Speech-sounds and their transcription

I have been thinking hard about this issue of transcription, provoked more intensely now, after learning about PARSIL developed by Mr. Shreyas Munshi.

To my mind the need for transcription arises due to the basic fact that commonly available keyboards have Roman characters. But Roman characters have poor linkage with phonetics or phonology. People around the world speak different languages. But when we say that a person is speaking,  what he is doing is producing speech-sounds.  So the problem is about typing all speech-sounds of all languages around the world using commonly available keyboards having Roman characters. This is what is called as transcription or transliteration.

The fact that Roman characters have poor linkage with phonetics or phonology can be explained by the fact that

  • The vowels ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’ are spread out across the alphabet at 1st, 5th, 9th, 15th and 21st positions. And we also have ‘y’ in 25th position also serving the function of vowel sound.
  • The words ‘err’,  ‘sir’, ‘ton’ and ‘sun’ have different vowels for the same vowel sound. This may not be called as problem with Roman script, but problem arising from the English people having used, in different words, different vowels for the same vowel sound

When thinking of typing all speech-sounds of all languages around the world, one should first of all compile a list of all those speech-sounds. Compiling such a list becomes easy, by taking clue from scripts of Indian languages, because scripts of Indian languages have been, since millenia, methods of writing speech-sounds.

So one view can be that instead of struggling to type all speech-sounds, using commonly available keyboards, which have Roman characters, why not change keyboards to adopt any such script, which inherently has the capability to characterize the speech-sounds ?

But this suggestion of adopting ‘any such script’ raises a corollary question, “which script ?” Since scripts of all Indian languages will be candidates, this corollary question will certainly have political colors and would become difficult to resolve.

Alongside, it comes to mind that two vowel-sounds, which are missing in Indian languages are – (1) the sound of ‘a’ as in ‘cat’ and (2) that of ‘o’ in ‘dog’.

Among Indian scripts, DevanagarI script has one shortcoming, compared to scripts of South Indian Languages, which have distinct characterization for short and long vowel sounds as in ‘get’ and ‘gate’ (or ‘gait’). The South Indian Language-scripts also have distinct characterization for short and long vowel sounds as in ‘poke’ and ‘goat’.

Actually, Sanskrit grammar recognizes that the basic vowel sounds can be pronounced in 18 different ways – (1) nasal अनुनासिक and not nasal अननुनासिक (2) these as short ह्रस्व long दीर्घ and extended प्लुत (3) these further as stressed उदात्त  unstressed or low अनुदात्त  and plain or level स्वरित. One can of course appreciate that it becomes a un-gainful effort to develop a script to characterize all such shades of a basic vowel sound. Yet in Sanskrit texts one does find some thought having been given to this in terms of pronunciation-notations called as स्वरांकन.

As is said, scriptures have been said to have been transmitted through teacher-disciple lineages, with great emphasis on correct pronunciation, rather than by written down texts. In fact it comes to mind that this was so, not because people did not know writing. This was so, because a particular mantra will have its best effect, only from its correct and proper pronunciation. If concept of writing was not there, why would have Vyaasa-maharshi sought Ganesh to write down the Mahaabhaaratam for him ?

DevanagarI script excels in characterization of conjunct consonants. Most number of conjunct consonants possibly come in the word “kaarstnyam” कार्स्त्न्यम्. As can be seen the number of consonants, which are conjunct here, are as many as five, ‘r-s-t-n-y’. In Kannada, this becomes very complicated.

The Tamil script is substantially a uni-level script, except that syllabic consonants need a dot above them. On the aspect of being uni-level, Tamil excels over the Roman, because all letters have almost the same height.

DevanagarI cannot be called as uni-level.

  • A word like Truman ट्रूमन्  has three levels below the line and
  • a word like ‘sarvaiH’ सर्वैः has as many as three strokes above the line, all having single point of coincidence on the line.

In a uni-level script as Tamil the words will become too long कार्स्त्न्यम् = கார்ச்த்ன்யம். Longer the spread of a word, it becomes more difficult to read.

One major problem with Tamil script is that it has very less number of characters, so much so that one has to write ‘gangaa’ गङ्गा as கங்கா literal pronunciation being ‘kankaa’ कङ्का. While on one hand it has very less number of characters, on the other hand, some speech-sounds have more than one characters.

DevanagarI is used by three languages – Sanskrit संस्कृतम्, Hindi हिन्दी and MaraathI मराठी. From the point of phonetics and scripting there are two points to be noted.

  • Hindi has no use of the character “L” ळ. This letter does not find specific mention in Sanskrit grammar also and has much less use, though it is there in the word अग्निमीळे in the very first mantra in Rigveda.
  • Hindi has some consonants with a ‘nuktaa’ a dot under them, connoting special intonation as that of ‘z’ in ‘nazar’. Although I have spelt it with ‘z’, its pronunciation is somewhat like accentuated ‘j’ and is written as नज़र.
  • I would not consider script used for Urdu as Indian script at all for obvious reasons. It has nothing in common with any other Indian script.

Exploring on this subject of speech-sounds and their transcription, I came across ISO 15919 Transliteration of Devanagari and related Indic scripts One can read interesting information about this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_15919

That raises a question in my mind, “Why are people exercising. putting in efforts to develop transcription systems such as PARSIL, if there has been ISO 15919 already ?”

Another curiosity in my mind is about the need for developing transcription-systems. General thinking about the need for developing transcription-systems seems to be that Roman alphabet has only 26 alphabets, whereas speech-sounds are many more. The thought that Roman alphabet has only 26 alphabets, does not seem to be mathematically correct. If one considers that the capitals make an additional set of 26 characters, we have as many as 52 characters and we also have on commonly available keyboards some special characters as ‘ ` ~ which are not used for any speech-sounds. The commonly available keyboards also have the Control and Alt keys, which have diverse capabilities. If we use these also and assign specific speech-sounds to them, I think we have enough number of characters right there on commonly available keyboards for transcription of any language.

Actually a simple scheme of transliteration is detailed at http://www.aa.tufs.ac.jp/~tjun/sktdic/

transcription scheme 01



4 thoughts on “Speech-sounds and their transcription

  1. Abhyankar Sur,
    Yours is an excellent initiative.

    I am thrilled to learn that scholars like you also think that the available keyboard on modern PCs can be gainfully used by making use of keys other than just the alphabet keys.
    In my book, I have tried to show how the Unicode symbols can be made a part of the keyboard by assigning the short-cut save keys (usually’ alt+ the chosen key’).

    From your digging out ISO 15919, it seems to me that although I did not know anything about it, some really knowledgeable scholars have already done a lot of good work towards Romanization of Indian language speech-sounds but the information did not go down to the common people.

    This is where PARSIL comes as ‘a compiled good work of the scholars’ with the additional innovation, by its author, of independent stand alone phonetic symbols for the unvoiced dental plosives (small cap T and D for the first sounds of the Hindi words ’til’ and ‘dil’ respectively and recommending the use of IPA symbols for the voiced dental plosives heard as the first sounds of Hindi ‘tamaatar’ and ‘daak’ respectively.
    With you taking the first step, the Herculean task of helping the billion plus Indians and non-Indians in taking advantage of PARSIL begins!…..Shreyas

  2. It is indeed a great idea to newly design a keyboard that fits the requirements of ALL Indian scripts at least, if not the whole set of world scripts – and NOT be restricted in thought by the commonly available English keyboard. The designers of the keyboard ought to study the maximum used characters before designing the Indian script keyboards. We should note that while ‘e’ and ‘a’ are respectively the max used letters in English, they are NOT properly positioned on the keyboard for most efficient fingers, apparently because the initial mechanical typewriter key links would clash at high speed typing and they had to reduce the speed by positioning on less efficient fingers! We no more have that issue, so better to design the Indian language keyboard with perfect positioning of keys.

    It also should consider the ‘L’ created by the tongue going further behind when pronouncing it. This is particularly used in Malayalam or Tamil (they use ‘zh’ to denote that sound as in Malampu’zh’a garden or Ka’zh’gam as in DMK).

  3. Very good thoughts!
    Traditional alphabet shown above is missing these(ॅ ॉ ) two sounds.

    AS we know that India is divided by complex scripts but not by phonetic sounds needs simple script at national level.As per Google Transliteration Gujanagari seems to be India’s simplest nukta and shirorekha free script.

    Writing Hindi in Roman script is nothing but reviving our old Brahmi script which was modified by Roman people to their use. We need more research in this area.

    Think,In internet age,Why all Indian languages are taught to others in Roman script but not in a complex Devanagari script?

    Which script will unite sister languages(Urdu/Hindi)?

    Why some Devanagari scripted languages are slowly disappearing under the influence of Hindi/Urdu?

    If Hindi can be learned in a complex Urdu script then why it can’t be done in easy regional Gujanagari script or other scripts.

    We need to provide education to children in a simple Gujanagari script and free India from complex scripts.

    One may go through these links.

    Also we need standard Roman Alphabet to write Hindi in Roman script.

    Each consonant produces these 15 sounds when combined with vowels.
    ્,ા,િ,ી,ુ,ૂ,ૅ,ે,ૈ,ૉ,ો,ૌ,ં ,ં,ઃ
    ə ɑ ɪ iː ʊ uː æ ɛ əɪ ɔ o əʊ əm ən əh ………IPA……..ɑɪ ,ɑʊ,æʊ,
    ạ ā i ī u ū ă e ại ǒ o ạu ạm ạn ạh……Gujạlish(for print media)
    a,aa,i,ii,u,uu,ă,e,ai,ŏ,o,au, am,an,ah
    a,aa,i,ii,u,uu,ae,e,ai,aw,o,au, am,an,ah…..Type able

    A phonetic (phonemic) alphabet is the only competent alphabet in the world. It can spell and correctly pronounce any word in our language. -Mark Twain

    ə fəˈnetɪk (fəˈniːmɪk) ˈælfəˌbet ɪz ðiː ˈoʊnliː ˈkɑmpətənt ˈælfəˌbet ˈɪn ðə ˈwərld. ˈɪt kən ˈspel ənd kəˈrekliː prəˈnæʊns ˈeniː ˈwərd ˈɪn ɑr ˈlæŋgwɪdʒ. -ˈmɑrk ˈtweɪn….IPA

    a̩ fa̩netik (fa̩nīmik) ălfa̩bet iz dhī onlī kāmpa̩ta̩nt ălfa̩bet in dha̩ va̩rld. it ka̩n spel a̩nd ka̩rektlī pra̩năuns enī wa̩rd in ār lăngvij. – Mārk Twein……Guja̩lish

    અ ફનેટિક્ (ફનીમિક્) ઍલ્ફબેટ્ ઇઝ્ ધી ઓન્લી કામ્પટન્ટ્ ઍલ્ફબેટ્ ઇન્ ધ વર્લ્ડ્. ઇટ્ કન્ સ્પેલ્ અન્ડ્ કરેક્ટલી પ્રનૅઉન્સ્ એની વર્ડ્ ઇન્ આર્ લૅન્ગ્વિજ્. -માર્ક્ ટ્વેઇન્

    Why can’t we learn all languages in our own script ?

    A Universal Script for Indian Languages /Bharati


    Hindi as UN official language would cost over Rs 82 crore per yea


    Will we be able to do this?


  4. Dear Respected Scholars and Sanskrit lovers,
    i am fascinated by these discussions.

    Although i am not competent to understand all that is being discussed, i have to try and bring your attention to two wonderful things related to this –

    1. The wonderfully simple utility called Diacwin, which is a keyboard filter that was created by Michael Best (Murari Das) and distributed by him freely thru his website that makes it sooooo simple for anyone to type in Sanskrit using romanized script


    2. The amazing effectiveness of using romanized sanskrit script which follows the IAST system
    (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Alphabet_of_Sanskrit_Transliteration ) that was established at Athens in 1912 by the Sanskrit scholars and Indologists who met there. This system is simple yet complete. It has been slightly improved by, i believe, the Library of Calcutta which has added in short and long for ‘a’ & ‘o’, thus making it more compatible with all the south indian languages.. With just 33 alphabets, the IAST accurately transliterates all sanskrit letters. And my humble discovery of methods that use phonetics and kinaesthetics to teach beginners accurate sanskrit pronunciation within a few short hours, these methods give insight into the phonetic wonders of this IAST. In this modern age, many youngsters prefer to use the English language and script, and the mere thought of having to learn hundreds of alphabets prohibits many from embarking on learning their mother tongue or sanskrit. But this lippi (script) of IAST effectively and easily covers all the alphabets, using the already-familiar roman alphabets with a few dots and dashes added to in rease the spectrum. Then thru intelligent and phonetically-logical combinations, little groups of letters combine to accurately represent every single si ple and compound sanskrit alphabet.

    I am convinced that with the advent of Unicode fonts on most modern devices these days, we now already have the easiest free software for typing sanskrit and indeed almost all indian scripts (perhaps a fewmodifications are needed by the experts)

    I have expressed these ideas and also shared the free software and beginners guide for using these to easily type in roman script or in devanagari – please see my simple website on this subject http://www.tiny.cc/typesanskrit

    I hope you find it useful and take time to consider the effectiveness of these subjects described above. Thank you. Hare Krishna!

    Yours sincerely,

    Dina A Das (Daya Senan)

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