Sunday, July 27, 2008

One more character for Tamil

Most Indian scripts, as we know, are derived from Brahmi. This is true of the Tamil script also, but in its case, it somehow seems as if one person sat down and customised the alphabet to suit the Dravidian language, before making it public:
  • There are no characters for aspirates.
  • A single character is used for both voiced and unvoiced sounds. E.g., the character க represents the guttural sounds 'ka' and 'ga' (and also 'ha'). The character ச is used for the sounds 'ca', 'ja' and 'za' (and sometimes 'Sa').
To represent certain sounds from other languages unequivocally, it borrowed a few characters from Grantha, the script used for Sanskrit in Tamilnadu. ஜ for ja, ஷ for Sa, ஸ for sa, ஹ for ha. These additions mostly sufficed, even for Arabic/Persian loan-words and Muslim names.

But not anymore. A large fraction of the current generation of Tamil-speakers bear names that are Hindi-like. Venkatesh (veGkaTez) where the traditional version would have been Venkatesan. Shankar as opposed to the traditional Sankaran. Satish or Akash, which were never prevalent in the previous generations. And there is no Tamil character which can unambiguously represent the za sound.

As of now, we make do using ஷ (Sa) which is not the same sound at all. I feel time is ripe for Tamil to make space for one more character from Grantha () to represent za. (In fact, this character is already present in Tamil in the symbol for zrI.)

However, given the anti-Sanskrit leanings of Tamil scholars, I am not sure if this will happen.

5 comments :

Manjunat said...

However, given the anti-Sanskrit leanings of Tamil scholars, I am not sure if this will happen.

No use living with that stalemate. You are welcome to become a Kannadiga. You can undertake "Hiranyagarbha" ritual and change your mother-tongue status. And we have symbols for all the sounds.

Srikanth said...

You are welcome to become a Kannadiga.

Wow, are you a secret agent organising defections for the Cauvery dispute?

Gokul Thirumalai said...

I don't dabble in linguistics much, but you helped me realize for the first time that the script develops independent of the language. Our language, thanks to the fusion of cultures, has evolved over the years but our script has somehow managed to dig its heel in.

I'd heard many years ago that the Tamil script refused to recognize Grantha-derived letters until popular culture (read: Kumudam et al.) decided to adopt them. I'm not sure how much truth there is to it though.

Srikanth said...

Thanks Gokul, and how are you?

The letter I talked about has been used in Tamil for quite a while, mainly in musical and religious literature. It should probably move mainstream, and replace ஷ where used incorrectly.

kennady said...

Tamil language may be a Dravidian language additionally as their subsequent development and also the amount of their differentiation are unclear...