The Meitei Mayek script — also sometimes called Meithei Mayek, Meitei Mayek, or Manipuri — looks very different from the the Bengali/Assamese script that is now used in Manipur and its Indian/Bangladeshi neighbours. It also looks very different from the script used in Mayanmar to the east.
Nobody is really sure how old it is or where it came from (although it is clearly Brahmi-derived). It turns out that the Hindus were almost as good as the Spanish conquistadors at erasing a script: when Manipur became Hindu in 1729 AD, almost all of the written works in Meitei Mayek were destroyed. It was revived in the 20th century, although in a simplified form.
Spoken Meitei has comparatively few sounds, so Meitei Mayek has quite a small number of characters. It is unlike most Indic writing systems in several respects:
- Meitei Mayek has a few characters that are simple consonants (e.g. “t” instead of “ta”). These are only used at the ends of words.
- It never uses conjuncts to kill vowels. It has three ways to kill consonants:
- with a virama,
- with a final-consonant symbol, as described above (only at the end of a word), and
- with of three vowel symbols (“i”,”u”, and (historical Meitei only) “o”) at the end of a word.
- Its “independent vowels” (symbols that represent a vowel by itself, without a preceding consonant) can appear in the middle of a word, not just at the beginning. It is used this way to show diphthongs. (Syloti Nagari, by contrast, has a vowel diacritic for the “oi” diphthong that does not have an independent vowel form.)
- It is permissible to put more than one vowel diacritic onto one glyph to show repetition of related characters. For example, it is normal to write “pepupo” as “pa+”e” diacritic, followed by “pa” + “u” diacritic, followed by “pa”+”o” diactric. However, it can be abbreviated with “pa”+”e” diacritic +”u” diacritic+”o” diacritic. This is similar to Tibetan.
- Meitei is a tonal language, and while mostly this not shown in the writing system, the “u” and the “i” have two different diacritics for two different tones.
- Most Indic Brahmi-derived scripts have a different glyph for each independent vowel. Meitei has one character for that means “this is some independent vowel”, and you put a diacritic on that glyph to give it the identity of a particular vowel. This is also like Tibetan.