Update: 2005-03-29 02:22 PM -0500


History of Writing in India


by U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.). Not for sale. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR.

Primary sources:
• D. Wujastyk Transliteration of Devanagari, 1996Jun25 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgadkw/members/transliteration/html/translit.html
• Daniel Jones Pronouncing Dictionary, 16th ed. (DJPD16), 2003
• Language Problem of Primitive Buddhism -- by Chi Hisen-lin, Journal of the Burma Research Society, XLIII, i, June 1960

History of Writing in India
Asoka's Inscriptions
The Case of Burmese-Myanmar /θ/
Pali and Sanskrit pronunciations
Phonetic system
English and Myanmar syllables

Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

History of Writing in India

From the very beginning I should make myself clear: language and script are not the same. To take a modern example: Hindi is a language and it is written in Devanagari script. Though it is common practice to say, for example "English", we do not make the distinction that English is the language and it is written in Roman or Latin script. Sometimes, in order to make up for our lack of precision we would sort to the device of saying "spoken English" and "written English", but soon we lapse into our habit of impreciseness and started using the word "English", and the reader is left to wonder what that word really means: a spoken form or a written form. Roman script is used by many European languages, with additions to accommodate the phonemes peculiar to that language. Thus, in French we find ่ ( {่}) and ้ ( {้}) added to the Roman script, and in Spanish ๑ ( {๑}). Similarly Myanmar is the script and it is used by many languages such as Bama (or Burmese), Shan and Karan. However, Rakhine and Bama are not separate languages; they are dialects of the same language with the generic name Bama.

The earliest writing in India* is in a script called Brahmī  {brah~mi ak~hka.ra}, which survives in rock inscriptions. Personally, I do not agree with the name "Brahmī", because the author of the inscriptions was the Buddhist Emperor Asoka (273 BC -232 BC) whose court language was Māgadi {ma-ga.Da.Ba-tha}, and not Sanskrit {thin-tha.ka.reik Ba-tha} the language of the Indo-Europeans (formerly called "Indo-Aryans") or Brahmanas (known in Myanmar as Poonas {poaN~Na:}).

(* For the present, I will ignored the findings from excavations at Harappa, somewhat south of Lahore, and at Mohenjo-Daro which show that writing was well-developed in the Indus valley between 2500 and 1500 B.C. of which only scanty inscriptions have been discovered: no written records are left. Perhaps the literature was recorded on perishable scrolls or palm leaves which did not survive.)

I will now make the bold assumption that Asoka's script was a script of a Tibeto-Burman language. To test my assumption, I am presenting on the right the Asoka characters together with the Myanmar characters -- Myanmar being a Tibeto-Burman script.

I would prefer to use the term the "Asoka script" rather than Brahmī, however, I would have to bear with the popular usage: Brahmī. From Brāhmī, via intermediate scripts, are derived Devanagarī {d้-wa.na-ga.ri} and all the major scripts subsequently used in South Asia (Bangladesh, India and Pakistan), with the exception of the Perso-Arabic script used for Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, and of course the Roman script. 

On comparing the Asoka-script to Myanmar, one is immediately struck by the similarity of some characters: {ga.}, {Ga.}, {nga.}, {za.}, {pa.}, {ba.}, {ma.}, {ya.}, and {wa.}.

Out of 33, 9 characters are clearly related. This similarity has led me to wonder, if Myanmar script was a sister-script of Asoka, which was adopted by the Burmese-speakers when they migrated into Myanmar. Geographically, since the two areas are quite close (within "walking distance"), the two scripts might even have a common ancestry.

UKT: "According to the Chronicles, legends of various pagodas, and oral traditions, Buddhism reached Burma even during the lifetime of the Buddha, but did not make a lasting impression. Then the great Asoka {a-thau-ka.} sent a religious mission to the kingdom of Thaton {tha.htoan-pri~} (in southern Myanmar), in the same way as he sent religious missions to Ceylon and other countries of south-east Asia. This tradition of Asoka's religious mission to Thaton was doubted at first by European scholars, G. E. Harvey, for example, but in the last one or two decades (since 1959) the tradition has come to be accepted as a historical fact, and nowadays only the most conservative among European scholars of Burmese history challenge this tradition. The Chronicles insist that the kingdom of Prome (in central Myanmar) was a Buddhist kingdom, and archaeological evidence now makes it clear that Theravada Buddhism did flourish at Prome." -- From: Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism by Maung Htin Aung (Dr.) Printed and published by U Myint Maung, Deputy Director, Regd: No (02405/02527) at the Religious Affairs Dept. Press. Yegu, Kaba-Aye P.O., Rangoon, BURMA. 1981, p125-6. The book is also available online http://web.ukonline.co.uk/buddhism/

Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

Asoka's Inscriptions

Asoka (273? BC - 232 BC) or Emperor Asoka has been described by the British historian H.G. Wells as: "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history ... the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star." -- from: The Edicts of King Ashoka, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html
   Ven. Dhammika (probably a Buddhist monk) wrote:  "This rendering of King Asoka's Edicts is based heavily on Amulyachandra Sen's English translation, which includes the original Magadhi and a Sanskrit and English translation of the text. However, many parts of the edicts are far from clear in meaning and the numerous translations of them differ widely."

My question at this point is who was Asoka? Was he of the Sanskrit-speaking Indo-European (formerly known as Indo-Aryan) stock, or of Tibeto-Burmese speaking original inhabitants of northern India? This question is dear to my heart, since the answer would lead to me to an indication of who Gautama Buddha was? The Buddha was from the same region as Asoka, preceding him by about 250 years. To answer my question in part, I would make a comparison of the modern scripts of the Indian sub-continent and Myanmar.

UKT: Who was Asoka? At least, his grand-father Chandraguta Maurya (322 BC -298 BC) (known to the Greeks of Alexander's time as  Sandracottus) was not a high-caste Poona:
  " Chandragupta Maurya's origins were shrouded in mystery. Having been brought up by peacock tamers, he could be of low caste birth. According to other sources, Chandragupta Maurya was the son of a Nanda prince and a dasi ( {da.tha.} (servant or Sudra)) called Mura. It is also possible that Chandragupta was of the Maurya tribe of Kshatriyas {hkat~ti.ya.}." -- http://www.indhistory.com/chandragupta-maurya.html

But, before that comparison of the scripts, let's see what Sanskrit संस्कृत {thin-tha.ka.reik Ba-tha} was? The following is from http://www.fact-index.com/s/sa/sanskrit.html) :

Sanskrit संस्कृत {thin-tha.ka.reik} is a member of the Indo-European language family, and an official language of India. Having first developed around 1500 BC. It has sometimes been described as the Asian equivalent to Latin for its role in the religious and historical literature of India. Sanskrit is also the ancestor of the Prakrit languages of India, such as Pali and Ardhamagadhi. Scholars have preserved more Sanskrit documents than documents in Latin and Greek combined. The Vedic scriptures were written in a form of Sanskrit.

Prakrits are the Indic languages and dialects spoken in ancient India. The Prakrits were vernacular languages, often used for ordinary speech, and may be contrasted with Sanskrit, which continued to be used as a literary language and quickly developed such features as written grammars. However, some Prakrits developed literary languages of their own. We might say that the Prakrits are to Sanskrit as Vulgar Latin and the Romance languages are to Classical Latin.

(UKT: The timeline 1500 BC when Sanskrit was being developed was 1000 years before the birth of Gotamma Budhha. This is a relevant point to consider in my theory on M-Pali (Pali written in Myanmar-script), and the absence of  {tha.} /θ/ in E-Pali (Pali written in English-script or romanised-Pali).
   My conjecture is Magadi was a native non-Indo-European language, which on being sanskritised became Pali. Statements such as "Sanskrit is also the ancestor of ... Pali and Ardhamagadhi." are to be disputed.)

The word Prakrit means means Prototype. Pra (prime, first, pre-) + krt (created). The word Sanskrit means completed, refined, perfected. Sum (Complete) + krt (created). Virtually every Sanskrit student in India learns the traditional story that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect. The original crude language from which Sanskrit was derived could be Prakrit.

Perhaps the most important Prakrit today is Pali {pa-Li. Ba-tha}, which has survived as the language in which the Theravada Buddhism records the Buddhist scriptures. In this capacity, it has influenced both Sanskrit and modern Southeast Asian languages, such as Khmer and Thai. (UKT: It is regrettable that many sources on the Internet fail to notice that Myanmar is one of the scripts used for writing Pali. It is as important, if not more, than Thai.)

Pali {pa-Li.} is a middle Prakrit language. It is most famous as the language in which the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism were written down. Pali has been written in a variety of scripts, from Devanagari to Lao and other Indic scripts, through to romanised (western) form (UKT: what I have dubbed E-Pali).

It is uncertain whether Pali was ever a spoken language. A significant number of scholars maintain that it was a purely literary language devised from a number of Indic dialects, Magadhan being mentioned as one of the most likely ancestors.

Today Pali is studied mainly to gain access to Buddhist scriptures, and is thus frequently chanted. The Pali Text Society (PTS), based in the United Kingdom, has since its founding in 1881 been a major force in promoting the study of Pali. The society publishes these scriptures both in Romanised Pali and in English translation.

Not so fast, I would have to say. Statements such as "it is uncertain whether Pali was ever a spoken language" are of interest to me who is trying to figure out why the Myanmar and M-Pali {tha.} (the non-sibilant) is not present in E-Pali. Is it really true that Pali and Ardhamagadhi were derived from Sanskrit? They could very well be the pre-Indo-European languages of northern India, south of the Himalayas -- the Tibeto-Burmese languages.

For comparison, the most obvious script to pick is Devanagari which is used to write Sanskrit and modern Hindi. I would also include Telugu, a southern Indian script, for a reason which will be indicated later.

Here is a direct quote from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devanagari
"The name Devanagari is of dubious etymology. It comes from the Sanskrit words Deva {d้wa.} (god, a minor deity), and Nagari (city); together they mean, literally, "City of the Gods". This refers to a legend that the script was used in such a city. The philosophy behind it is that when one mediates on the specific sounds of the Devanagari akshara (erroneously called the alphabet), the written forms appear spontaneously in the mind. The compound really functions as a bahuvrihi. "Devanagari" is the most common transliteration of the name of script. Others are "Devnagri", "Devanagri", and "Deonagri" (rare)."

UKT: One phrase "sounds of the Devanagari akshara", is bothering me. Since, Devanagari is a script, it is not supposed to have a "sound". I would be more comfortable with "sounds of Sanskrit in Devanagari" (San-Devanagari), or with "sounds of Bengali in Devanagari" (Ben-Devanagari). We will allude to this when we discuss the inherent vowels of different languages: it is alleged that  the inherent vowel /a/ in Hindi and in Bengali are slightly different. But since, the Brahmi-derived scripts in Indian subcontinent and the surrounding areas have "almost" the same inherent vowel we should be content to say that the inherent vowel in all Brahmi-related scripts are the same and is represented by /a/.

One thing that is most prominent in Devanagari letters is the overline (horizontal bar above the characters). The southern Indian letters do not have the overline. It is generally accepted that Dravidians or southern group of peoples have lived in India long before the introduction of Sanskrit-speaking Indo-Europeans (formerly named "Indo-Aryans") through the north-western parts of India. Therefore, the further you go down south the more you will come across non-Sanskrit speaking peoples. There is ample evidence to believe that peoples living in northern and north-eastern regions of India were of a different linguistic group probably speaking Tibeto-Burman languages. My question at this point is for which language was Brahmi, the precursor of Devanagari, invented and by whom?

To those who are biased towards anything connected to Europeans (or Indo-Europeans), the answer seemed straight forward -- by the Brahmanas or Brahmins speaking the Sanskrit language. And it is alleged that slowly, other-language speakers adopted the the Brahmi model as their script and in the process, picked some Sanskrit words -- a process we will call sanskritization.

The above view presumed that those who had lived in that area did not have scripts of their own, and it is only after the introduction of the Indo-Europeans did those people come to have writing skills. My contention is that, the Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples had lived in areas of northern India, south of Himalayas, long before any Indo-Europeans had appeared on the scene.

And that the Tibeto-Burman language speaking peoples, slowly became sanskritized. It is to be expected that the further you go east, the lesser sanskritization you will find. Myanmar, being the most eastern and cut off to some extent by the mountainous regions of Assam, should be the least affected by sanskritization.

In India and surrounding areas, many languages use scripts different from Devanagari, though they still belong to the same group of scripts known as abugidas. As an illustration consider the forms of the first consonant-letters, all with the generic name ka (note: Uxxxx - the hexadecimal number in the Unicode font):

• Northern Indian scripts: 
   U0915 Devanagari (Hindi); U0995 Bengali;
   U0A15 Gurmukhi; U0A95 Gujarati
• Southern Indian scripts: 
   U0B15 Oriya; U0B95 Tamil; U0C15 Telugu;
   U0C95 Kannada; U0D15 Malayalam
• Tibeto-Burman scripts:
   U0F40 Tibetan; *U1000 Myanmar.
Even a comparison of the first consonantal letters shows that most of the northern Indian letters are not rounded, whereas the southern Indian letters are. My conclusion from the "roundness" of the characters is that the lesser the roundness, the more the sanskritization.

It might be argued that in Devanagari, if one removes from the characters, the part related to the vowel /a/, , the roundness of the characters would be restored and my assumption that "roundness" as an indication of freedom from sanskritization would not hold.

It is widely held (thanks to the British historians who held sway during the days of the British colonization of Myanmar and India) that the Myanmar script had evolved only after the 11th century, and that it was derived from a southern Indian script, most probably Telugu, through the intermediary of the Mon script.

A comparison of the Brahmi-script (more precisely the Asoka-script), Devanagari, Myanmar and Telugu shows that, Asoka-script has more common features with Myanmar -- a Tibeto-Burman language-script -- than with Devanagari (the script of the Sanskrit-speakers), or with Telugu (a southern Indian language which is highly rhotic, i.e. the /r/ is excessively rolled).

All the four scripts are written from left to right setting them aside from right-to-left scripts. This shows that they are clearly of the same group. Unlike English, all three are written almost without white-spaces, and unless we know the language, it is almost impossible to read their transliterations in English. However, in Devanagari, there is an exception because of the overline. The break in the overline primarily marks breath groups. In modern languages, word breaks are used. Devanagari has no case distinction, i.e. no capital and small letters. This is similar to Myanmar which does not use white spaces between words, and there are also no capital letters and small letters.

The absence of capital letters and small letters in Myanmar are taken advantage of in Romabama, where the sentences do not have to start with capital letters; neither do common names start with capital letters. However, it does use capital letters to increase the English letters from 26 to 52 to make transliteration easy.

Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

The Case of Burmese-Myanmar /θ/

One character that sets aside Burmese-in-Myanmar from Indian languages (and their transliterations in English), is the Myanmar {tha.}, which is identical to the the English <th>. The pronunciation of English <th> can be either /θ/ as in <thin> and /๐/ as in <that>. Similarly the Burmese-Myanmar {tha.} is pronounced in two ways /θ/ and /๐/. However, in the Indian scripts, the character corresponding to this character has the pronunciation /s/, with the result that the E-Pali (Pali transliterated in English) words with this character is pronounced with an /s/ and not with /θ/ as is written in M-Pali (Pali transliterated in Myanmar). Thus when a Burmese pronounced the word "Asoka" he would pronounce it with a /θ/ and not with /s/. To the Burmese speaker, when the name of the Emperor "Asok" is pronounced by Indians and Westerners, it sounds similar to the Burmese word for <confusion> {a.shoap}.

• I have been trying to figure out why Myanmar and M-Pali {tha.} is not present in E-Pali.

• Note that Gotamma Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, preceded Jesus Christ by about 500 years. It should also be noted that Asoka preceded the Christian era by about 250 years. Magadi {ma-ga.da. Ba-tha} the local language of the area was still in existence at the time when Asoka had his inscriptions written in stone.

• Gotamma Buddha, ever the humanist, seemed to be totally against the caste system (based on color (varna) {wuN~Na.} which was gradually taking roots. The essential difference was between the light-skinned Aryans (Indio-Europeans), who made up the top three castes, the Brahmins {brah~ma.Na.} (the "priestly" class), Kshatriyas {hkatti.ya.} (the "warrior" class -- Myanmar translation: the "ruling" class), and Vaisyas {wa.tha.la.} (the "artisan" class)?, and the dark-skinned Dasas {da.tha.} (the servants or Sudras). ... Buddha was born a Kshatriyas or Rajanyas, and the rivalry for prestige and power between the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas was clearly discernable in the Pitakas {pi.Ta.ka.}. As the Sangha or the Order of monks was being formed, a large number of Brahmanas joined the Order. They were received into the Order with the maxim: "as the waters from little streams flow into rivers, and as the waters from the rivers flowed into the ocean, the person became equal once the person joined the Order." Yet the Sanskrit-speaking Brahmanas always tried to be the first among equals.

• {wuN~Na.} in PTS p596 -- meaning: <appearance or colour>
• {wa.tha.la.} in PTS p604 -- meaning: <a low person>. The symbol ? signifies that I am not very sure of equivalence.
• {datha.} in PTS p320 - meaning: <non-Aryan, or slave>

• In the Vinaya Pitaka, Cullavagga, V. 33. 1, there is a story telling how Gotamma Buddha was totally against the proposal by two of his monks who were of Brahmana origin that his teachings be recorded in Sanskrit. He even went so far as to proscribe its use and labeled it as an offence for any among his monks who would like to record Buddha's teachings in Sanskrit. See: Language Problem of Primitive Buddhism -- by Chi Hisen-lin, Journal of the Burma Research Society, XLIII, i, June 1960

"Bhikkhus, you are not allowed to express the Buddha's words in Sanskrit. Those who act contrarily will be considered as having committed the offence of Dukkata {doak~ka.Ta.}."

"And finally the Buddha said, 'anujānāmi bhikkhave sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanam pariyāpunitum
meaning, "I permit you, O Monks, to learn the word of the Buddha in his own language."

If Sanskrit was not used, then what language did they use? For the propagation of religion, the "policy of language" was a comparatively important problem, which must be settled. The Buddha's last sentence in the above story was for the solution of this problem.

I will now go back to my question of why Myanmar and M-Pali {tha.} is not present in E-Pali. My suggestion is E-Pali was derived mainly from non-Tibeto-Burmese speakers -- the Brahmanas and the Sri Lankans, and not from Tibeto-Burmese speakers like the Burmese in Myanmar. And that {tha.} (the non-sibilant) was present in the original language of Gautama Buddha and Asoka in exactly the same place as Sanskrit s which is a sibilant.

The answers to my above questions would point out to the ancestry of Buddha, who was a Katthiya {hkatti.ya.} (I will now safely ignored the sanskritized "Kshatriyas" which sounded like {shat-tri-ya.} to my ears) and not a Brahmana. It is important to remember that Katthiya {hkat~ti.ya.} were the rulers, and even though they of not of the Indo-European stock, the poor Brahmanas who were the subjects had to include the Katthiya {hkatti.ya.} in the top classes "almost equal" to them! Whatever Buddha's ancestry may be, my "wild guess" at this stage is: Buddha preached in a language which belonged to the Tibeto-Burman group, and therefore M-Pali pronunciations should not be summarily rejected.

Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

Pali and Sanskrit pronunciations

I have always have a feeling that Sanskrit (an Indo-European language) is more rhotic than Pali (which I presumed to be a Tibeto-Burman language). However, because no sound-recording devices had been invented to record the ancient Pali and Sanskrit pronunciations, I will have to make use of the E-Pali and E-Sanskrit spellings to make the comparison. To confirm my suspicion I have compared Pali words and their equivalent Sanskrit words (transliterations). There are more r's in Sanskrit than in Pali. The following examples, from Dhammapada, are taken from: http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/dhamma/dhamglos.htm
In the transliteration of both Pali and Sanskrit, the character c represents the sound ch as in English <chair>. The aspirate consonants (kh, th, ph, etc) are pronounced as in <blockhead> or <godhead>.

Pali Sanskrit Meaning Verse (Dhammapada)
vigilance, conscientiousness
Canto II
the moon
luminous, shiny; the moon
to be bright, resplendent
172-3, 413
172, 208, 387
151, 171
dridha, [drilha]
resolute, strong [to hold fast, bind]
sight, vision
"foundation, support": law, justice, doctrine, nature, truth, etc.
permanent, constant (also name of the Pole Star)
23, 61, 112, 313
206, 210
gandhabba gandharva heavenly musician: angelic being, demigod 105, 420
iddh iriddhi, siddhi potency, accomplishment; psychic power(s) 175
doing, action, result of action
warrior or ruling caste
Canto XVII
death; also god of death; cf mara, yama
compassionate, friendly
wrong views, heresy
53, 141, 182
Canto XX
167, 316
nibbana nirvana* dousing (of a flame), dying out of raga, dosa and moha, the three basic character defects passim
  *This is not a negative state, but a condition beyond ordinary comprehension. It is the annihilation of craving, hatred, and ignorance.  
a homeless monk
scattered, miscellaneous
breath of life, vitality
monastic precepts; discipline (Vinaya) for monks
dear, friend, amiable
son, young of animal, offspring
74, 388
Canto XXI
185, 375
Canto XVI
62, 84, 345
all, whole
faith, trust, devotion not credulous or dependent on faith
a thousand
religious recluse
129-30, 183, 353-4
8,144, 97
Canto VIII
184, 265
tanha trishna thirst, craving 154, 334, 349
chapter, section; all chapter headings
wound, sore
all chapter headings

 Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

The following is from: D. Wujastyk Transliteration of Devanagari, 1996Jun25 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgadkw/members/transliteration/html/translit.html

The Devanāgarī abugida (erroneously called an alphabet) emerged in something like its present form in inscriptions from northern India in the latter part of the first millennium AD. It was used at that time, and since, for the writing of Sanskrit and of a number of related languages and dialects. Today, it is the script normally used for the writing of the languages Hindi, Marathi, and Sanskrit.

(UKT:It is unfortunate that authors like D. Wujastyk fail to note the difference between different systems of scripts. Devanagari and all those derived from Brahmi use abugidas (alpha-syllabary) instead of alphabets.
   We should remember that every consonant character in an abugida contains the inherent vowel a whereas the characters in an alphabet do not. An abugida makes use of a special device known as a virama {a.thut} in forming conjoined consonants or conjuncts, whereas there are none in an alphabet (at least in modern English written in Latin script).

Edited excerpt from Unicode Consortium, Unicode Standard Version 4:

Extensions to the Sanskrit repertoire are used to write other related languages of India (such as Marathi) and of Nepal (Nepali). In addition, the Devanagari script is used to write the following languages: Awadhi, Bagheli, Bhatneri, Bhili, Bihari, Braj Bhasha, Chhattisgarhi, Garhwali, Gondi (Betul, Chhindwara, and Mandla dialects), Harauti, Ho, Jaipuri, Kachchhi, Kanauji, Konkani, Kului, Kumaoni, Kurku, Kurukh, Marwari, Mundari, Newari, Palpa, and Santali.
   All other Indic scripts, as well as the Sinhala script of Sri Lanka, the Tibetan script, and the Southeast Asian scripts, are historically connected with the Devanagari script as descendants of the ancient Brahmi script. The entire family of scripts shares a large number of structural features
   The writing systems that employ Devanagari and other Indic scripts constitute abugidas -- a cross between syllabic writing systems and alphabetic writing systems. The effective unit of these writing systems is the orthographic syllable, consisting of a consonant and vowel (CV) core and, optionally, one or more preceding consonants, with a canonical structure of (((C)C)C)V. The orthographic syllable need not correspond exactly with a phonological syllable, especially when a consonant cluster is involved, but the writing system is built on phonological principles and tends to correspond quite closely to pronunciation.
   The orthographic syllable is built up of alphabetic pieces, the actual letters of the Devanagari script. These pieces consist of three distinct character types: consonant letters, vowel letters (independent vowels), and vowel signs (dependent vowel signs). In a text sequence, these characters are stored in logical (phonetic) order.

According to D. Wujastyk, the best study specifically of the Devanāgarī script is that of H. M. Lambert, Introduction to the Devanagari Script for students of Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali (Oxford, 1953).
UKT: However, during the 50 years since the publication of Lambert's work, there are bound to be other books!

 Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

Phonetic system

The rigorous phonetic system underlying the written form of the Indic languages was formulated extremely early in India Several hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era, Indian phoneticians had already analysed the sounds of Sanskrit speech, and had composed elaborate tracts on phonetic theory. The result of this early precision and linguistic awareness applied to phonetics is the extremely regular and phonetically-informed nature of all writing systems derived from Brahmī.

UKT: One of the reasons, perhaps the most important, for a group of people identified as Brahmana {brah~ma.Na.} to study phonetics so early in history is due to their superior ability to record a large volume of data to memory. A class (or a caste) within this group, popularly known as Brahmins (known as Poonas {poaN~Na:} in Myanmar) set themselves aside to devote themselves to study and memorise everything that was worth saving for future generations. The data (known as the Vedas) were transmitted from father to son, and from teacher to pupil, through the spoken language. And unless they knew the nature of the human speech and the grammar of their language in detail, their records (recorded in the human brain) would become corrupt. Every other castes were expected to support this group, and there are tracks in Myanmar literature exhorting us to support this class even though they and we are of different religions. I have the good fortune during my teaching years in Mandalay, to come across a sizable group of Poonas (who consider themselves to be Brahmins of the highest caste). There were many Poona youths in my Chemistry class. A memorable thing did happen during those years: one day a Poona girl student of mine (who is now a practicing astrologer in Mandalay) approached me respectfully and requested that I teach my specialty in Hindu astrology (ashtakavaga) to her uncle!. That request I had to decline because the Hindu astrology that I know was from English texts and what he was expecting me to do was to teach in Sanskrit !
   At least in one area of modern India, Manipur, which is one of the gate-ways between India in the west and Myanmar in the east, the Sanskrit speakers and the Tibeto-Burmese speakers are still struggling for linguistic dominance. This was probably similar to what had happened in northern India in the days of Gautama Buddha and Asoka. There, the Sanskrit speakers prevailed, whereas in modern Manipur, it is Tibeto-Burmese speakers who got their language recognized as the official language. See Manipuri Language by Ashim Kumar, http://manipuri.freeservers.com/

The Devanagarī script explicitly differentiates voiced and unvoiced consonants, as well as aspirated and unaspirated ones. The script also distinguishes the consonants according to POA (position of articulation -- according to modern linguistics) in the mouth. Thus there are 5 series (vargs) of letters: velar (gutteral), palatal, retroflex (cerebral), dental, and labial. Each series has voiced and unvoiced consonants, and each of these has aspirated and unaspirated forms. (See the POA corresponding to the older terms in the diagram below.) That makes twenty phonemes. To each series is added a nasal which increases the members to five, and for five series there are 25 phonemes. After the five series come the semivowels, sibilants (Devanagari s's -- Myanmar {tha.}) and a glottal fricative (non-vargs).  Added to these are vowels (short and long). All are placed corresponding to well-defined phonetic qualities. In almost every case, each written letterform represents a distinct phoneme. This is probably unique for any script.

• All together there are 33 to 34 consonants in Devanagari. Although D. Wujastyk did not to mention the number of consonants, there are websites giving the count as 33 and some as 34.  This should be compared to the 33 consonants in Myanmar. Probably the difference between Devanagari and Myanmar is due to the presence of 3 characters (U0936 - Windows XP Sha, U0937 - Window XP Ssa, U0938 - Windows XP Sa) corresponding (place-correspondence -- not phonetic correspondence) to Myanmar {tha.} and the inclusion of {a.} in Myanmar.
• It should also be noted that M-Pali (or Myanmar) {tha.} is exactly like the English <th> which has two phonemes /θ/ U03B8 and /๐/ U00F0. According to IPA /θ/ and /๐/ are dental fricatives, whereas /s/ is alveolar fricative. The POA of dentals and alveolar are next to each other, and this was probably the reason why, the Indian phoneticians had substituted Tibeto-Burman with Devanagari [s].


POA diagram from: http://www.americansanskrit.com/athome/online01/position.html

• In Myanmar abugida, the consonants are presented in a matrix of 7 rows and 5 columns.
   However, the 7th row is occupied by only three members resulting in 33 consonants.
   The main differences between Devanagari and Myanmar are in rows 2 and 6.
• Note the absence of labio-dentals /f/ and /v/ in the above five series of letters in both Devanagari
   and Myanmar. This makes it very difficult to transliterate English-Latin /f/ and /v/ to B-Myanmar
   (Bama written in Myanmar script.).

This phonetic regularity makes the issue of transliteration much easier than it might otherwise be. Indeed, European scholars of Sanskrit settled on a transliteration scheme in roman characters over a hundred years ago (much to confusion of Burmese-Myanmar speakers), and this scheme has been revised very little since that time.

Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index

English and Myanmar syllables

For an English syllable, we must have at least a vowel represented by a vowel-letter. When the English vowel has a consonantal sound (which restricts the flow of the sound of the vowel), it must be represented at least by CV, where C is a consonantal-character and V a vowel-character. It is not so in a Myanmar syllable, because the Myanmar character is essentially a CV.

Here, I will base my discussion on Myanmar akhkara instead of on Devanagari akshara. This I am doing to be on safer grounds. The assumption is Myanmar akhara and Devanagari akshara are the same.

The main difference between the English and Myanmar consonantal-characters is due to the absence or presence of the inherent vowel. English letters do not have any inherent vowel and cannot be pronounced. Thus, in English:

k -- has no sound and cannot be pronounced.
kk -- still has no sound and cannot be pronounced.

In Myanmar:

-- has a sound. It is phonetically represented as /ka/ because of its inherent vowel /a/. Moreover, it has a meaning: v. <to dance>.
-- has a sound. It is phonetically represented as /kaka/. But it has no meaning.

For the English set kk to have a sound, we must insert a vowel according to CVC format. For instance, put an /a/, and we get kak represented by /kak/. The English syllable kak has a sound but has no meaning. To form a syllable from English consonantal letters we have to insert a vowel. kk is given life by a, and it becomes kak.

In the case of Myanmar , it already has the sound /kaka/. Unlike what we do in English, if we have to kill the vowel of one to make it to have a meaning provided we know which vowel to kill. The devise that is used to kill the inherent vowel is known in Myanmar as {a.thut}. It is represented by the sign similar to a "flag" or a "streamer" {tanฐhkwun}. The following table shows two cases of using the {a.thut}.

+ +    
{ka.}   {ka.}   a.thut   *[kak]   {kak} meaning: <domino>
+ + vertical ligature or conjunct
{ka.}   a.thut   {ka.}   *[kka]   *[kka] no sound, no meaning

The Myanmar term {a.thut} (meaning: the "killer" has an equivalent in Devanagari: the virama.

Top | TIL home page
Linguistics - index
End of TIL file