by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/09/17 00:01 -07:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/michkap/archive/2006/09/17/758310.aspx
(apololgies for the Homer Simpson Doh! reference!)
The term Abugida, first coined by Peter T. Daniels (co-author of The World's Writing Systems, a book that our team could almost certainly benefit by having its own copy of -- hint hint to people buying books!), is meant to describe something that is simple enough conceptually (from Wikipedia):
...a writing system composed of signs (graphemes) denoting consonants with an inherent following vowel, which are consistently modified with extensions or diacritical marks to indicate other vowels, or, in some cases, the lack of a vowel.
The Tamil script is an Abugida. The concept of the inherent vowel built into the consonant is a definite part of how the script works, as is the use of vowels or the use of a puLLi (virama) to surpress the vowel.
One could argue that this is more true of Tamil than some of the other Indic scripts, since it always has a visible puLLi, whereas some of those other Indic scripts do not. So you can really think of Tamil as an über-abugida, if you think about it.
Now all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with computers. This is how the Tamil script has worked for millenia (how many millenia depends on which of two theories you subscribe to). Let's take a moment to think about that fact -- about how nothing that has been done in recent years has any meaning here that compares to a tradition that has existed for more generations than any of us really have to draw on usually.
Let's look at the sequence of apply vowels (or not doing so) on a letter:
Now if you look at each of these items above, they clearly all have that "K"-ish thing in there somewhere. Even in cases where the vowel is actually in front of the k (like in ke) or in front of and behind the k, like in ko or koo or kau. Clearly one expects கே to be pronounced as kee and not eek for the simple reason that it is not called that, not to mention the fact that this is not a 60's sitcom with as housewife on a chair avoiding a mouse.
And now let us apply this all to Tamil in technology for a moment.
It is quite reasonable when designing a typewriter that is meant for Tamil to do one of two things:
These are really the only solutions in a typewriter that will allow one the flexibility to deal with the fact that each of these vowel combinations that precede the consonant can actually have a different width. And of course given the fact that there are 18 consonants to go with those 12 vowels and you have a pretty huge freaking number of characters which means that really only option #1 is an option if you want to avoid an over 230-key keyboard including punctuation and numbers.
Of course the bad part about option #1 is that as a person who knows and loves the language and wishes to type with it, you might well need to be able to keep in mind the lie of the keyboard that forces you to type eek when you mean kee.
Eventually you will get quite good at it, certainly. But that is not about the language. And it is not about the script. It is about dealing with the limitations of the technology. About making the writing different from the reading.
Now I should pause to point put that this is not necessarily new to typewriters.
I imagine handwriting with Tamil is unlikely to find everyone leaving a space, drawing a k, and then going back to draw the ee when one is writing kee. Though perhaps proper penmanship would ask this of the person hand writing Tamil? Even if so I am sure there are many who do not do it, even as there are many who write Chinese ideographs without using the official standard for stroke order in every case.
What typewriters do here is formalize a process that is not a part of the script or of the language -- if anything it is formalizing a quite informal process of making the way one writes different than the way one reads.
And now let us add computers to the mix.
The most likely people to want a solution for computers are indeed the people who have typewriters and are upgrading. And that puts in a strange place. A very strange place, where one can keep moving on the same road and building up this model of writing that does not match the reading, or where one can work on preserving the language, instead.
After talking to and working with native speakers for the last few years, I am an unapologetic fan of the movement to preserve the language in its purest form.
Perhaps if Tamil were an uglier script, I might feel differently. I know that some people feel that just as there are no ugly babies there are no ugly scripts, but I don't believe that. The beauty of text flowing in a manuscript is something that not every script can claim; some actually need fancy calligraphic styles to get such an effect, whereas others can do it in their simplest form. To my eyes, Tamil is one such script, and one such language.
Now Tamil is a complex script.
It is not as complex as Devanagari, or Sinhalese, or Bengali, or Tibetan, to be sure. It is in fact one of the simplest of the complex scripts, even when you allow for the extensions to Tamil known as Tamil Grantha that have been used for Sanskrit for millenia. But it is still a complex and beautiful script that deserves the opportunity that technology can afford it to return to its purer linguistic roots.
And that is why I do not support the Homer Simpson-esque mechanism that is trying to convert the Tamil abugida to a Tamil abugi-DOH! Because it is a script and a language that deserves better here....
Think of this post as the first of several that will talk about such issues related to Tamil.
This post brought to you by க (U+0b95, a.k.a. TAMIL LETTER KA)
# Ambarish Sridharanarayanan on Sunday, September 17, 2006 4:28 AM:
# Michael S. Kaplan on Sunday, September 17, 2006 8:08 AM:
# vishnu vyas on Sunday, September 17, 2006 1:18 PM:
# Michael S. Kaplan on Sunday, September 17, 2006 2:14 PM:
# RubenP on Sunday, September 17, 2006 4:56 PM:
# Michael S. Kaplan on Sunday, September 17, 2006 5:10 PM:
# Phylyp on Monday, September 18, 2006 3:19 AM:
# Phylyp on Monday, September 18, 2006 3:24 AM:
# Michael S. Kaplan on Monday, September 18, 2006 4:14 AM:
# Sridhar on Tuesday, September 19, 2006 4:24 AM:
2006/10/02 Can you name that TUNE?
2006/09/17 And we are the knights who say நீ (NII)
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