Posted by: cochinblogger | March 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Scripts

As schoolchildren traveling by train from Calcutta to Chennai, we spent most of our time glued to the window. The view outside was balm for the soul after months of living in a concrete jungle. It was also mute testimony to the diversity of India, though as children we would not have registered that idea. The lush greenery and numerous water bodies of Bengal and Orissa gradually gave way to the more barren expanse of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Yet another indication of this diversity was the change in lettering on the name boards at railway stations as one left one province and entered another.

Bengali and Oriya are both Prakritic languages. And Prakrit was a vernacular derived from Sanskrit. Every railway station name board has the name of the station written in three languages: English, Hindi (middle in photo above), and the local language (Malayalam on top in photo above). The Hindi script varies dramatically from the scripts of the Dravidian languages Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. The latter letters are rounded and curvilinear in shape and lack the overhead line present in most Prakritic languages.

Oriya does not fit this neat classification. It is a Prakritic language, but lacks the overhead horizontal line. At first sight Oriya looks like a Dravidian language, but on closer examination it becomes clear that it’s just a more curvaceous form of the Bengali script. Why does Oriya not have an overhead line like other Prakritic languages such as Hindi and Bengali? And why for that matter do Dravidian scripts lack the overhead line?

The latter question is answered in a book I recently acquired, Writing as a Visual Art by Graziella Tonfoni, who is a pioneering Italian linguist. Here is the relevant excerpt from page 35:

There’s speculation that ordinary leaves were the earliest writing material. It’s difficult to prove this theory, however, because untreated leaves disintegrate easily, and anything written on them would not have survived from antiquity. Treated palm leaves with writing on them have been found, however, and there’s clear evidence that this material was widely used for writing in India and other countries of Southeast Asia. The process used to make palm leaves suitable for writing was a simple one: each leaf was separated from its central rib, soaked, boiled, dried, and then rubbed smooth.

The shape and texture of the processed palm leaf had a decisive influence upon writing. Ancient Indian manuscripts written on palm leaves retained the leaf’s characteristic oblong shape. The texture of the palm leaf also affected characteristics of the script used in writing. It’s interesting to note, for instance, that in Sanskrit, which was the classical language of India, all the words of a sentence were connected by a long horizontal line. This worked well in northern India, where scribes used a pen and ink; but in southern India, where scribes used a sharp metal stylus to incise characters, it proved disastrous. When the sharp stylus was used to male a long horizontal stroke, it invariably split the palm-leaf material because its fibers also ran horizontally. As a consequence, in southern India the writing script became more rounded and no horizontal connecting strokes were used.

This is an interesting explanation for the difference between Prakritic and Dravidian scripts. (The writer, by the way, is wrong in one respect; it is not the words of a sentence that are connected by a long horizontal line but the letters in a word. Also, India has more than one classical language: Tamil, for instance.)

And since Oriya falls in the Dravidian mold, one suspects the scribes there, like their southern counterparts, must have used a metal stylus rather than pen and ink.



  1. interesting explanation

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