The puLLi suppresses the inherent vowel. Or does it?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/09/20 10:02 -04:00, original URI:

A few days ago, I said that Tamil is an abugida. It is not an abugi-DOH!, if you know what I mean. In a comment to that post, Sridhar stated:

>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.

க் and ஈ are basic characters and கீ is a derived one.  It is probably incorrect to say a puLLi suppresses the vowel.  

There is at least one IME that takes care of translating k+e+e to கீ.    This is more natural than the typewriter way of compoing the letter.   It is also in line with what we learn in school as  க் + ஈ = கீ.  So, when people migrate from typewriters to key boards, they may need to relearn.  When IME are designed for Tamil, they offer multiple key board layouts as options.

I am not fully into the discussions on Unicode for Tamil, but I know a number of Tamil scholars are unhappy with the encoding.  I hope your article takes us to a more acceptable encoding.

The part I want to focus on is the disucussion on the puLLi, (virama)....

Now clearly Sridhar has a slightly different view on the matter, since he does not look at every consonant as having an inherent vowel; in his opinion, and from the earliest teaching Tamils learn the same thing, the letter with puLLi is a letter in its own right and thinking of the consonant with puLLi as a pure consonant is how one should look at it.

This would mean perhaps that Sridhar thinks Tamil is not an abugida.

But I will tell you a secret. I do not think Sridhar is incorrect here, despite the fact that his description is at odds with the one I gave.

For one who is a linguist (and even for one who is not, such as myself!), concepts like abugida are descriptive terms that work to describe the behavior of a language. One can have an entirely different view of a structure and have it be valid, as long as both descriptions can come to the proper conclusions.

Remember when I first was talking about my earlier experience with the Virama and its effect on collation back in April of 2005 when I posted And then there is the virama....? In that post I noted how the expected effect of the virama was different in different scripts, as to whether consonant + virama would be expected to come before or after the consonant alone.

Perhaps I would have been less confused had I been following Sridhar's view, since thinking of consonant + virama as a pure consonant makes the collation behavior more obvious and natural -- it is not simply a pure consonant plus a diacritic to suppress and inherent vowel.

But whether one looks at this image:

 /  /|
/__/ |____
   | /   /

and sees a) stairs on the floor or b) stairs on the ceiling is not too terribly relevant. And arguing about which view is more correct is not very productive, because obviously both views are completely correct even though they seem contradictory.

Unicode's encoding, which takes one view, does not actually harm the other view -- since an encoding does not define a language, and one really has to look past the encoding to truly understand a language anyway!

For those who benefit from viewing Tamil as an abugida because it makes the behavior more obviuous and understandable in the framework of many other scripts, it is a useful model that helps describe many concepts about the orthography. And for those who benefit from viewing Tamil not as an abugida the benefits are also quite obvious in terms of how things work within the language. Neither is truly "right" or "wrong" -- they are simply both descriptive concepts, and the sooner we all (myself included) step back and realize that there is no spoon, the faster we can all be productive here....


This post brought to you by U+0bcd, a.k.a. puLLi, a.k.a. TAMIL SIGN VIRAMA.

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referenced by

2007/12/02 Learning to spell in Bengali (when one doesn't know the language)

2007/09/15 Hindsight is 20/20 and DAGGER is U+2020, coincidence? (aka I miss emoji like the deserts miss the rain)

2006/10/02 Can you name that TUNE?

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