Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Consonant Array

We think of an alphabet as a linear phenomenon which stretches out in one dimension unless lack of space requires that it double back on itself and start a new line. The vowels are deposited among the consonants in an unorganized pattern to be picked out later and set apart. Each vowel has two regular sounds and an uneven number of other sounds which it can make in combination with other letters. But this is not reflected in the alphabet itself.

The letters of the alphabet are arbitrary and once a pattern is found it is shown to be inconsistent. B resembles P and G resembles C, but no one can convince me that D resembles T. Where did K come from? Or do I mean, where did C come from?

The letters remain in a fixed sequence by convention: there is no asociation to a numeric sequence for the Roman alphabet.

The alphabet has been variously described:

"Hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the busines of spellingis to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning." Shaw in his preface to The Miraculous Birth of Language.

"Meaningless shapes arbitrarily linked to meaningless sounds." ?

"The sillinesses of the English alphabet are quite beyond enumeration. That alphabet consists of nothing whatever except sillinesses. I venture to repeat that whereas the English orthography needs reforming and simplifying, the English alphabet needs it two or three million times more." Mark Twain.

On the other hand, Indic writing systems are presented in a two dimensional array which is organized phonetically.

"The precedence of grammar over the script is a hallmark of Indian writing system. Long before there was any script, they had developed the concept of letters (aksara), consonants (vyanjana) and vowels (svara). Phonetic analysis of 'mantras' and its recitation from generation to generation was transferred orally in the absence of any writing system. Therefore, we see a systematic arrangement of letters in the script. The whole set of basic letters are arranged in a phonetic order. Vowels come first in the arrangement (aksaramala, the string of letters) followed by the consonants grouped together on the basis of their articulation (velars, pre-palatals, retroflexes, dentals and labials, in that order.) All the consonant letters have an inherent vowel 'a' with them (unless or otherwise specified by other explicit vowel signs attached." Prakash and Joshi Orthography and Reading in Kannada.

In addition to this organization of consonants and vowels into tables, the syllables are also presented in a syllable matrix. While the article by Prakesh and Joshi provides a table of all the syllables in the Kannada aksaramala, I cannot find a comparable table for Kannada on the internet. The table for Kannada on page 100 of their article has 16 columns and 34 rows. The authors indicate that children learning to read in Kannada are not taught the classification of sounds and lettrs but mechanically learn the syllables from one end of the syllable chart to the other. (1995)

So an Indic writing system has two arrays; one for the classification of sounds and the other for the aksara, or syllables. These two tables combined demonstrate the organization of an Indic writing system. The Roman alphabet has a single arbitrary one dimensional organization.

I am organizing this material to remind myself of how the concept of a writing system may vary from one culture to another.

1 Comments:

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