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Desirable set of glyphs for Computing with Tamil
  The question of a character set for Indian languages/scripts arises for text preparation and display as well as linguistic processing. If one were to look at Tamil in totality from ancient Sangam period to modern times, a number of special symbols and notations are seen in the texts and manuscripts. Handling Tamil text for Display and printing may not impose requirements that are difficult to meet.. However linguistic processing will suffer if one does not identify the symbols and shapes that will have to be displayed.

  During the years of the development of the Tamil script (typically from 200BC to 1800 AD), changes were prominent as slowly, the mixture of Grantha and Tamil letters in stone inscriptions yielded to the Tamil letters. Interestingly, separate but arbitrary set of symbols had also been used to refer to fractions, measure of land and such and it appears that more than 500 different symbols will be required in a font if text in stone inscriptions should also be handled.

   The experience at IIT Madras in dealing with the Tamil scripts from ancient rock inscriptions, palm leaf manuscripts and printed texts during the past two hundred years has led to recommend a useful set of glyphs for dealing with Tamil on a computer. As of today, none of the fonts in use (including the most popular fonts seen on the web) cater to this set. There is no need to honour this set in full for any given application and perhaps this explains why designers of fonts for Tamil have used only a limited set. 

  The Tamil Script is one of the simpler scripts based on twelve vowels, eighteen consonants and a few special symbols. The ten numerals have specific shapes in this script. There are six consonants from Sanskrit which have specific representation in the script in use today. These are usually referred to as the Grantha letters. The Grantha script has been in use in South India as the basic writing system for Sanskrit.

  The Tamil script has undergone significant changes over the centuries and the script in use today is a simplified version, specifically aimed at bringing in some uniformity in medial vowel representations. Tamil text printed during the nineteenth century was typeset in the older version of the modern day script.

  Fonts designed for Tamil should try and provide for glyphs to accommodate the earlier representations of medial vowels and some of the special symbols.


Script Puzzle!

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Acharya Logo
  Inscription in Early Brahmi script inside a cave situated in Tamilnadu, South India. The text includes the word "satiaputo" which stands for Emperor Ashoka whose emissaries spread Buddhism in the South and Sri Lanka. The letter "sa" is not seen in Tamil and so the inscription must have ben effected by persons who knew Sanskrit as well as Tamil.

Image graciously offered for reproduction in this page by Sri. Iravatham Mahadevan.

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