Saturday, June 04, 2005

Tamil Pulli in Taylor's "Alphabet"

There was quite a lot of talk last month on the Unicode mail list about Tamil. The argument was made that Tamil consonants have been defined as pure "mey" or consonants without a vowel sound for at least 2000 years. However, in Unicode they have been encoded as consonants plus the medial a vowel.

The pure consonant is represented by a consonant plus pulli (dot over the letter). As it stands now the consonant with the inherent a vowel has been encoded and the dot is added as a new codepoint. However, certain Tamil advocates are arguing that the pure consonant, or consonant pulli, should have been encoded and then the pulli would be removed by keying in the medial a vowel.

I have been reading Isaac Taylor's The Alphabet and came across his tables of Indic scripts. Alone out of 24 Indic scripts only Tamil has the pure consonants, or consonant plus pulli, represented in the list. All other scripts are represented by the consonant with the inherent a vowel.

Was Taylor, 1883, somehow aware that for Tamil the pure consonants are the primary forms, whereas in other Indic scripts the primary forms are the consonant with inherent a? How was that knowledge lost to the west?


Anonymous ACW said...

I don't understand what the "pure mey" claim means; I'm not even sure it has a coherent meaning.

One possible reading of the claim is that the glyphs including pulli are basic, and the ones without pulli are derived (the derivation process being "remove the pulli").

But this reading invites an obvious question: how did we get so lucky that the basic forms of the glyphs all happened to have a pulli waiting to be removed?

I suppose the thing that most troubles me about the claim is that we are expected to believe that either it or its complement is true in some sense. But surely the claim and its negative are both merely matters of viewpoint? The designers of Unicode could choose either approach: both are coherent, though I admit the inherent-pulli account seems silly to me. What basic truth does the present approach violate?

3:13 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Gift Siromoney's homepage.

"We shall show that the Tamil-Brahmi I system is more primitive than the Asokan system. In the former system every consonant sign stands for a pure consonant. If a vowel were to follow a pure consonant it is represented either by printing an initial vowel sign next to the consonant or by modifying the consonant sign by the addition of a short stroke or two which represent an appropriate medial vowel sign. For example consider the case of the consonant K which is written in the form of a cross. A cross with the addition of a horizontal stroke at the top right hand side will represent KA, a stroke at the bottom right hand side will represent KU, a stroke on the top left hand side will represent KE and so on. The same principle is used for all the vowels and vowel a does not get any special priority over other vowels. This system is more logical and more basic than the Asokan system. We recall that in the Asokan Brahmi system, a cross sign stands for KA or K+A. A vertical stroke on the top right hand side makes it KI or (K+A)-A+I. The Asokan system, therefore, is less primitive and less logical than the Tamil-Brahmi I notational system. The fact that there exists a system of writing in Tamil which is more logical and more basic than the Asokan system supports our hypothesis that Tamil-Brahmi is a little more ancient than Asokan Brahmi,"

View his page to see an example of what it looked ike.

Of course, these are are viewpoints but is interesting to see that both Diderot and Taylor differentiated their representation of Tamil from that of all other Indic scripts. Their treatment of Tamil has continuity with its 2000 year old history.

There is more history here as well.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tamil is not a abugida! i do not understand how on earth the westerners got the idea that tamil is a abugida. in tamil there never was the notation of a inherant vowel. i'm assuming they got this idea after viewing tamil from sanskrit or hindi standpoint.

anceint tamil brahmi alphabet was more clear on this aspect but modern alphabet has undergone many modifications over the ages, that the aspect of a inherant pulli is not clearly visible.

11:06 PM  

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