Home » News

Treating Tamil Script from Tamil point of view

[TamilNet, Monday, 8 November 2010 09:38 No Comment]

Encoding an ‘Extended Tamil Script’ and encoding the Grantha script added with some Tamil characters in the Unicode Standard have become matters of controversy currently raging in Tamil Nadu. The very concept of having an ‘Extended Tamil Script’ only to present Sanskrit in Tamil is fundamentally flawed. Having the rare distinction as a classical as well as a globally living language, the Tamil need for an extended script to present other languages through its script is larger: Sister Dravidian languages such as the Brahui of Pakistan, related languages like ancient Sumer or Japanese and the languages the diaspora interacts from Latin America to Africa and Europe to Southeast Asia are some examples the ETS is expected to handle. India and Tamil Nadu alone shouldn’t decide a matter of universal Tamil interest, writes opinion columnist Akazhaan.


At the moment Tamils use Roman script with diacritical marks to present words of other languages. Having 26 characters if English could do it why not the Tamil script?

The current controversy seems to be largely stemming from wrong approaches, attitudes and resultant suspicions rather than from serious debate on the academic merits and needs of the issue.

The present Extended Tamil Script proposal is perhaps a misnomer to have the word ‘Tamil’ in it, as it is conceived only as a script to support Sanskrit. Whether extended script, supplementary script or script with diacritical marks what the Tamils need is a system for universal transliteration in their script, encoded in Unicode.

Presenting a proposal to the Unicode Consortium in July 2010, on ‘Extended Tamil’ characters, Shriramana Sharma wrote the following:

“It is well known that the Tamil script has an insufficient character repertoire to present the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit can be and is written and printed quite naturally in most other (major and some minor) Indian scripts, which have the required number of characters. However, it cannot be written in plain Tamil script without some contrived extensions acting in the capacity of diacritical marks, just as it cannot be written in the Latin script without the usage of diacritical marks (as prescribed by ISO 15919 or IAST). Another option is to import written forms from another script (to be specific, Grantha, Tamils’s closest Sanskrit-capable relative) to cover the remaining unsupported sounds.”

“We call this version of Tamil that has been extended to support Sanskrit as Extended Tamil,” Shriramana Sharma said.

The idea was to either borrow 26 characters from the Grantha script or to go for diacritical marks to the existing Tamil script in presenting Sanskrit.

Sriramana Sharma proposes both versions to get encoded separately as ‘Extended Tamil characters’ for the purpose of supporting Sanskrit writing in Tamil. This will be independent of Grantha and independent of the Tamil block, he proposes.

The hybrid version of Grantha and Tamil characters he proposed, citing some earlier examples of publication, found opposition from many.

The other version he proposes using only the Tamil script with diacritical marks (mostly superscript numbers) is also already in use in some publications of religious texts and books teaching other Indian languages through Tamil script. Sriramana Sharma proposes some fine-tuning to the system.

The system is practically useful and easy to adopt by Tamils. It could be used in Tamil academic publications in producing texts from other Indian languages. It could be used in comparative dictionaries, publication of the Tamil Ma’nipravaa’lam literature and in the publication of Tamil-Grantha inscriptions.

The system is stressful to read long passages because of the superscripts, but ideal for short presentations

Except for the character Æ, the system could also be used in producing Sinhala words or text into Tamil. At present even many of the Sinhala personal names or place names can’t be written properly in Tamil.

One advantage of this diacritical mark system is that in most of the occasions the user will be conscious that the word or text being produced is foreign to Tamil, and this consciousness is important in preventing the corruption of language.

But the problem with Sharma’s proposal about an Extended Tamil Script is its Sanskrit-centric approach. If he says such a script is useful for “Tamilians in their lakhs residing in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere who read Sanskrit (religious) texts”, then don’t we have the need of an Extended Tamil Script for the use of equally numerous Muslim Tamils to follow Arabic (religious) texts? An Arabic Tamil already exists historically. Tamil belongs to many religions, Indian and non-Indian.

Government of India and a section of Indian academics may think from a point of view of integration of Indian languages, keeping Sanskrit and its religious texts as the pivotal point. The thinking makes other languages subservient. Tamil has to break away from this thinking to conceive models to assert to its classical and globally living-language status.

Extended Tamil Script has to be conceived with a larger perspective by Tamils, from a Tamil point of view, to cater to Tamil needs locally, regionally and globally.

* * *

For some years now the government of India has been taking initiative in encoding the Grantha script that was evolved in the Tamil country and was historically used there and elsewhere to write Sanskrit.

“With the objective of preserving our ancient knowledge and to bring it to electronic media, TDIL (Technology Development for Indian Languages) programme, DIT (Department of Information Technology) is taking initiative to encode these historic and archive scripts in Unicode Standard, apart from the constitutionally recognized 22 languages. Grantha is one such script in which many religious books were written,” says the Website of TDIL.

The controversy now about encoding Grantha in Unicode arises from the decision to include 5 characters into it from the Tamil script. These characters were traditionally not used in Grantha.

It wouldn’t have evoked any controversy at all had there not been a suspicion about the intention that arose by the following point made in a proposal to have Grantha encoded in the Unicode.

“Grantha in Unicode will go a long way for the native user community and spread the knowledge and use among the Tamils. Other script communities of India do not need the Grantha script as their own scripts like Devanagari or Telugu can be used to write Sanskrit. But it is only Tamils who will use the Grantha script. Unicode Consortium will be pleased in a few years’ time, many Tamil script e-mails, e-lists, blogs, newspapers will have words written in Grantha script. So, Tamils will use Grantha script mixing it with Tamil even though Tamil will be more compared to Grantha words/sentences in a Web page.”

* * *

A Note on Tamil and Grantha scripts:

Both the Tamil and Grantha alphabets were evolved in the Tamil country. They were generically related. But they were always used for two different streams of languages, i.e., Tamil and Vada-mozhi (Sanskrit / Prakrit).

The origin of all the ancient South Asian scripts may be traced to Brahmi, but right from the inception the Tamil Brahmi was characteristically different from the Asokan Brahmi in some aspects of palaeography and in the omission and commission of phonemes. We do not really know how these scripts were called at that time. The term Brahmi is a recent academic ‘rediscovery’.

The Tamil language consciously limited its phonemes of alphabetic status to 31, as defined by Tholkaappiyam later. This doesn’t exclude the presence of other sounds but such other sounds are treated as allophones and not phonemes in Tamil.

The Tamil phonetic writing, beginning from Tamil Brahmi and continuing into the now forgotten Vaddezhuththu in the Pandyan country, later adopted a Tamil script that came through a parallel stream of Tamil-Grantha, developed in the times of the Pallavas and continued by the Cholas. The present day Tamil script comes from the latter stream.

The genre and palaeography of the scripts changed but the concept of alphabet remained the same in Tamil.

As Sanskrit /Prakrit have more phonemes in their languages, Grantha evolved with the additional scripts was used in writing those languages in the Tamil country.

The Nagari script in the north of India and Grantha and other scripts in the south of India palaeographically developed in different ways presumably because of the writing material. While tree bark and reed pen mostly used in the north produced linear writing with top lines, palm-leaf and stylus in the south produced curvilinear writing.

One may notice that the popularity of curvilinear writing of the genre of Tamil-Grantha corresponds to those regions of South and Southeast Asia that has the distribution of palmyrah of talipot palm as natural vegetation.

If the Nagari script went to Himalayan and Central Asian regions, it was the maritime spread of Tamil-Grantha that introduced phonetic writing in Southeast Asia.

The relationship between Grantha and Sinhala alphabet is well known. The earliest available written record in Maldives is in Grantha of c.5th-6th century CE. The earliest phonetic writing found in Southeast Asia is Tamil Brahmi, but other early extensive records are in Grantha. Pallava-Grantha is recognized as the progenitor of Javanese, Malay and other Southeast Asian scripts used as far as in the Tagalog language of the Philippines.

Inscriptions, especially royal inscriptions of the Tamil country in the early medieval times often used to have two parts. The invocation Svasti in Sanskrit was always written in Grantha. In addition, if there is a Sanskrit part that was also written in Grantha and the Tamil part was in Tamil script. Any Sanskrit word not Tamilised was also written in Grantha, if additional phonemes were needed for that word. But largely the differentiation of the two languages and scripts were maintained.

However, there was also a language tendency starting from c. 4th-5th century CE to mix Sanskrit and another language. This was metaphorically called Ma’nippravaa’lam, mixture of ruby and red coral (Mani: ruby; Pravaa’lam: red coral).

The play, Mattavilaasa Prahasana, written by the Pallava king Mahendravarman was in this style, a mixture of Sanskrit and Prakrit. But later there was a tendency in some sections of the society to heavily mix Sanskrit and Tamil. There is a corpus of Vaishnava literature in this language. Grantha script became handy for writing this hybrid language. Had this language trait been widespread or had it continued historically we wouldn’t have found Tamil as it is today, tracing its continuity with more than two millennia old literature.

At some point such hybrid language was resisted in South India. A clear reference in this regard comes from the earliest Kannada grammar Kaviraajamaarga dated to 9th century CE. Indiscriminate mixing of Kannada with Sanskrit is cacophony, Kaviraajamaarga says. In another instance it compares mixing a Sanskrit word in Kannada to that of putting a drop of curd into milk.

Mainstream Tamil literature kept itself out of Ma’nipravaa’lam. Except for a part of the Vaishnava corpus and the medieval inscriptions, the need never arose for the mixing of Tamil and Grantha alphabets.

Grantha continued in Tamil culture until recent times in writing and publishing Sanskrit texts. It became obsolete with the exclusive use of Devanagari promoted by the Government of India. The standard Nagari was styled as Devanagari to differentiate it from the other types of Nagari scripts such as Nandi-nagari.

The writer has seen Grantha fonts in the printing presses of Jaffna a few decades back, used in the printing of Sanskrit. The Sivaachchaaryas of Jaffna even today maintain the Agamas and other manuscripts in Grantha script and it is taught to their children. The almanacs coming from Jaffna maintain token use the script to this day.

Grantha was a contribution of Tamils. It was a Tamil heritage that had gone far beyond India and that should not be dead because of the monopoly of Devanagari. As George Hart points out whenever there is need to put Tamil and Sanskrit writing side by side, the use of Devanagari doesn’t match aesthetically compared to curvilinear Grantha of generic affinity matching with the Tamil script.

The use of Grantha and a place for it in the Unicode should be encouraged. But this should never mean indiscriminately mixing Grantha and Tamil.

The need to use them together comes only in publishing the Ma’nipravaa’lam literature and in publishing the medieval inscriptions. In modern times there may be a need to present words of other Indian languages in Tamil with their accurate pronunciation. Grantha may be used in those occasions.

But it is better for Tamil to have a self-supporting system based on its own script. The other option practical and universal is the use of the Roman script with diacritical marks as designed for South Asian languages. Attention is needed in making the use of it easy in the Internet communication.

* * *

The fear expressed in Tamil Nadu circles comes from political insecurity, from some internal socio-political and cultural factors and by seeing the example of Malayalam.

An experiment of mixing Grantha and Tamil scripts to make a combined alphabet that took place in the Malayalam country roughly 500 years ago brought in the separation of Tamil and Malayalam languages. This has also severed the link of Malayalis with their own literary heritage – the written records of human experience of their own ancestors.

Any language policy insinuating into Tamils to make them lose continuity with their long literary heritage is “politically divisive and academically inappropriate,” commented Eezham Tamil academic Dr. R. Cheran in Canada.

As long as Tamils continue to produce world class literature and original knowledge in their language, as long as they are conscious that the continuity of human experience embedded in their language is a strength of them in a competitive world and as long as they are conscious of the fact that their global identity is based and linked only by the criterion of language, they need not worry about the continuity of their language getting lost.

But just like in the transition from palm leaf to printing press, with the advent of computers we are in an important juncture of literacy explosion today. The present generation and the future generations are going to mainly use the computers for reading, writing and communicating.

We live in an age of great transition especially related to languages. As Cheran pointed out, spoken word, written word and moving image are seamlessly integrated in the new media.

While there is much worry whether dead Ma’nipravaa’lam would come alive in Tamil, we overlook the ‘Thamingkilam’ of the idiot boxes of our Tamil Establishments.

Whether script code or visual media the younger generation shouldn’t get a misleading signal that they are licensed to produce a hybrid language. We need a language culture to use a language without code switching.

Without waiting for ‘initiatives’ from the Establishments, without dancing for tunes set by them and without always being defensive, the Tamil elite has to take bold initiatives on preserving and promoting their language and implement them globally by finding ways and means in a world open with new opportunities nowadays. Because, the Tamil identity is solely based on language unlike many other identities and if the language is lost the identity is also lost.

* * *

A note on the status of Tamil Unicode implementation:

Indian Script Code for Information Interchange (ISCII) introduced by the Government of India in 1983 allocated 128 slots for each Indian language.

Incorporating this 7-bit ISCII, the Unicode Consortium in 1991 announced Unicode Tamil. The Consortium had treated Tamil, which has a simple script, with the same approach it adopted to handle other Indian languages having complex scripts in the 16-bit encoding scheme.

In 1998, Tamil Nadu Government constituted a Sub-Committee on Tamil in Information Technology. This Committee recommended TAB and TAM 8-bit encoding schemes. These were declared as standards by Tamil Nadu government in 1999.

Meanwhile, the Sub-Committee on Tamil in Information Technology entrusted the responsibility to research 16-bit encoding to the Tamil Virtual University (TVU) to evolve a suitable Character encoding scheme for Tamil for adoption into the Unicode standard. The TVU developed Tamil All Character Encoding 16 (TACE16).

The Final Recommendations of the Tamil Nadu Government Task Force on TACE16 said that Tamil language was not encoded in the right way in Unicode preserving its true properties for efficient and effective use of the language in computers and information technology.

The report furthers said: "Recognized as one of the Classical Languages of the World, Tamil is a rich language having at least 2500 years of Inscriptional records and literatures. Tamil is a Conservative Language and it preserves its continuity for millenniums of years. It has Alpha syllabic writing system including Vowels, Consonants and Vowel-Consonants, all with graphical representation as single letters."

The report defined the strategy for implementation: "The best strategy for implementation would be to declare the old TACE16 as the State Standard and then move the Government of India to declare the same as the National standard. Then shall pursue the Unicode consortium to accept for incorporating the modified TACE16."

In May 2007, the Government of Tamil Nadu became a voting member of the Unicode Consortium and submitted a proposal for adopting TACE16 in the Unicode.

However, on 23 June 2010, Tamil Nadu government issued a Government Order, declaring Unicode as the main encoding to be used in all applications where support for Tamil Unicode is available. The announcement declared TACE16 as the only alternate standard to be adopted in applications where support for Unicode was not available partially or fully.

* * *

Shriramana Sharma’s proposal in July 2010 to encode characters for Extended Tamil

Recommendations of the Tamil Nadu Government Task Force on TACE16

[Full Coverage]

(For updates you can share with your friends, follow TNN on Facebook, Twitter and Google+)

Comments are closed.