RE: Encoding Bengali Vowel forms (again)

Date: Tue May 02 2000 - 13:17:01 EDT

> [apurva:] A Virama, can be input by a user, anywhere in a sequence of
> characters. However, that does not mean it would always
> result in output
> that is meaningful to the user receiving it, or considered
> logical in a [Indic] script.

I agree. But, as a programmer, I tend to attribute a big importance also to
absurd or limit cases. This is because programs run unattended (i.e.: at
runtime, the programmer is not there to watch what happens), so robust
software must be able to make its decisions in all cases, and it *cannot*
resort to common sense or logic (because a program is just a soft machine,
not a logical being).

> I have known atleast the following occurances of the virama
> as illogical
> when contructing syllables in Indic:
> 1. when it follows another virama [I guess Sinhala permits this]
> 2. when it follows a vowel sign
> 3. when it follows an independent vowel
> 4. when it occurs on its own [ie. when it's not for display purposes]

Number 4 is not illogical: it is just a bit unusual. Any grapheme may have
its "meta-linguistic" value (or should I say "meta-graphic"?). That is when
writing, itself, is the subject of a written text, it may happen that a sign
just stands for itself. E.g. if it wasn't for current technological
limitations (e-mail systems, fonts, etc.), we would use a lot of stand-alone
Bengali halants within *this* discussion, because we are talking about the
Bangla writing system.

Number 3 is actually the subject of this discussion :-) If everybody agreed
that this usage is "illogical", the whole discussion would be pointless.

> Given the above purposes of the Virama, if the following
> occurs [not just in Bengali]:
> LetterA + virama + consonantYa + vowelSignAa
> it would imply the removal of LetterA [the full vowel]
> itself. Going by the rules, this would not be logical.

You have your good part of reason. But you should not forget that this is
(or was) a rather *exceptional* sequence, used only in words of foreign

Transliterations always work this way, in any language: the spelling rules
of the "host" language are forced and stretched to accommodate unusual
sounds imported from the "guest" language.

Moreover, if you forget Unicode, ISCII, computers, and just look at printed
text, you will see that the idea behind this spelling is not as illogical as
you say. Try imagining what the first people using it had in mind:

1) The sequence "zophola" (U+09CD U+09AF) + the "aa" matra (U+09BE) is used
for transcribing the English "a" in "bat". This zophola_aa can be seen as a
special "composite" matra to write a new Bengali sound, imported from

2) There is no vowel letter for writing an English "a" at the beginning of a
word. This is a problem.

3) There is no real vowel letter even for Bengali "aa" at the beginning of a
word! The character that has been encoded as the "aa" vowel letter (U+0986)
is actually a vowel letter "a" (U+0985) with the "aa" matra (U+09BE).

4) The same technique can be used to fix the problem at point 2.

> [Peter Constable] As far as using the PUA is concerned, yes, that's an
> [apurva:] I might not look favourably on the use of PUA for this.

I am with Apurva. We are talking about an encoded script, and a very
important one, used for languages spoken by 100's of millions of people. So
I would leave the PUA out of this.

> [apurva:] Pardon my being blunt here. But, Indic scripts
> [like Malayalam]
> have had to see a change in orthography and typographical
> quality [some,
> sadly for the worse] due to some interim solutions
> [constraints in some
> earlier typesetting systems]. Since these solutions
> unfortunately have not
> been looked at as interim, but as permanent [they have
> existed for decades].
> As a result, a whole generation of young people in India who
> have not had
> the opportunity to see the original orthography of the
> script, think that
> the current incorrectly implemented solutions 'are' the way
> it has to be!
> Hence it would be prudent of us to try our best to look at
> the long term
> effects too, that technology [here an encoding standard]
> tends to usher in
> with itself.

It is no news and no scandal that writing technology can influence the
appearance (and even the functionality!) of writing systems. This always
happened throughout history. This changes introduced by technology can be
good or bad; good to some people and bad to other; bad for this generation
but good for the next, etc.

A lot of examples come to my mind of how technology influenced writing in
the past, so I must limit myself to only a few:

- The Latin alphabet used to be often carved on stone, in ancient Rome.
Using a chisel, it was almost impossible to "close" the stems of letters
maintaining the same width: the end of stems was always a little bit wider.
Thousands years later, in the AAT/OT era, most Latin fonts still have these
"serifs" derived from stone carving technology.

- At a certain age, all the circles and narrow curves in Chinese ideographs
became squared. This change was caused by the adoption of paper, soft-tip
brushes and liquid ink. With such a writing technology, it is a problem to
trace circles, because the centrifugal force tends to shoot drops of ink all
around the circle.

- European alphabets (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, etc.) used to have a lot of
"ligatures", like the Indic scripts. With the introduction of movable type
printing, all these ligatures had to be anticipated and separately produced
as pre-composed types. This was a waste of time and money, so ligatures
started to be used less and less. Today only a few of them survive, not even
used in all languages (e.g. "&" "ß", "@", etc.)

- The Arabic script always had a characteristic slant: the end of a word is
often much lower than its start. The technological constraint introduced by
printing caused modern Arabic text to be horizontalized.

- The letters in most scripts have variable width: e.g. an "i" is much
narrower than a "w". But the introduction of typewriters caused the
invention of "fixed pitch" fonts, that are still very common today.

All these examples started as error or approximations but, today, are
considered as regular features of these scripts. In many cases, these
features are even considered as part of the fascination of these scripts
(e.g. the Latin serifs or the Chinese squared shapes).

Of course, it is OK to oppose some resistance to these changes, and to ask
that the next technology be able -- at least -- to do what the older one
allowed. But this does not mean than technological changes should always be
rejected without evaluation. Our modern technology will leave its traces on
writing, just like liquid ink or stone chiseling did. Why shouldn't it?

_ Marco

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