of Writing systems in India.
Writing systems followed
in India are considered complex on account of the rules which specify how
a syllable should be written. The reader is advised to look at the page
discussing the principles of writing systems before looking at the current
page which concentrates on the problem of rendering syllables on a computer.
By and large most languages
of India follow the syllabic writing system which represent syllables rather
than pure consonants and vowels. Though there can be thousands of syllables,
the writing systems generally follow some rules by which the syllables
are shaped. These rules allow a syllable to be built up from a smaller
set of shapes which include the vowels, consonants and the representations
for the medial vowels. This smaller set is usually made available in a
font and on a computer a syllable is shaped typically by placing the glyphs
in the required order.
It will help if we specify
the manner in which a syllable is shaped by examining the structure of
A syllable may be made up
A pure vowel .
This usually applies
to a vowel appearing at the beginning of a word, though in some languages,
a pure vowel may be seen inside a word. A pure vowel has a unique shape
and is written using this shape wherever it occurs.
A consonant with an implied "ah".
The consonants of
our languages cannot be pronounced easily unless a vowel is attached to
the consonant or other consonants follow. Unlike in western scripts
where a consonant is always written in its generic form, consonants in
India are almost always written with an implied "ah" so that one can pronounce
an independent consonant directly without having to refer to it by a name
(unlike in western languages where each letter has a name).
is normally referred to as "em" and only when an "a" comes with it as in
"ma" will one say it as "ma". In Sanskrit (and in other India languages),
when you see the consonant 'm', you will know that it is to be pronounced
This subtle distinction
has to be retained when a child is taught the writing system.
In Indian scripts,
a generic consonant occurs only as part of a syllable and not by itself
except that a word may end in a generic consonant. Hence the writing convention
includes a special form for the same by attaching a "halanth" ligature.
So m¯ is the generic form of m
but it is not easy to pronounce it by itself. (Try saying "hmm")
A pure consonant is
written using the shape assigned to the consonant.
A consonant vowel combination.
In India, one refers
to the consonant as the body and the vowel as the one that gives a consonant
its life. Hence the vowel symboically represents life.
This simple syllable
is almost always written by adding a ligature to the shape of the consonant
which ligature depends on the vowel. This medial vowel representation has
specific forms in specific scripts. There are exceptions to this rule as
well in some of the scripts (Tamil and Malayalam).
In the above, we
see three scripts where the syllables with "ta" have been formed with all
the vowels. Notice that in Tamil, the Matra (ligature) can have components
on both sides of the consonant while in Telugu, the components may be written
above and below the consonant as well as on one side.
Two or more consonants and a vowel.
Very simply, we can
say this conforms to the ccv, cccv, ccccv etc. format.
It will be useful
to point out here that one cannot really have arbitrarily long syllables.
It will become almost impossible to pronounce them. By and large two and
three consonant syllables are common and very few with four or five consonants.
One sees long syllables even in English (Angstrom!)
Across all the languages
of India, approximatley eight hundred to a thousand syllables ( with implied
vowel "ah") are known to be present in spoken and written form. Since a
basic syllable can include any of the vowels, the number of actual syllables
will be of the order of about eight thousand, for all the vowels may not
be seen with a base syllable which has two or more consonants in it.
for generating the display
1. A pure vowel
or a basic consonant has an individual shape associated with it. This shape
has evolved over a period of time but one does find significant variations
in older manuscripts. A pure vowel or a basic consonant is always displayed
by drawing the associated shape.
The forms for all
the vowels and pure consonants are defined uniquely in each script.
2. A consonant vowel
combination is written with a Matra (ligature) atatched to the basic consonant.
The Matra may be drawn on either side of the consonant and in some cases,
it is written on both sides or above and below a consonant. This applies
to Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and older scripts such as Grantha.
Now, it is also true
that in Tamil and Malayalam, there is no specific matra in respect of the
vowels "uh" and its long version. No matras are applicable here and these
will have to be remembered as exceptions.
In most scripts, there will
be such exceptions for specific combinations and these exceptions will
have to be kept in mind when rendering the syllable.
3. The shape for
a consonant in a syllable may be roughly specified by applying the
rules observed in practice for each script. There rules vary across scripts.
Some of the rules are explained below.
The half form of a
consonant is normally used in many cases, especially with scripts which
are closer to Devanagari e.g., Gujarati. The half form is also referred
to as the joining form. Usually, the half form has enough resemblance to
the full form of the consonant.
the half form is not defined for all the consonants, especially those which
do not have a vertical stroke in them (Devanagari). Several consonants
which do not have a clearly defined half form are shown in the figure above.In
these cases, a form diminished in size but in a manner where the consonants
can be written one below the other is considered useful. Again, examples
are seen in the figure above,
The one below the
other form is actually the default for South Indian scripts, except Tamil.
In these, there is no half form for a consonant. The first consonant in
the syllable is written first, the second is written below in reduced size
and the third may also get written below this combination. Since one seldom
finds arbitrarily long syllables and most of the three or four consonant
syllable end with "ra" or "ya", the actual need to write three consonants
one below the other arises only rarely. The syllables with "ra" or "ya"
as the last consonant have a special form for them.
syllables with generic consonants
The shape of a syllable
can always be built by using the generic form of the consonants. This will
be linguistically correct though not conforming to convention. Using generic
consonants to write syllables generally results in a smaller set of shapes
for the writing system. Among the Indian languages, Tamil employs a simple
script where a syllable is always shown in this manner.
When we compare
the rules across different scripts, the following seem to apply in general,
though different rules may apply in different scripts for the same syllable.
In other words, several displayed forms may refer to the same sound.
The following are illustrative
of syllable formation in different scripts. The variations in the writing
systems will be seen by examining these carefully. This is not an exhaustive
set but is provided only as an example.
Concatenate half forms except
for the last consonant.
Write the consonants one below
the other but retain their basic shapes with diminished size.
Use special ligatures for specific
vowel combinations in some of the scripts.
Use unique forms for a syllable.
Just decompose any syllable
into its consonants and the vowel.
Use special ligatures for "ra"
in Devanagari based scripts. The ligature will depend on where "ra" occurs
within the syllable.
Use special ligatures for other
consonants as well. This applies to Telugu.
The medial vowel representations
may have ligatures on both sides of the consonant.