Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Tamil Syllabary chez Diderot

I actually mean to say the Tamil syllabarium, that is, the syllable chart used for learning to read and write Tamil. The classification of the script is independent from discussing the table of all possible syllables, of CV forms, in Tamil (excluding the Grantha forms).

I first saw a Tamil syllabarium when one was brought to me by a student who had written it out in pencil on two pieces of binder paper, carefully taped together. Why is it so important to represent the Tamil script in a syllabarium? Simply because the vowels often consist of modifications of the consonant form, rather than separate letters. This is not entirely predictable and there are enough cases where you are better off memorizing the syllables first and understanding how it all gets put together later, especially if you are a child.

When plates of Indic and other Asian scripts were created for the Encylop├ędie of Diderot and Alembert in the mid 18th century, only Tamil was represented by a syllabarium. The other scripts simply had a list of independent and dependent vowels and the consonants with inherent a.

Once again Tamil breaks the pattern. In Isaac Taylor, Tamil was represented by an abecedarium, an alphabet, and in Diderot by a syllabarium, a syllable chart. The other Indic scripts are represented in both Taylor and Diderot by forms that are now described as abugida forms.

Unicode, however, is oblivious to Diderot and Taylor. Tamil is encoded much like the other Indic scripts, as an abugida, where the primary form of the consonant is considered to be the form which includes the inherent a vowel. It should not be surprising that there have been requests to reencode Tamil, this time as either an alphabet or a syllabary but not an abugida.


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