Ol Chiki — 1925 AD, India

Ol Chiki "t"

The Santali spoken language is not an Indo-European language, while  the majority spoken languages in northern India are Indo-Europeean.  (Santali is an Austro-Asiatic language, and hence more closely related to Vietnamese than to Sanskrit.)  The Indic writing systems designed for Indo-European languages were thus deemed to be unsuited to Santali — the consonants weren’t right, there wasn’t a sign for the glottal stop, and there weren’t enough vowels.  Similarly, the Latin script didn’t have a glottal stop sign or a way of indicating vowel length.

Me, I think they could have gotten around those issues by adding characters or diacritics, or doubling vowels, but Pandit Raghunath Murmu decided to develop a script in 1925.  He introduced in a book titled “Ol Cemet” (“Language Learning”), and so the script is sometimes called “Ol Cemet”.

Ol Chiki is an alphabetic script, and one of the very few alphabets in the world that does not descend directly from Greek.  However, with English being widespread in India, clearly Murmu knew how alphabets work.

Murmu designed the glyphs to look like things that incorporated that glyph’s sound, and used the name of the object to be the name of the character.  For example, the word for “mushroom” is “ud”; there is a character named “ud” that looks like a mushroom, and which represents  “d” (or “t” when unvoiced).  The glyph for the character named “aag” is designed to look like the shape of the mouth when throwing up, and it represents is a choking sound: “g” (or “k” when unvoiced).

Like the abugidas in the area (northeast India), Ol Chiki uses several diacritics on its vowels to change the length, nasalization, and vocalization (whether it is voiced or unvoiced).

Links: Wikipedia, Omniglot, We Santals

Posted in Alphabet, inventor known, National pride, previous script didn't quite work, Rating: 4 "Huh, interesting!" | Tagged | 1 Comment

Zolai — 1952 AD, India

Zolai "hr"

There is a small ethnic group on the border of India and Burma with many names.  They are called the Zo, Zou, Jo, Chin, and several other names. They speak a language that is in the same language family as the language which the Pau Cin Hau logographic script and the Pau Cin Hau alphabetic script were developed for; whether it is a separate language or part of the same language as Pin Chin Hau was used for (which has many names including Tedim) is unclear.  (I could not find much information about this language.)

In 1952, M. Siahzathang developed a script (usually called Zolai) for writing the Zou language.  This happened at the same time as rapid Christianization of the Zou people; I speculate that the Christians wanted to erase the connection between the Laipian religion founded by Mr. Pau Chin Hau and people’s writing system.

There are several unusual features of the Zolai script.

  • Unlike most scripts, it has both capital and small letters.
  • It is a cross between a syllabary and an alphabet: there are some glyphs that represent vowels (e.g. “a”, “e”, and “o”), some that represent syllables (e.g. “ka”, “mo”, and “fi”, and some that represent consonants (e.g. “th”, “ph”), and even some that look to me like consonant clusters (e.g. “hr”, “tl”, and “lh”).
  • It has gotten significantly more characters over time: it started with 25 characters and now has 90.  It seems more common to me for a language to start with a lot more characters, then drop a lot of them.  Sometimes, a language will gain small numbers of characters over time to handle foreign loan words, but I haven’t seen an almost 4x increase in 50 years before.

Links: Unicode introduction

Posted in inventor known, National pride, Rating: 4 "Huh, interesting!", Syllabaries | Leave a comment

Pau Cin Hau alphabet — 1931 AD, Mayanmar

Pau Cin Hau “r”

The Pau Cin Hau logographic script was reformed in 1931 AD, moving from a logographic language to an alphabet.  While it is not unusual for a phonetic writing system to evolve from a logographic writing system, it is very rare to do so in only 29 years.

Update: I have found several other examples of a script starting logographic and then shifting to something else.  Sequoyah  experimented with logograms before shifting to a syllabary for Cherokee;  same with King Njoya for Bamun (in fourteen years) and Uyaquq for Yugtun script.

In addition to consonants and vowels, the script also has 9 characters for final consonants and 20 tone marks.

The term “tone mark” is misleading, as they actually represent much more than the pitch.  They also represent vowel length, the glottal stop, and punctuation.

The American Baptist missionary Joseph H. Cope developed an orthography (spelling rules) for Pau Cin Hau using the Latin alphabet, which ended up displacing the Pin Cin Hau alphabet.  The use of the Pau Cin Hau alphabet is very limited now.

Links: Unicode proposal

Posted in Alphabet, inventor known, Rating: 4 "Huh, interesting!" | 1 Comment

Pau Cin Hau Logograms — 1902 AD, Mayanmar

Pau Cin Hai unknown logogram

In 1902 AD, a man named Pau Cin Hau had a dream where the characters of a logographic script were revealed to him.  He also developed the Laipian religion, and his script was used extensively in liturgical works.  Laipian actually means “script-based”, so the script was intimately connected to the religion.

The script had around one thousand characters, which is a small number for a logographic language.

Also unusually for a logographic language, the glyphs are very abstract, with no recognizable connection to tangible physical objects.

There is a story that the Chin people had a script in ancient times, but that there was only one copy of it, written on an animal hide.  The guardian of the script went travelling with his dog, who got hungry and ate the script!

In the 1950s, there was a rapid Christianization of the Chin people, which lead to a drop in the number of people who learned the Laipian scripts.

Links: Unicode proposal

Posted in inventor known, Logograms, National pride, now ceremonial, Rating: 3 "I did not know that" | 7 Comments

Mahajani — 1600 AD? <1850 AD?, India

Mahajani "nn"

Mahajani, like the Punjabi Landa, was used as a mercantile script (and is sometimes classified with Landa).  Unlike Punjabi Landa, which dispenses with vowels altogether, Mahajani is sort of like a sloppy alphabet.  It is possible to show a vowel by writing in a separate vowel glyph (not with a diacritic), but the vowel is frequently omitted.  Even when a vowel is written, it can be ambiguous: “ka” + “i” can represent either “ki” or “kai”.

I described Syloti Nagari earlier as having “Semitic attitude” towards its writing system, trusting that the readers would understand ambiguous use of vowels.  One might suggest that I should say that Mahajani is also somewhat Semitic, or that Syloti Nagari is somewhat like the mercantile Khudawadi, Landa, or Mahajani scripts.  However, the mercantile scripts were intended for personal or family use, not for communicating with strangers.

Written Mahanaji sometimes looks like it has a horizontal “head line” like Devanagari, however the glyphs normally do not have a head line.  If a head line is written in, it signifies emphasis much like underlining in the Latin script.

Links: Unicode proposal, Wikipedia (very skimpy as of 9 May 2011, but it might get better)

Posted in Abjad, Alphabet, mercantile script, Rating: 3 "I did not know that" | Leave a comment


I have wrestled a little bit with how to handle technical terms like abugida and virama.  The first time I use them, it’s a no-brainer: I explain them.  But what should I do the second time?  I didn’t want to bore people by explaining the same thing over and over again, but I also didn’t want to confuse people who joined in the middle.  (Don’t do that, start at the beginning.)

I decided that Wikipedia had great definitions of these terms, so I should just let people go there if they were confused.

However, fully 8% of my regular readership — Jeff Powell — asked for a glossary, and that overwhelming groundswell of support convinced me to write a glossary.  If you need to find it again, it is the second link in the sidebar, right under Start at the beginning.

Posted in Administration | 2 Comments

Tikamuli — 2005, Nepal

Tikamuli "bhla"

As I mentioned in the Jenticha post, there is a language called Sunuwar which is spoken in both India and Nepal, and has been written in Jenticha in both Nepal and northern India.

In 2005, Tikaram Mulicha developed the Tikamuli script as a competitor to Jenticha.

Like Jenticha, it is an abugida with no single direct ancestor, but with similarities to many.  Like Jenticha, it is an abugida. Like Jenticha, the glyph shapes look similar to some glyphs from other languages.  For example, the Tikamuli “gha” looks a lot like the Limbu “tho”.  Like Jenticha, Tikamuli has a diacritic for turning short vowels into long vowels.

Unlike Jenticha, it does not represent killed consonants with consonant conjuncts, but only with a virama.  Unlike Jenticha, and more like most other Indic scripts, Tikamuli has vowel diacritics instead of independent characters for vowels.

There are also two diacritics for consonants, which is somewhat unusual.  One is for converting an unaspirated consonant into an aspirated consonant.  The other diacritic adds a “l” to a syllable.  The glyph for this post, above, shows both combined: the left hand, tall part of the glyph is the “b”; the squarish hook to its right (the “first hump of the ‘m'”) is the aspirated sound to make “bh”; the curvy hook at the far right (the “second hump of the ‘m'”) is the “l”.

Links: Unicode proposal

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Jenticha — 1942 AD, Nepal

Jenticha “Hha”

In Northern India and southern Nepal, there is a language called Sunuwar, alternatively Kõits-Lo, Mukhiya, Kiranti-Kõits, Koinch, Koincha, and Koints.  In 1942, Karna Jenticha developed a script for this language.

There have been two versions of Jenticha: the first was a pure alphabet: consonants did not have an implied vowel.  However, in the second (current) revision, an implied vowel was added.  I find it very interesting that someone could be surrounded by abugidas, deliberately design an alphabet and not an abugida, and then change his mind to stick in an implied vowel.  I don’t know if he changed his mind, if his public clamoured for an implied vowel so they wouldn’t have to write as many characters, if he intended for there to be an implied vowel but his design was misinterpreted, or if he didn’t realize that there should be a vowel there.  (One of my colleagues is a Canadian who learned Punjabi and Gurmukhi at home, and she honestly did not know that there was an implied vowel attached to the consonants in Gurmukhi because its sound in spoken Punjabi is so faint and subtle.)

Jenticha does not have vowel diacritics: to change an implied vowel, you write the syllable, then the next vowel.  For example, to write “te”, you would write “ta”+”e”.  The original version of the script did not have a virama or conjuncts — you don’t need those if you don’t need to kill vowels, but the later version does.  Its consonant conjuncts are quite regular.  There is a “half-form” of syllabic characters which are used in consonant conjuncts; those characters can also be interpreted to mean which means “the vowel has been killed”, i.e. as a pure consonant.

Jenticha’s glyph shapes are not obviously derived from any other individual language; it doesn’t “look like Bengali” or “like Devanagari”, for example.  However, there are a number of characters which look very similar to glyphs in other languages: its “O” looks almost exactly like the Latin “O”, for example; the Jenticha “tha” looks almost exactly like the Limbu “tha”.  There are even more letters which bear a resemblance: the Jenticha “ma” looks quite a like like a stylized Latin “m”.

Links: Unicode proposal

UPDATE: Based on personal communication with an expert, I fixed the name of the creator and the location of the creation.

Posted in Abugida, Alphabet, inventor known, National pride, Rating: 4 "Huh, interesting!" | 1 Comment

Meitei Mayek — 1100 AD, India

Meitei Mayek “Sa”

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.

Links: Wikipedia, Omniglot, Ancient Scripts, Unicode proposal, Tabish

Posted in Abugida, Rating: 4 "Huh, interesting!" | 2 Comments

Assamese — 1200 AD, India

Assamese "ra"

Assamese is interesting because it is so very close to Bengali script.  There are only two characters which are different.

Frequently, writing systems differ by a few characters because a writing system was adapted for spoken language B from a writing system designed for spoken language A, and B had a few sounds that were not represented in B’s writing system.

For one of the characters that is different between Bengali and Assamese, that appears to be the case.  There is a Bengali glyph that represents both “wa” or “va” — which are not usefully different in spoken Bengali. In Assamese, the distinction is important, so they made a separate character.

For the other character, it’s slightly trickier.  The Bengali “ra” character looks like the “wa”/”va” character, but with a dot just below and to the left of the “sail”, different from the character shown at the top of this post.  The dot is a nukta, which is used in essentially all the Brahmi-derived languages to transliterate foreign sounds.  It is similar to the way that we use italic script and the Japanese use Katakana script to say, “Yo!  This is from a different language!”

Unlike italic and Katakana, the nukta operates on a phoneme basis instead of a word basis.  As an analogy, it would be as if instead of writing “Johannes Bach”, I would write “Johannes Bak”, but with a dot under the “k”.

Thus, the Bengali “ra” by its look, says “This is a foreign sound.  It is different, it is not natural, it is not part of who we are”.  Using it would be a constant reminder that the people who wrote the script considered the readers to be “others”.  My Bengali-speaking sources tell me that “ra” is a common sound in Bengali, and not at all “foreign” sounding.

Perhaps the Assamese were more sensitive to “foreign” influence; by making their own character without a nukta, they were perhaps claiming the sound as one of their own.

Note that there are three characters in both Bengali and Assamese that transliterate as “ra”, and in Bengali and Assamese both, the glyphs for the other two forms of “ra” both have nuktas.

Links: Wikipedia, Omniglot, Ancient Scripts

Posted in Abugida, National pride, Rating: 4 "Huh, interesting!" | Leave a comment