Tamil alphabets

N. Ganesan naga_ganesan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Oct 19 15:20:02 UTC 1999

Dear Dr. Perry,

Surely, Tamil linguists understood the logic of sounds quite well
and devised the tamil alphabets needed to describe their
language sounds adequately about 2000 years ago.
In the modern tamil alphabets, there are only about
45 independent glyphs to describe the entire language.
Ie., to write down  12 vowels(uyir/"soul"), 18 consonants(mey/"body"),
12X18 vowel-consonants(uyirmey/"soul-body"/"living units")
and 1 aaytam. This economy in the number of
letters, especially in its consonants, was generated by the
logical analysis in the tamil grammar. Among the world's
languages that use phonetic alphabets, Tamil has the least number
of letters(=30, 12 vowels+18 consonants). While all other Indian
languages has borrowed the Sanskrit alphabets enmasse, it is
significant that Tamil has not done that.

This economy, achieved by logical design, in the total number of
alphabets or glyphs is one reason why writing technologies enter
via tamil into india. Eg., printing("accu"), typewriters("taTTezuttu"),
computer fonts("vaDivu"),
etc., The bilingual fonts, called TSCII or TAB, where tamil and
english in a single document are exchanged thru'
etc., In the http://www.tamil.net archives, one can see the use of
single quotes with tamil alphabets to describe alien sounds,
in case of retaining the sound in foreign names. This was a
proposal by Prof. Selvakumar of Canada long ago. In this scheme,
nine sounds alien to Tamil are handled.
f, g, j, D, d, b, s, S, h are written using tamil letters
'v, 'k, 'c, 'T, 't, ~c, ^,s, q(=Aytam) respectively.

Let me quote from "Tamil as a Classical language"
submitted by Tamil Nadu Govt. to the Prime Minister,
Mr. A. B. Vajpayee. Its author is the eminent educator,
Prof. V. C. Kulandaiswamy, Former Vice-Chancellor,
Indira Gandhi National University and the Inst. of Asian
studies, Chennai.
"The highly schematical phonemic system of Tamil is a strong
indication that the early Tamil grammarians had a clear grasp
of the principle which now forms the basis of modern linguistics.
Daniel Jones in his book The Phoneme wrote: "Tamil is a language
which illustrates particularly well the grouping several quite
distinctive sounds into single phoneme". C. R. Sankaran, a Sanskrit
scholar himself, after studying the chapter on phonology in the
two millennium old Tamil grammar TolkAppiyam wrote "such an
emphasis on the pattern inherent in the sounds of the language of
study, and the attempt to establish, on the basis of their
occurence and distribution, the types of sounds which must have
been significant in distinguishing the meaning of words is not met
with, even in the Astadhyayi of Panini". This can be mentioned as
a very significant contribution of the ancient Tamil grammatical
tradition to linguistics."

N. Ganesan

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