Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra
The evolution of the script of any language must be based on symbols or
signs denoting various "units" of its speech (phonemes). Most of the
European languages including English are written in the Roman script.
There is a script called Brahmi and the Asokan edicts are in it. In fact
from Brahmi that the scripts of most Indian languages have evolved and
these include not only the Devanagari script in which Sanskrit is
but also the Tamil and Grantha scripts.
The Brahmi lipi or script has two branches. Of the two, the Pallava
Grantha script was prevalent in the South and it is from it that scripts
most of the Dravidian languages evolved.
The Telugu script has a unique feature. While in all other scripts the
letters are written in a clockwise fashion, in Telugu there are letters
written in an anticlockwise fashion, that is the loops are shaped
Parasakti, the Supreme Goddess, is to the left of Isvara and there is
worship associated with her (“vama-marga"). For this reason it is
that some of the letters of the Sricakra should be written in Telugu.
Andhra language itself is said to have a Saiva character. In most parts
India, the child is first taught to write the "Astaksari", [prayer to
but in Andhra Pradesh it is the "Siva Pancaksara". There are places
to Siva in three corners of this state: Kalahasti in the south,
the west and Kotalingaksetram in the north. It is because this land is
within the area marked by these lingas that it is called "Telungu-desa"
(from "Trilinga"). Appayya Diksita has composed a stanza in which he
expresses his regret that he was not born in Andhra.
Andhratvam Andhrabhasacapyandhradesa svajanmabhuh
Tatrapi Yajusi Sakha na 'lpasya tapasah phalam
Appayya Diksita was a Samadevin by birth. "Of the Vedas I am the
Samaveda, "so says Bhagavan in the Gita. But Diksita, a great devotee of
Siva, regrets that he was not born in Andhra, and that too as a
and states that the reason for this was his failure to perform
sufficient measure. The Yajurveda, it will be remembered, contains the
Let me revert to the question of script. As I said before, almost all
scripts in India today have evolved from Brahmi. But it is hard to make
out elements of the original Brahmi in them. So anything that we find
difficult to understand or make out is referred to as "Brahmi-lipi".
this came into usage as "Brahma-lipi", the Creator's "writing" on our
forehead [our destiny]. Now anything we find difficult to understand or
cannot make out is called "Brahma-lipi". Another old script is "Kharosthi".
means the lips of a donkey - these resemble bellows. The
loops protrude in the script. Persian is written in Kharosthi.
Brahmi was our common script just as Roman is today for most European
languages. Now Devanagari [with variations] is the common script for
most Northern languages. We do not realise that each letter or syllable
represents a particular sound or phoneme. There are two different
in Tamil to represent "na". Why should there be two to represent the
same sound, we wonder, thinking it to be unique to that language. But
there is a subtle difference between the two "na"s.
In Telugu there is only one "na". So is the case with other languages.
There are two types of "r" common to Tamil and Telugu. But the two
types differ in the two languages. In Tamil, two 'r's together of one of
these two types form a consonant with a special sound value (kurram,
marrum, sorannai). In Telugu it is different. The Tamil word for horse
"kudirai"; in Telugu it is "kurram" - the two r's are pronounced fully.
Tamil there is no such phoneme. There are some other unique phonemes
in Telugu. In some words "ja" is pronounced as "za". Andhras pronounce
"sala" as "tsala". The Devanagari and Grantha alphabets have 50 letters.
In Telugu there are 52 (including the additional letters in the "ja" and
groups. The Telugu-speaking people sometimes interchange "tha" and
"dha". I am told you find this in some of the compositions of Tyagaraja
When we transliterate passages from one language into another we must
keep these peculiarities in mind. In English also for the same labial
are two letters, "v" and "w". A professor told me that there is a
between the two. The English "v" should be pronounced with the lower
lip folded and the upper row of teeth coming into contact with it. When
"w" is pronounced the lips do not come into contact with the teeth but
are turned round. Words like "Sarasvati" and "Isvara" must be written
with a "v" (not as "Saraswati" and "Iswara").
Sanskrit, more than any other language, exemplifies the principle of
phonetic spelling. In English the spelling is erratic and confusing. I
remember reading a newspaper heading recently: "Legislature wound up.
I read the word "wound" in the sense of a hurt or
injury. Of course it was actually used as the past participle of "wind".
the word "wind" can also mean a breeze but then it is pronounced
differently. So it is all confusing. Is the word "put" pronounced in the
same way as "cut" or "but"? In "walk" and "chalk", the "l" is silent.
Seemingly, such is not the case with Tamil which contains many words
from other languages like Sanskrit. In other Indian languages for each
series of consonants there are four different letters in place of the
Tamil. For instance, the same "ka" is used for "kan" (Tamil for eye) and
the Sanskrit "mukha" (in Tamil it is written as "mukham") while "Ganga"
is written as "kanga" and "ghatam" (pot in Sanskrit) is written as "katam".
In Tamil the word for mace (the weapon wielded by Bhima) and for story
are written alike as "katai", instead of as "gadai" and "kathai".
In Tamil, unlike in other Indian languages, "ka" serves the purpose of
"kha", "ga", and "gha". "ta" serves for "da" also. Words that have
opposite meanings are spelt identically: "Dosam" and "tosam" meaning
blemish and happiness respectively are written identically. Letters from
the Grantha script are added in Tamil for proper pronunciation _ "sa",
"ha", "ja", "ksa", etc. In the past these letters were not used in Tamil
poetry following the tradition of poetic usage. But now some authors do
not use these Grantha characters even in prose. Since they find it
to get rid of Sanskrit words from the Tamil vocabulary, the next best
they can do perhaps is to rid the language of the letters representing
phonemes of Sanskrit which have no equivalents in the Tamil alphabet.
This causes confusion. If an author writes "catakam" in the strict Tamil
manner it can read also as "sad(h)akam" or "jatakam". From the very
beginning Tamil has not had all the consonants. But why should
characters added to meet this deficiency be dropped? Does it mean
"victory" for Tamil and "defeat" for Sanskrit? Why should there be a
over languages? There is no need to nurse any bitterness against
languages that we think are not our own.
The Tamil script is adequate to write words that are strictly Tamil. The
difficulty is when it comes to its adopting words from other languages
with sounds representing "kha", "ga", "gha", etc. In Sanskrit, Telugu,
Kannada and so on, there are letters for the entire "kavarga",
"ta-varga", "ta-varga", and "pa-varga". In English, as we have already
seen, we cannot pronounce the words according to their spelling. It is
so in Tamil. But in that language too the script is not entirely
You may not agree. But I will tell you what I learned from my
A Northerner learned the Tamil alphabet sufficiently well, that is he
learned to read the individual letters of the alphabet. But he had no
to help him in pronouncing the words properly. He wanted to learn Tamil
because he was keen to read the Tevaram and the Tiruvacakam in the
original. After learning the alphabet he tried to read the Tevaram from
book. Though he had no knowledge of the language he thought he could
earn merit by reading the hymns of the great saints even without
understanding their meaning. Then, one day, he came to me and
announced: "I am going to recite the "Tevaram".” I felt happy and asked
him to go ahead.
His recitation caused me amusement. The passage he had was a famous
one - what Appar had sung at Tiruvaiyaru of his experience of seeing
everything in the form of Umamahesvara [that is the entire cosmos
revealed as Siva ] and the song was "Madar piraikkanniyanai. . . “He got
the very first word wrong. Instead of "madar" he said "matar". It
so strange to me. Then he said "malaiyan makalotu" for "malaiyan
mahalodu" laying stress on the "k" and the "t". For "padi" he said "pati".
was on the verge of laughter. His recitation went on in this fashion. He
said "pukuvar" instead of "puhuvar".
I heard him silently because I thought a Northerner learning a Tamil
deserved to be encouraged. But soon I found that I could no longer
his erratic reading. So I told him in a friendly manner that his
pronunciation was faulty. To this he said: "What can I do? It is all in
book. “What he said was right and it showed that in Tamil too the words
are not always written according to how they are pronounced. Letters
that come in the middle of a word are not pronounced as they are
written. We write "makalotu" but say "mahalodu"; we write "atarkaka"
but say "adarkaha". "Ka" becomes "ha" in the middle and end of the
word. "Ta" in the beginning of a word remains "ta" but in the middle
becomes "da". For instance, "tantai" (father) is pronounced as "tandai"
and "Katavul" (God) and "itam" (place) pronounced as "Kadavul" and
"idam". Such matters are dealt with in detail in Tamil grammar books.
Like Sanskrit, Tamil too has excellent works on grammar -for example,
Tolkappiyam and Nannul. They deal with the morphology of words and
their vocalisation. For instance there are such rules: After such and
syllable "sa" becomes "ca", "ka" becomes "ha".
Generally speaking, if "ka" is the initial letter of a word in Tamil it
its sound of "ka". In the same way if the initial letter of a word is "ta"
retains its true sound, but in the middle or end of a word it sounds "da".
"Pa" is "pa" if it is the initial letter of a word but sounds "ba" in
of a word. (In Tamil we do not see "pa" occurring as an independent
letter in the middle or end of a word. "Anpu"(love), "ampu"(arrow),
"inpam"(pleasure) -"pa" in these words is joined with other letters.
Words like "japa" (muttering the names of the Lord or any mantra);
"sapam" (curse), "kapam" ("kapham", phlegm), "supam" ("subham",
auspicious) have letters belonging to the "pa-varga" independently in
middle of the words but they are from the Sanskrit.
There is something interesting about "ca". While in Tamil "ka", "ta",
etc, retain their true sound when they are the initial letters of words,
as the initial letter is voiced as "sa". "Catti" (cooking vessel) and "civappu"
(red) are pronounced as "satti" and "sivappu". But when the letters come
together as "cca", they are not pronounced as "ssa"- for example,
"accam" (fear), "paccai"(green). "Col" (to speak) is pronounced as
but "peryarccol" and "vinaiccol" are not pronounced as "peyerssol" and
"vinaissol". But in Malayalam which is derived from Tamil "ca" in the
beginning of a word is pronounced as "ca": "civappu" is "civappu". But
other times when the "cca" comes in the middle of a word the word in
pronounced as "ssa", not "cca", e. g, place names like "Kavisseri",
"Nellisseri", while Tamils pronounce the same as "Kavicceri" and
"Nellicceri". In words like "accan" (father) and "Ezhuttaccan", however,
there is no change.
The genius of the Tamil language is to be known from its works on
grammar- how a word is changed and where. However, the
pronunciation is not in strict consonance with the spelling.
It is only in Sanskrit that the pronunciation is fully phonetic but for
exceptions. One is when there is a visarga before "pa". Visarga more or
less has the same sound as "ha" - not a full "ha", though. In Tamil Nadu
is pronounced fully as "ha" and Northerners who slur over it are made
fun of. But their pronunciation is correct according to the rules of
With the visarga occurring before it, "pa" becomes "fa".
The second exception: "Subrahmanya", "Brahma", "vahni"(fire) are
pronounced as "Subramhanya", "Bramha" and "vanhi". But all words with
"ha" coming as a conjunct consonant are not like this as, for example,
"jahvara"(deep, inaccessible), "jihva"(tongue), "guhya"(secret), and
"Prahlada" [son of the demon Hiranyakasipu and a great devotee of