The Bond between Language and Script
Translated by Dr Shakira Jabeen
December 22, 2017
I have always believed that travelling is more rewarding than reading. Unless one travels the length and breadth of India, there is no way to understand the diversity that adorns her. It was not until I visited Tripura did I know that Kokborok is one of the official languages spoken by lakhs of people written in Roman and Bengali scripts. On my trip to Meghalaya I learnt that Khasi was written in Roman script. Anyone who knows English can effortlessly read the Kokborok and Khasi newspapers. That person can only read and not understand a single word. This reflects the relationship language shares with script. Language and script do not share one to one relationship. There is no guarantee that one would understand a language through a script. The connection between language and script is arbitrary—any language can be written in any script and all languages can be written in one script. Presently, Kannada is being written in Roman script for texting and messaging. Urdu is written in Gurumukhi script in Panjab, in Devanagari in Rajasthan, and in Nasthaliq in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Nasthaliq is written from right to left. Sindhi is written in Devanagari in Gujarat and in Nasthaliq in the Sindh province of Pakistan. In Karnataka, the religious Urdu literature is also written in Kannada. Sanskrit is written in almost all the scripts of the world.
Language always precedes script in origin. Script is born when a speech community feel the need to record their speech. Kannada language that existed before Christ had to wait till the first millennium to evolve a script. Halmidi inscription (450 AD) is the first available proof of Kannada script. Practically, there is no need that a script should stay with the language forever. Tulu speech community writes their language in Kannada. They can always shift to another script, or revert to the old script they used in the past. Konkani speech community of Karnataka have been using both Kannada and Devanagari script to create literature. The Kendra Sahitya Academy has ruled that Konkani literature written in Kannada script will not be considered for the Sahitya Academy awards. This ruling comes in the way of the diverse choice of scripts that languages enjoy. Kalidasa found a union between the word and its meaning. He represented this union with the metaphor of Parvathy and Parameshwara’s indelible relationship. Strangely, language that represents the meaning through the word is not indelibly connected with the script.
In the light of this background, it is interesting to analyse the history of the "Modi" script of North Karnataka. There is proof available that Hindi, Urdu, and Marathi languages were written in "Modi" script. Strangely, "Modi" is not a language by itself. It’s only a script. It is believed to be a twisted version of the "Nagari" script. The etymology of the word "Modi" is traced to the Marathi word "modna," meaning "to twist". The origin of this script is as interesting. Before the advent of paper, the orders from the rulers were inscribed on stone or bronze tablets. With the introduction of paper, writing with ink began. The styles or the writing instruments that were used had to be dipped in ink. Every time a letter was written, the style/pen had to be lifted before writing another letter and, as a result, ink would spill on to the paper. To avoid this mess, a method of continuous writing without lifting the pen was invented. It is then that the letters of the "Nagari" script were twisted, enjoined and transformed into the "Modi" script. The Adilshahis, the Peshwas, Maratha soldiers, and the British used this script to write letters and "farmaans". Not everyone could read the "Modi" script. It was left to a few experts to decode, which elevated ‘Modi’ into cryptograph. There are many scripts around us which are inaccessible to many but accessible to decoders. The Western musical notations, short hand, and some inscriptions found in village temples, are some examples. The popular joke about the pharmacist being the only person who can read a doctor’s prescription, refers to writing that requires a decoder to read.
All societies have their mysterious scripts, i.e., cryptographs. The philosophical literature of the Kodaikal Basavanna’s sect of Gulbarga is written in a special script called "Amaragannada". The intention of secret scripts is to keep information within a small group. The coded method of account keeping of Marwari’s can be deciphered only be them. The desire to have a hegemonic grip on administration, metaphysics, indigenous medical knowledge, trade and treasure, etc, must have given birth to secret scripts. Who knows, there may be secret scripts which can still be read!
These mysterious scripts have given birth to multiple thrilling stories and legends. If we enquire about the inscriptions present in some village temple, the villagers invariably say that if one can read the inscription upside down, it directs the way to a hidden treasure. There are multiple stories around the "Modi" script too. Meanings like "witchcraft" and "magic" attributed to the word "Modi" add to the mystery surrounding the script. Traders and administrators used "Modi" to hide information from the general public.
A script not only has the power to represent speech in writing but also to transmit information to a distant place without the mediational presence of the speaker. It’s as simple as Tolstoy’s writings in Russian language reaching us through translation in a known language and a familiar script, or Shakespeare’s dramas reaching us in modern English or in translation. It’s chilling to remind ourselves that there would be no authors and writers without scripts. As a fall out, there wouldn’t be large scale transmission and preservation of knowledge without scripts. Ironically, script are both empowering and depriving. A script can deprive people of knowledge. We need to empathise with the people who can’t read and write. Documents have been signed without knowing what they contain. Personal letters have been taken to total strangers for reading. It’s a sad truth that society is divided along the lines of the literates and the illiterates, i.e., the script-knowing and script-ignorant. The literate practice hegemony over the illiterate and misuse script to cheat the illiterates.
Generally, there cannot be a script without language unless it is meant to hold secrets. But, there are languages without scripts. In modern times, a script is inevitable for a language. Languages like Koraga, Lambani, Kodava, Omma Kodava, and Byary have trailed due to their lack of script. The knowledge systems held in these oral languages get confined to small areas. Languges like Khasi, which have adopted the Roman script, have broken the shackles and moved forward, proving, in turn, that all languages can be written in any script. Ideally, every language should have its own script to be able to express the unique sounds in those languages. But this wish would go against the arbitrary relationship that script shares with language. More often than not, the borrowed scripts don’t represent all the sounds of a language. For example, the retroflex "l" which is absent in English is represented with "zh" while writing the word "tamizh", knowing full well that "zh" does not stand for the retroflex "l". The "z" sound of Persian, Urdu and English are represented in Kannada with "j".
There are deeper problems even when a language has its own script. The cultural baggage a language carries forms a barrier while expressing diverse cultural views. Women find it difficult to express their inner feelings and trepidations in a language designed by men. The marginalised find standard languages inadequate to express their experiences. The same is true of people who bear the cultural burden of languages which are not of this soil. Worst of all is the state where a foreign language, script, and culture arer imposed on a speech community. The loss that the community faces in terms of memory, culture, and knowledge system is nothing less than the death of that speech community.
Rahamath Tarikere is a Professor at the Kannada University in Hampi and a Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer. He returned his Sahitya Akademi Award to protest against the killings of scholar M M Kalburgi and rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare
Dr. Shakira Jabeen B is from the Department of English, Nehru Memorial College, Sullia, Karnataka
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