts are right- running. The syllable is the basic unit of the script but since the vowels are clearly demarcated from the consonants, the Brahmi cannot be considered a syllabic script in the true sense of the word. Nor does it observe the theoreticians' principle that writing has necessarily to progress from logography to syllabography to alphabetography. The syllabic phonemic (phoneme is one of a category of speech sounds of a language that make one word distinct from another). Brahmi, sourced from a foreign writing regime, necessarily underwent changes to be rendered suitable for Indian usage. The recasting of the script regressed as it were from syllabic to syllabic- phonemic in a highly systematized and scientific manner.
Articulation needs determined the placement of letters- first the vowels and diphthongs, second, the consonants with an integral 'a' sound, gutturals, palatals, cerebrals, dentals, labials, semi-vowels and spirants. The syllable remained important then as it does now.
Brahmi evolved along two lines: the northern group and the southern group.
The Northern Group- Derivative scripts can be traced over a vast area stretching from north-west India to the northern countries of Nepal and Tibetan, and across and eastwards to Bengal, Bangladesh and South -east-Asia. Most of these new scripts were of regional significance only. Exceptions: first, the Gupta script of the fourth century A.D., and the Pali and Nagari scripts that are believed to be based on the first.
The Nagari script was renamed the Devanagari script in the eleventh century. It went on to become the writing of the Sanskrit, Hindi, Marwari, Kumaoni and Nepali languages. Devanagari is of forty-eight letters, thirty-five consonants and thirteen vowels, and these express every sound of Sanskrit (from the words sam-skrta, meaning 'elaborated'). Horizontal lines link together the consonants, and ligatures are used frequently but judiciously only on those letters that will retain their inherent vowel. These are marked with the definite stroke that would have been present on that letter anyway; the letter that is losing some of its sound value will either not have this stroke or will be incomplete. For instance: ???/ kkha/, (otherwise ?? and ??). The horizontal line is broken between words that end on a diphthong, a vowel, a week spirant (visarga) or a nasal spirant (anuswara), and words beginning with a consonant. Rules are important and those governing pronunciation primarily so. These rules are known as Sandhi.
Sanskrit accords an important place to Sandhi, and clearly considers the sentence of greater significance than the individual word. The writing, too, pays closer attention to breath control and pause, and individual words were rendered discrete while writing only in instances where they occurred at a breath rest. One perpendicular stroke signals the end of a sentence and two such markings signal the end of the text matter.
Gurmukhi, the script for writing Punjabi, is modelled on the Devanagari script. It emerged in the sixteenth century.
The Bengali script is older than the Gurmukhi, and has been in use as the written language for Bengali, Assamese (there are four more letters for this script), Manipuri, Santhali, and a few Tibeto-Burmese languages.
Oriya as a language has its very own script, a derivative of the Bengali script, that is distinguished by its use of an arch instead of the horizontal bar of the Devanagari and Behgali scripts. This feature may well be a consequence of writing on palm leaves using an iron stylus.
The Gujarati and Kaithi scripts of the Gujarati and Bihari languages respectively, are closely connected to the Bengali script. However, the Devangari script is currently in place as the script for the Bihari language.
Evolving from the Gupta script is the Tibetan one, with many features of the Indian script but dissimilarities too. The inherent vowel with the consonant is a common fact as is the practice of connecting other vowels through diacritics (signs placed above or below a letter) to the consonants. There is only one independent vowel of 'a' which in turn provides a base for other vowel diacritics. The Tibetan language is a complex one for while the spoken language has changed through time, the script has changed only negligibly. Also, there are no clear indications for tone despite the language itself being a tone one.
Pali scripts are closely connected with Buddhism and evolved in response to the needs of the religion. The Prakrit languages and the Pali script thus spread with Buddhism to south and south-east Asia, forming the base for the development of other scripts. In India, there are no derivatives of the Pali script.
The Thai and the Indonesian languages, their scripts - Thai and Kavi -are further examples of the reach of the Indian script. While the Thai script. While the Thai script meets the needs of the vowel-rich language, the Kavi has retained the vowel indications of its source.
The Southern Group
These are the scripts for the Dravidian languages - Tamil, Telugu,
Malayalam, and Kanarese. Of the five scripts current in the fifth
century A.D., three - Western Indian, Central Indian and Younger Kalinga
- did not remain in use for long. The other two - Kadamba and Grantha
- were the models for other scripts that are
The Kadamba script metamorphosed into the old kanarese script which in turn led to many more scripts, most notably the Kannada and the Telugu. These two are regarded as the most important in terms of development and reach.
The Grantha script gave rise to the Malayalam script in the twelfth century. This script was used for the Malayalam language and as the southern script for Sanskrit. While the latter practice was discontinued the former remains, and in western India it is the script for Telugu as well.
Another derivative of the Gantha script is the Tamil alphabet. This developed in the eighth century. The Tamil script has much in common with Nagari. This is not a very notable fact, initially, for the other southern scripts too share structural similarities with those of the northern group. As far as the differences are concerned, these are superficial and gain significance because these are the more obvious features of a script. Tamil on the other hand is connected at the level of alphabets, and this tie is far stronger than the numerous surface distinctions. This script has twenty letters, and no letters for aspirated consonants or for spirants. There are no ligatures for consonants. Within a cluster, the consonant to be read without its inherent vowel is marked with a dot (hasanta) over it.
There is a separate system known as the Tamil Grantha that includes the letters require3d for the writing of the Sanskrit language. This is one of the diverse scripts used for Sanskrit literature. Devanagari is, of course, the foremost among all - Malayalam, Grantha, Telugu, Bhoti (in Tibet), Sharada (in Kashmir), Bengali, and the Maithili script employed by the Brahmins of the state of Bihar in religious manuscripts or scholarly treatises.
Diglossia in Indian languages
The word diglossia refers to the wide chasm between the spoken and written features of one language. Classical literature was transmitted orally, memorized, and once writing developed, it was this higher form of the language (the kind that was used for classical references) that was preferred for the text of the script. Panini's grammar did indeed mention the written word, but the emphasis remained on the (purity of) the spoken. There were undeniably clear-cut rules for words, pronunciation, sentence structure and they all focussed on the spoken. Speech needed to be 'eternal' (nitya), and to this end it need to be of the correct form, and this was possible only with the rules and stipulations laid down by grammarians. Sanskrit was quickly and easily established as the language of scholars, fully subject to grammar rules, whereas the Prakrits remained the spoken and therefore easily altered, i.e. corrupted, languages. Thus was the advent of diglossia into the linguistifcs of India.
Telugu, for example, is believed to have been so divided, deliberately, by those who believed that the Sanskrit-Prakrit relationship be realized within Telugu. Thus, grammar was created for the poetic form (Kavitraya) and the colloquial form was left much to the devices and convenience-of-usage of the people. The classical form of Telugu is confined to writing.
Tamil, on the other hand, has not suffered this extreme because the classical, grammatically-strict form is used while making formal speeches. The lines between the colloquial and classic are not as harshly evident as in Telugu and Bengali, and the lower variety i.e. the spoken, everyday form, is not deemed inferior.
Naturally, the classical variety of a language done a dignity that is denied the lower form, and thus the written style and form remains elevated and not subjected to change or made susceptible to it. The purity remains. This association of writing with the classical, difficult form of the language has made it well-near impossible for these given to the colloquial form to accept the idea of literacy/ Reading and writing have become so intertwined with the higher forms and their associations that it is only recently that much headway has been made towards a literate India.
Linguistics is more than a symbol of a culture - it has the power to transcend superficialities and impart permanence to progress.
Source: Writing Systems of the World. - Florian Coulmas -