Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1: 5 September 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


J.C.Sharma, Ph.D.


History shows that man felt the need to communicate with his fellowmen through means other than speech. Various forms of picture writing were used for a long time in different parts of the world to record the happenings, before scripts were devised. The communities of cave dwellers wished to make records of their lives and they left the complex drawings and paintings on the walls of their caves. Over the time, the need to keep records and to send messages increased and the idea of indicating objects by means of pictures was further developed.

Various forms of picture writing were used for a long time in different parts of the world. For instance, the ancient Egyptians invented a kind of picture writing called "hieroglyphs," which means "sacred carving." Besides, the Chinese still have a kind of picture writing that is known as ideographic. The symbols used in this system are called characters, and these characters are used for every kind of objects and every kind of ideas. Some consider that, because the characters are based on ideas, it is very difficult to learn the Chinese writing system. It is claimed that one has to master almost as many characters as there are ideas! This is not really true. It is true, however, that learning the Chinese characters takes time. The number of characters runs into thousands. The advantage of a system like this in which the characters do not represent the sounds but ideas is that a Chinese from one region may not be able to follow the speech from another region, but will be able to read it exactly as the numeral 5 is read as five by an English from any part of the world, paanch by a Hindi speaker wherever he is, and aidu by a Kannada speaker whether he is in India or in America.


At present, most countries and people groups do not use picture writing except for travel guidelines, as road signs, and signs in the airports, etc. The letters of a script are learned in a fixed order and each letter usually represents a sound of the language. Alphabetic writing systems seem to be found in many languages.

"Alphabetic writing systems are those in which graphemes typically have reference to single phonemes" (Gleason 1961:418).

That is, an alphabetic system has a one-to-one correspondence between the phonemes and graphemes. Each grapheme represents, ideally speaking, only one phoneme. This is the ideal adopted in the phonemic/phonetic transcription followed by the linguists. This helps maintain one-to-one relationship between the writing system and the spoken form of the language.

The invention and adoption of the alphabetic system of writing is a remarkable development in human history, as with a limited number of letters of the alphabet in a language, we can write unlimited words. With the invention of the printing press, alphabets were stabilized and reading and writing became common today. It is now hard to imagine life without the alphabet, and communication without writing.


There appears to be a good deal of confusion in the public mind about the relation between language and script. This is because the matters concerning languages are mostly charged with emotion and the emotional fervor is transferred to the discussion of alphabet and script. A little reflection would, however, show that language and a script are completely different things. "Script is only the outer clothing of language," says Pattanayak (1980:59). (To be very frank, this is a little exaggerated statement, for, the spelling that is dependent upon the script used is known to regulate and represent certain underlying phonological rules of the language.) Language is intrinsic to the human beings but not so the alphabet. Script is independent of any specific language; different languages may use the same script. For example, Sanskrit, Marathi, and Hindi use the Devanagari script. The same language may use different script at different points in time or space. For example, Sindhi is written in Devanagari as well as Perso-Arabic scripts. Many languages in the world share the same script. For example, English, German, French, Ao Naga, Thadou, and Mizo languages are written using the Roman script.

An alphabet is a set of basic distinct visual symbols. An alphabet is specific to a language. The alphabet drawn from the alphabetic script has relatively a smaller inventory than the one drawn from the syllabic script, which, in turn, is smaller than that drawn from the logographic script. The Sanskrit alphabet developed in the course of many centuries and was perfected almost two thousand years ago. Not so the script. At one time, this alphabet was written in the Brahmi script. Soon after, there appeared on the scene the Kharoshti script. For almost a thousand years, both Brahmi and Kharoshti existed side by side. There also have been other scripts that have been used for the visual representation of the Sanskrit alphabet. We have thus many scripts for the Sanskrit language but all of them used the same alphabet.

Many Indian languages have inherited or adopted the same Sanskrit alphabet as their own, but with varying visual representations. The same alphabet is visually represented in one way in Devanagari, in another way in Bengali, and in still other ways in Gujarati, Assamese, or Oriya. There is no difference among Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, and Oriya as far as the underlying alphabet is concerned, but the scripts in which these languages are written differ from one another. This proves that any alphabet can be written in any script and, therefore it follows that any language can be written in any script, provided the alphabets have the necessary sounds. If a language does not have the sounds already visually represented in the script, then the relevant letter in the script may be dropped, or some suitable modification made to account for the differences. Sounds may be added or deleted or modified and the visual symbols invented or adopted to represent these sounds.

Is there any fixed direction for writing? No. For example, while most languages are written from left to right, Arabic and Urdu are written from right to left, and Chinese is written vertically.

The arrangement of the alphabet for presenting the words in a dictionary may be arbitrary or based on some linguistic principles like based on the point or manner of articulation. Though some scripts like the Roman and Devanagari scripts have a fixed arrangement of the alphabet, it is not necessary for a language that uses that script to follow that arrangement and order of elements. The arrangement or the order of the words in a dictionary or even in a script may be determined by regional or national considerations. Vietnamese is a good example of this situation. However, often the languages that have been given a script, try to follow the order of elements of the language from which such scripts have been adopted. This is rather unnaturally imposed over such recipient languages.


The language planner faces the issue of creating a writing system when he has to devise an alphabet or script for an unwritten language. He has two choices regarding the orthography, namely, to invent a new system or adapt an existing system. In each choice, there are several alternatives before him, based on the criteria of efficiency, economy, acceptance, and relation to other systems.


In terms of the efficiency of the writing system, many issues arise:

  1. What type of script is easier and speedier to write?
  2. What type of writing system is easier to read?
  3. Whether the writing system should have one form of representation for printing and another form of representation for handwriting, etc.?
  4. Whether the writing system should have one letter for one distinct sound, that is, one phoneme for one letter, or more letters for a phoneme? Should we have one letter for two or more phonemes? Should we have a phoneme represented by more than a letter (combination of letters)? Should we have a phoneme represented several distinct letters depending upon the occurrence of the sound/letter?

When it comes to the speed in writing, we need to decide whether one can write more speedily with the horizontal way of writing or with the vertical way of writing or with the combination of both. We need to consider whether the writing from left to right be more convenient than writing from right to left. We need to consider which of way of writing is economical in terms of time saved in writing and learning to read. Any script that has lesser number of strokes will save time in writing. It is difficult to say without any research whether it is easy to write from left to right or right to left, and with what script one can read and write speedily. However, within the Indian context, most languages are written from left to right, and the international language taught all over India, English, is also written left to right. So a practical decision could be to write from left to right to be in conformity with the other languages that a student may learn in the school. The question of super- and sub-scripts needs to be addressed as well. Most Indian script systems adopt the super- and sub-script letters for the combination of several consonants. Often, the students in the elementary schools face difficulty in mastering this arrangement. It is also more cumbersome to print and read these letters in print.

One also has to see how a particular script is suited to the need of modern techniques of typewriting, word-processing, and printing presses. If a script has a number of diacritic marks, then, it lessens the legibility of the material by blurring the alignment, etc., and it creates confusion while reading. At the same time it takes more time for typing and composing in such scripts. While writing, there is every chance of forgetting some diacritic marks, and this leads to ambiguity. So, for more efficiency, it is better to write horizontally in a straight line than writing one symbol over the other. In some scripts, there is a convention to use some diacritic above or below to mark the vowels. People generally miss writing these diacritics when they write, and it creates confusion when reading the written text. While by convention and tradition people may be able to retrieve the originally intended text, school children and the adults with nominal educational will face problem in this area. Also if we are intending to give a new script to a hitherto unwritten language, it may be better to adopt a system that is straightforward and simpler, instead of hoping to foster a tradition and convention of some complexity over the years.

From a technological point of view, if one letter is written in the same way throughout it is more efficient and economical. This will avoid providing for allographs in the typewriters. If there are different ways of writing and printing, as found in the Roman script or Kannada script, some additional problems might be created while learning to read and write. In the Roman script, as adopted in English, there are two types of capital letters, and two types of small letters. In the Perso-Arabic script, letters change their shape when they occur in combination with other letters. This poses some problem for typewriting and printing. Calligraphers have found it time-consuming and more expensive to accommodate such conventions. Hence there have been several reformatory steps taken for printing purposes.


If script creates confusion and cannot represent the sounds distinct, and at the same time it takes more time for reading and writing, and is difficult to adopt for printing purposes, then the script should be modified to fulfill the needs of the community, or it should be replaced by another better script. But total replacement has never been the goal of any script reformation movement. Communities all over the world do not support even the minor moves towards script reformation. Just as language functions as the identity marker for a people group, the script system also functions as the identity marker for the language. Sometimes the script functions as the identity marker for the people group. Attempts at changing the script for reasons of efficiency are seen to be steps endangering the identity of the people group. This has effects across nations even.


The simple law of economics, more the production less the cost, does not easily apply in the case of scripts. If one script is used for all the languages, it may become economical, and pedagogically useful. However, the application of economic principles does not find acceptance even within a single nation where there are many languages in use for centuries. And these languages have their own rich literature, history, and arts. They also have a strong tradition of insisting on using their own scripts, just we find it stated in Tolkappiyam, an ancient Tamil grammar, written perhaps two thousands years ago.


The arguments for a single script for many languages within a political unit such as a nation run like this: The view that each language should have a separate script in order to keep its identity distinct may not be correct. As we can see, the Roman script is used for so many European languages such as Dutch, Spanish, German, French, Italian, English, etc. Script is simply the outer garment of the language, a garment that could be changed and yet the integrity of the language maintained. Sanskrit, Marathi, and Hindi are written in Devanagari without losing their identities. One and the same script for the languages in one socio-political region is economical and pedagogically viable as the people do not have to re-learn the scripts and the same printing press in a particular linguistic region could be used for the production of materials in other linguistic regions. Two or more scripts for one language within the same political region creates unnecessary boundaries, and the written text in the same language, when presented in two different scripts, creates mutual unintelligibility among the people speaking the same language. Two scripts across nations are also uneconomical and inconvenient in the sense that a person interested in reading the literature written in his language from across the international border will not have an easy access to it, because the literature is written in a script that he cannot read or write. For example, Panjabi in India is written in the Gurumukhi script and it is written in the Perso-Arabic script in Pakistan. Sindhi is written in the Devanagari and Perso-Arabic scripts in India, whereas it is written only in the Perso-Arabic script in Pakistan. We have instances that show that one and the same language written in one and the same script is economical and convenient: Hindi is written in Devanagari in India, Fiji, and Mauritius. Tamil is written in Tamil script in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. Urdu is written in the same script in India and Pakistan. English is written in Roman script in the U.S.A., Great Britain, Australia, etc.


As pointed out above, one and the same single script for all the languages of a political unit such as nation is economical and pedagogically useful, but this may not be feasible. Of course, learning a script does not mean learning the language as such. However, it can certainly help learn another language in some ways. In certain domains, it is useful to have a uniform script throughout the country. For example, the signboards, milestones, and the name of the places that one comes across, etc. A suitable international system needs to be evolved for this purpose. The librarians and researchers may not know all the scripts and it is useful for them if the titles and authors are transliterated in one common script. There are other areas also wherein the use of a common script across languages will be a lot of help.


There are many unwritten languages spread over various regions in the country. No state is without the unwritten languages, and no state is without the minority people groups whose languages are yet to be systematically studied and writing systems provided. Much progress has been achieved since independence, but there is a lot to be done in this area, if the stated goal of our Republic that every body should be literate is to be achieved. Devising script systems for the unwritten languages will help speed up the literacy drive among these peoples. The script systems will help in producing literacy and educational materials for the benefit of these people groups. Also having their own writing systems will help preserve these languages and enable the speakers of these languages to seek their rightful place in the Republic of India, and serve the country to their best abilities. It will be a tragedy if a human language is to be lost mainly because it does not have a writing system. There are signs that such a tragedy has already taken place in some cases within India.

In devising a suitable script system for an unwritten language, we should keep in view the socio-cultural setting of the language. The new script system should not make the language alien in its own setting. Linguistics prefers the script system that is based on the phonemics of the language. That is, one symbol per phoneme. But this may not be borne out by the perception of the speakers of that language. Pike's original position that orthography should be phonemic, and that there should be one to one correspondence between each phoneme and the symbolization of that phoneme (Pike 1947:208), is in many ways, impractical, although well thought out. The existing languages often follow their own course of development. And such developments may annoy a linguist who seeks always a neat pattern. People, however, find such irregularities as no irregularity at all. There is no guarantee that a well-designed script system will always retain the original neatness of pattern and rules, etc.

When one has to devise the script for an unwritten language, one may view the existing systems available. There are two options before him. The first one is to adopt a script from the existing ones, and the second option is to devise an altogether different script unique to this language. Both the trends have been noticed in devising script systems for the unwritten languages of India. Economic constraints often force dropping the second option. If a script is to be chosen from out of the existing ones, the question arises as to which script should be adopted. Should we adopt the script of the dominant language of the region wherein lies the socio-economic activities of the speakers of the unwritten language, or should we choose the script of the dominant national or international language? The choice has to be seen from the point of view of the speakers of that unwritten language and their attitude towards their particular script.

From the point of pedagogy and economy, the script of the dominant language of the region is preferable, as it will help the people to learn the regional language with some ease. It will be economical because the language materials can be printed in the existing printing presses. It may save time in learning the regional language as well. But in some cases the speakers of an unwritten language may want to keep their own distinct identity and distinguish themselves from the dominant group by choosing an entirely different script. Psychological, social, cultural and political factors influence such decisions. When a script distinct from the script of the dominant regional language is to be adopted, one can think of the script of the next useful language, especially the language that the children from the people group will be required to learn in the school system. This may or may not be the dominant regional language. For example, the Bodo speakers of Assam prefer the Devanagari script for Bodo instead of the Assamese script that has immediate use pedagogically. But they seem to view that the Devanagari script will facilitate learning the Hindi language better at a later stage in the school system. The perception of the people group about the relevance and use of the script comes to guide it in choosing the script system for their language. Sometimes the speakers of a language trying to adopt a new script may not agree to reduce the number of letters from the borrowed script system although such letters may have no relevance for the writing of their language. They wish to retain the whole writing system as it is for practical convenience.


  1. Gleason, H.S. Jr., 1961. An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics. New Delhi: Oxford and IBH Publishing Company.
  2. Pattanayak, D.P. 1980. Literacy Education. K. Rajyashree, et al. Eds. Mysore: Central Institute of Indian Languages.
  3. Pike, K.L. 1947. Phonemics.

*** *** ***

HOME PAGE | Applying Linguistics to the Study of Indian Languages-2 | Gender Bias in an Indian Language | Verbal Communication with CP Children | Bible Translation in Ao Naga | Linkages for Minorities' Education | CURRENT ISSUE of the journal | CONTACT EDITOR

J.C.Sharma, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006
E-mail: Please mark Attention: Dr. J.C.Sharma in the subject line.