Sunday, December 15, 2013


On July 17, 13 The Hindu published a news report saying that a professor of a certain branch of engineering who works in IIT Madras had devised a script, called “Bharati”, which all languages in the country can use and in fact, should use, and if that happened, it would remove barriers to effective communication in India, which are due to its multilingualism – 22 official languages, 58 different languages taught at school, 87 languages in which newspapers are published, as the report notes. These, we might note, are “privileged” languages. There are many more languages in the country, quite a few of which are endangered, and many of which have no script. For most effective communication, one language in the country would be the best solution, in the view of the author of Bharati, but he realizes that it is an impossible proposition, so the next best thing is one common script for all the Indian languages.
In this context we may note that it is possible today, in the case of many, I do not know if all, major languages, to read material written in one such language in the script of another; one can read a text written in Telugu, for instance, in Devnagari script, for a Hindi speaker to be able to read the text. The transliteration technology is already available. One could also read the material written in any of our major languages in Roman script. There are extremely useful language technologies. But these can hardly contribute to solving significantly the problem of language barrier in communication in our richly multilingual country. Does a Kashmiri speaker understand material in Odia or Marathi if the same are written in the script of his language or in some common script? Does an Odia understand the tenth century Odia when it is made available to him in the script used today? Does a Tamil speaker today understand the Tamil of the classical phase, if he sees it written in today’s Tamil script? The answer is of course a clear no!

In the case of the so-called cognate languages – languages, mutually intelligible to a considerable extent - it is different. If an Odia speaker cannot read a Bengali text, although he has no problem comprehending it when it is read out to him, it is because the script is a barrier. All he needs is to learn the script, if the text is unavailable to him in either the “Odia” script or a common script such as the Roman script or say, Bharati. But the technology is available as already mentioned to make the Bengali text available to him in the Odia script. Now for obvious reasons he would like to read the text in Odia script, as of now – why should he choose the rather difficult option of learning a different script?

In what situation can the common script help? A Hindi speaker would feel miserable if he comes to a city of a non-Hindi speaking state, where the signboards, street names, bus destinations and the like are written in the local language script. A Tamil or Kannada speaker will have the same experience in a Hindi-speaking state if the same situation prevails there (it mostly does, if it is not a state capital). If in addition, the same are written in a common script, it would certainly help, but how many people would this really help? Would this be cost effective? Let us concede for the sake of argument that it would be. Then the question is which common script should be chosen? Let us imagine there are two candidates for this at the moment: Roman script and Bharati. We cannot fail to note that there is a growing demand in our country for English. So people are going to learn the Roman script anyway. Then why not choose this script for the purpose mentioned above? Why learn another and increase the learning load? True, the Roman script has to include diacritic and other markers to represent the sounds of our languages, and that would make it cumbersome. But for the limited functional purpose – as mentioned above - that the Roman script has to serve, there is no need for all this. For the intended purpose, if the Odia place name alasuni is spelt this way rather than the phonetically correct way (“l” is a retroflex and the second vowel is long, etc.), there is just no problem.

Suppose a common script is imposed today on the languages in our country and their speakers. In one generation or two the language users would find that they have no access to the literary and the knowledge texts produced in their respective languages; in other words, they would lose their cultural roots in a big way. Unless of course all the texts are produced in their transliterated form. Is this a cost effective proposition? This apart, would a Sikh accept that Guru Granth Saheb be written in a common script, say, Roman script or Bharati? I am skeptical that he would. The relationship between a language and a script is often emotional, a point that the linguist Shreesh Chaudhury of IIT Madras,  has made in his own interesting style, as he gave his observations on Bharati to The Hindu

What we need in order to improve communication at the level of day-to-day life in our country is not a common script, but a link language, that is accepted and used all over the country, and also translation of material from one Indian language to another.

A new script like Bharati is highly welcome for a different reason. There are a number of languages in our country without a script. These are the languages that tend to be, in fact are, most endangered. When people speak a language that has no script, they are at a huge disadvantage in many ways. Their children have a serious problem in the school class room from the very beginning and are very often the drop-outs from school and they fail to take advantage of economic opportunities that their counterparts who speak a language with a script enjoy. Script can contribute to facilitating the cultural memory and sensitizing a speech community to its history. One can hardly contest that languages that have no script need a script urgently. Because there is no problem of emotional attachment to a particular script, there might not be any problem for speakers of many such languages under reference here, to accept Bharati or any other script, such as the Roman script, for their respective languages. If one hesitates to regard a new script as a significant intellectual achievement, one must not fail to celebrate it as a powerful means of empowerment of the linguistically disadvantaged.    

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