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The Phonetic Aspect of Indian Languages
  The languages of India have a common phonetic base.  One does not use the term "alphabet" to refer to the set of letters with which the script is written. Instead, the set is called "Aksharas". Very Simply, an akshara refers to a sound. Sounds heard in spoken words are built up from the basic set of sounds represented by the vowels and consonants of the language. 

  In all Indian languages, an akshara is pronounced the same way regardless of its position within a word, unlike in English where the pronunciation varies widely, depending not only on the word but also on the location of the letter within the word. 

   Also, in Indian languages, the vowels number between thirteen and eighteen while the consonants vary from eighteen in Tamil to as many as thirty eight in Telugu and Malayalam. All the aksharas are therefore built from about fifty basic letters.

   It is  indeed possible to use just the vowels and the consonants for writing any of the languages. This is probably how children are taught a script to begin with.  In practice however, the scripts abound in what are called "Samyuktakshars", which are the equivalent of syllables and represent sounds built up from combinations of consonants and a vowel. The writing system for a language often permits more than one representation (shape) for the samyuktakshar. Samyuktakshars are often referred to as conjunct characters. Clearly, when one sees an akshara in print, its sound is fixed. However, there may be more than one representation for a given conjunct and this depends on the writing practices followed in a region. 

   All the ideas expressed here may well be grasped by studying the Devanagari script in which Sanskrit and a couple of other Indian Languages are written.  We have an extensive discussion on this in our section on Learning Sanskrit . The reader is encouraged to look at the material presented in that section. 

   It turns out that when dealing with Indian languages on a computer, one needs a representation for the aksharas in general and not merely the vowels and consonants. The akshara is the basic unit or quantum from a linguistic point of view and computer programs processing text in Indian languages should be able to efficiently deal with this quantum, built up from two or more basic sounds.  This poses a real challenge as there are more than 13000 individual aksharas that have to be reckoned and many more which might come into use, if the need arises. 

The importance of Transliteration
   The common phonetic base across all the Indian Languages is helpful in situations where language independent information such as statistical data, addresses, schedules of meetings etc., have to be disseminated in different languages simultaneously.  People who can speak a language but do not know its script may still be able to read information in  that language by merely reading it in a script familiar to them. 

   Traditionally, books written in English which deal with text in Indian languages (such as commentaries on ancient scriptures) used Roman transliteration to help read the text. In many instances, diacritical marks were added to the Roman letters to establish a closeness to the aksharas of the language, which would be difficult to achieve with just the twenty six letters. 

   Transliteration between Indian languages is very desirable to help people learn one language through another.  The common phonetic base makes this easy.  Yet, transliteration between the languages will have to be handled with care, for there are quite a few aksharas which are specific to some languages but not seen or used in others.  For instance, Tamil does not have the aspirated consonants of Telugu or Sanskrit and reading Sanskrit through Tamil which is very desirable, is often rendered difficult.  Situations such as these are usually handled by introducing new symbols in the script of a language to represent via transliteration, characters found in other languages. 

    The discussion here, stresses the need to establish a single coding scheme to cover all the different aksharas across all the languages of India in order to allow correct transliteration. In this connection, the use of Roman letters with diacritic marks does result in a script useful for reading text prepared in any of the Indian languages. The  National Library at Calcutta has recommended a nice scheme for Roman transliteration.



  In a phonetic script, written shapes directly correspond to syllables and hence represent sounds.
  
  This is also the concept behind the akshara. The akshara represents a vowel , consonant or a conjunct consonant. The written shape of a syllable generally conforms to the rules followed in the writing system. The writing system rules vary according to the script but basically the idea is to use 'medial vowel forms' in writing syllables.

  The writing system rules do permit multiple written shapes for a given syllable. This is required in practice when the Type used in printing text does not cater to all the ligatures observed in writing.

  The basic set of aksharas is more or less common to all the Indian languages. It is true that there are slight variations in the actual set of vowels and consonants for the different languages. The Southern languages include a short form for the vowels "e" and 'o" whichis generally not seen in the Northern  languages.


 Differences with Tamil

  Tamil uses a minimal set of vowels and consonants. The Tamil script has traditionally not distinguished the middle consonants in each 'varga" and thus the soft as well as the aspirated forms of the five consonants "ka ca, ta, tha, pa" are written with out specific distinction. This can confuse the first time reader. In this respect Tamil cannot be viewed as a strict phonetic script.


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